Guns and Gear

Guns & Politics: This Man Is America’s Spymaster

Susan Smith Columnist
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The primary intelligence service of the United States of America, the Central Intelligence Agency, inspires awe in a lot of us, and an endless curiosity in others.  How do they do what they do?  Will we ever know what they do?  Is there really a “Q” in the CIA who invents those amazing things?  How many of our tax dollars go to fund the CIA’s activities?  Or, most recently, does the CIA exist to support the United States of America, or our former President, Barack Obama?

According to the seemingly unending leaks that have come from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and have gone out to anyone in the press, both national and international, that would take and print them, it would appear that our formerly unbiased, nonaffiliated chief spy agency has, indeed, gone ‘deep state’ in advocating the ideas, and ideals, of our departed 44th president.

One shudders to think of what our greatest 20th century spymaster, the magnificent ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, would make of this, as the ideas, and the ideals, which he instilled in the intelligence body he helped to create were honor, integrity and activity based on what was best for the United States of America, not a particular individual or ideology.

William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan was born in Buffalo, NY, the son of immigrants, and despite the drawbacks of starting out life as a poor Irish Catholic lad, rose in the ranks to attend Columbia Law School where he became a classmate of the man he would later serve, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  After serving in private practice as an attorney for a number of years in New York State, at which he became very successful, he joined the military to serve his country in World War I, and became part of the 165th Regiment of the US Army (comprised of immigrant Irishmen who became known as “The Fighting Micks”):  it was there that he earned his nickname of ‘Wild Bill.’

The men in his regiment started to refer to him as Wild Bill out of “admiration for his coolness and resourcefulness during combat,” and later because “of the hard physical drills he made them do to prepare for battle.”  Donovan was wounded in action three times in World War I, and he was awarded the Medal of Honor for one of these occasions.  Donovan was eventually promoted to Colonel, and later acknowledged as one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I.  Upon returning from Europe at the conclusion of this world-wide cataclysmic conflict, Donovan, along with Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., became a co-founder of the American Legion.

Wild Bill reentered the legal arena upon his return to New York, though he did not leave behind his love of travel and adventure.  It was this peripatetic life style that initially brought him into the world of intelligence and to the attention of the U.S. President.  Donovan was approached by the President in November of 1940, and asked to visit England as an unofficial envoy to interview British officials and determine if he thought “they could withstand Nazi Germany.”  This was basically in response to the claim by the violently miscast U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy’s assertion that “the British had neither the will nor the means to beat back a German attack.”

Donovan disagreed with the Ambassador.

During this initial sojourn into the British upper classes (whom Donovan came to not only greatly admire, but to emulate), but also of the highest levels of the beleaguered British government, Donovan became acquainted not only with Col. Stewart Menzies, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service at the time, but also with King George VI, Winston Churchill, and Ian Fleming, among other notables.

The most important thing Donovan learned from this experience was that the United States needed a centralized means of collecting foreign intelligence, and he made this clear to FDR upon returning the US and submitting his report to the President.  As a result, FDR established the Office of the Coordination of Information, and named Donovan as its Director: from this moment forward, Donovan became known as the “Father of American Intelligence.”  After the United States became officially involved in World War II, the COI became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in June, 1942, with Donovan firmly in charge.

Wild Bill was a fearless leader of the new American intelligence service, and indefatigable in “almost singlehandedly (overcoming) the unmitigated defeatism which was paralyzing Washington” at the time.

Wild Bill almost immediately became known for saying “Let’s give it a try!” with secret missions flying around the world, followed by “secret activities abroad resulting in the analysis of information related to national defense.”

The resentful “feuding fiefdoms of the Army, Navy and State Department” immediately got in the way of the new clandestine effort, but Donovan’s “most implacable foe” became J. Edgar Hoover, who deeply resented the intrusion of Wild Bill’s “meddling in his bureau.”  It was later found out, though probably not surprisingly, that they kept very active files on each other, with Donovan’s unseemly “ties to British intelligence as well as his flagrant womanizing” well documented by Hoover, while the OSS chief “accumulated reports that the FBI director was homosexual.”  Presumably unbeknownst to both of them, FDR was being supplied with these reports, which he thoroughly enjoyed reading, especially those on Donovan, whose exploits provided the handicapped President with “inside information and scandalous tidbits from around the world.”  President Roosevelt once referred to Donovan “favorably to friends as his ‘secret legs.’”

Though responsible for some spectacular successes, Donovan’s operation, along with Donovan’s rather flamboyant and abrasive style, began to irritate almost everyone in Washington.  After a particularly egregiously bungled operation in Italy in 1944, with the press finding out (a leak, perhaps? – Donovan blamed Hoover), speculation started that Donovan and the OSS “were on their way out.”

Though Donovan tried to persuade both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman to make the OSS a permanent civilian centralized intelligence agency, his efforts were unsuccessful, and the OSS was dissolved in 1945.  Finally, though, President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, which established the Central Intelligence Agency.”  Informed that his services were no longer needed via a form letter, a crushed Donovan returned to work as a lawyer in New York.  His first activity after the war, before resuming his stateside legal career, though, was to serve as an aide to the US chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.

America’s premier spymaster died at the age of 76 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  Wild Bill is the only American in history to have received every one of the nation’s four highest awards: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and the National Security Medal.  He also posthumously received the Freedom Award of the International Rescue Committee, and was named a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

There are few stories that can be told about this remarkable man, because secrecy was his world, and was in large part why he was so successful in establishing America’s first central intelligence organization.  However, a few filtered out, and this is one:

It was D-Day Plus One, and General William J. Donovan, the chief of the OSS, landed on Utah Beach in Normandy.  His presence in the combat zone had been strictly forbidden, but, as was his wont, he completely ignored the order.  Accompanied by his occasional squash partner in New York, Colonel David K. E. Bruce, (commander of covert operations in Europe), Donovan waded ashore (though wounded and bleeding copiously) only to run into German machine-gun fire when they landed.  “David, we mustn’t be captured, we known too much,” Donovan said, to which Bruce agreed.  “Have you the pill?” Donovan asked, and Bruce had to confess that he was not carrying the death pellet concocted by the “Q” of the OSS, (Stanley Lovell), to which Donovan responded, “Never mind, I have two of them.”  Lying flat, Donovan, (still under fire by the Germans), proceeded to empty his pockets, and did not find any pills.  “Never mind,”  Donovan said, “we can do without them, but if we get out of here, you must send a message to Gibbs, the Hall Porter at Claridge’s in London, telling him on no account to allow the servants in the hotel to touch some dangerous medicines in my bathroom.”  Then Donovan told Bruce, “I must shoot first,” to which Bruce responded, “Yes, sir, but can we do much against machine guns with our pistols?”  Donovan clarified the situation:  “Oh, you don’t understand.  I mean if we are about to be captured, I’ll shoot you first.  After all, I am your commanding officer.”

A statue of the great man stands astride the lobby of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and it is said that CIA hands still recognize him not only as their founding father, but also stand in awe of Donovan’s “bravado and elan – an attitude, says the CIA’s chief historian, David Robarge, “of do it, try it, derring do.”

This great man, truly the inspiration of the U.S. intelligence service, would roll over in his grave to have seen the willingness to divulge agency secrets for the sake of partisanship, on the part of some agents in this formerly upright organization.

Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.