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Wild” Bill Donovan Credited With Creating Espionage In U.S.


"Wild" Bill Donovan, creator of the OSS and credited with creating espionage in this country, was one of the most "exciting and secretive" generals in the U.S. We talk with Douglas Waller, author of a new biography of Donovan.

"Wild" Bill Donovan, created the OSS spy service under President Roosevelt. He is credited with creating espionage in this country, and was one of the most "exciting and secretive" generals in the U.S. Douglas Waller, author of a new biography of Donovan, describes the man and his accomplishments.


Douglas Waller, author of "Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created The OSS And Modern American Espionage"

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CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The idea that the United States has intelligence agencies that spy on other countries is now considered just part of normal government operations. But that wasn't always the case. For most of its history, the United States had no official spy agencies. A new book introduces us to a man who was instrumental in creating our modern intelligence structure. He was a larger than life personality whose real name was William Joseph Donovan. Or as he's called in Douglas Waller's new book, Wild Bill Donovan: The spy master who created the OSS and modern American espionage. It's a pleasure to welcome author Douglas Waller to These Days. Hello.

WALLER: Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now, general William wild bill Donovan might as well be called the father of American espionage. Tell us about the agency he founded, the OS S.

WALLER: The office of strategic services which began, really in July, 1941, was Franklin Roosevelt's national strategic intelligence service. Roosevelt at this time didn't have any way or any full scale mechanism to correct foreign intelligence over seas that he needed. This is really before World War II began, alerting him to events over sees, getting a kind of a heads up to strategic issues, are political and military intelligence. The army and the Navy had small foreign intelligence units in their organizations, but they were largely dumping grounds for poor performing officers. Roosevelt as he's preparing the country for war at this time, building up his defenses, is making very important foreign policy decisions over seas, largely blind to what lay ahead of him. It worried him so much at times that he would become literally physically ill over it. So that's what Donovan's organization did. And of course when the war started, it collected intelligence over seas through a network of spies, it also launched convert operations against the axis powers, it also launched propaganda operations against the axis. So it was a wide ranging organization that he built up.

MC: What drew you to write about Wild Bill Donovan? What kind of man was he?

WALLER: Well, I've always been intrigued by controversial characters in history, and certainly Donovan was one of those types of guys. People either loved him or hated him. He was, you know, an interesting person. His own personality was just fascinating. He wasn't a particularly tall man. He was only about foot nine. He would speed read about three books a week. Slept less than five hours a night. He loved to sing Irish songs, rarely show aid temper. He let his anger boil inside of him. He never laughed, even though he was witty and he rarely told a dirty joke. And he had an eclectic mind that was open to any type of idea. Out there. He was also a fearless individual, during World War II -- world war one of course he was awarded the congressional medal of honor for leading some very fierce combat in World War I. In fact his chamberlain in World War I, father Francis Duffey, said that Donovan was the only man he ever met who actually enjoyed combat. And that was where he got his nickname, wild bill. Because he was such a rigorous trainer of his troops. Of one time he was running them, this is before the -- they entered into combat, he was running them over hill and dale through obstacle courses and they collapsed in front of him, and he stood up there and said what the heck's the matter with you? You don't see me warn out, and some soldier in the back shouted out, he never figured out who, but we're not as wild as you are, bill. And from that day on, wild bill Donovan stuck.

CAVANAUGH: Ah. How did he get -- how did he become a spy?

WALLER: Well, he -- he started out, he was a prominent New York lawyer, a wall street lawyer. He made millions on wall street as a lawyer. This is after World War I. He built up an international law firm where he spent a lot of time traveling over seas, A lot of if trying to recruit clients and businesses for his firm. He collected a lot of information along the way. Some of it, a lot of it economic business information but also military information, intelligence of use to the war department back then. Donovan was also a guy who loved to be at the front of any water going on. So he would very often work his way into different war fronts before we got in -- the United States got into the battle just to see what was going on. Upon so when the Italians invaded Ethiopia, Donovan was there assessing what the Italians were doing. During the civil war in Spain, Donovan went there to check out the weapons that the Nazis were testing out during the Spanish civil war. So all that kind of capability and information made him somewhat of an ideal person for Franklin Roosevelt to make his top spy master.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Douglas Waller with his new book, wild bill Donovan, the spy master who created the OSS and modern American espionage. So after the Japanese bombed pearl harbor, when America got into World War II, how did Donovan go about building this spy agency.

WALLER: He built it from scratch. Of in fact he used to tell friends he built it from minus 0. Which is really the case. There was really only one guy when he started, and that was wild bill Donovan. So he was kind of like a player in a pickup basketball game, looking for agents anywhere he could. So for example the Phillips lamps company who made lamps back then, they still do today for all I know, Donovan arranged secretly for their salesmen who were making overseas calls in Axis occupied countries to slip him any information they found if their sales call. The Kodak camera club, back then it had thousands of cameras, Kodak had thousands of camera clubs around the country. Donovan arranged for the camera clubs to send him photos tourists had taken of over seas sites that might be militarily important. This was the beginning. Gradually, though, he built up his OSS into a force of over 10000 spies, covert agents, special operations, commandos, research analysts, and they were based all over the world. Again, a remarkable achievement considering he just started out with one guy, which was wild bill Donovan.

CAVANAUGH: Now, one of the things they did during World War II was sort of target Adolf Hitler, was that actually -- did they try to assassinate him. Or was it to get information on him?

WALLER: Donovan was obsessed Hitler. He ordered, for example, psychological studies on Adolf Hitler, he told his men, so we would know what Hitler was thinking before he even thought it. He hatched all kinds of schemes to slip in dissidents, German dissidents into Germany to try and topple Hitler. None of them ever work bud he tried to recruit people that might do that. As the war was nearing the end, he even considered one idea to send in what amounted to death squads. These were assassins that would try and capture top Nazis, Hitler and the other top naughty, neither kip them or kill them. He eventually decided against that idea. Some of the ideas with Hitler was kind of wacky that he dreamed up. He had his research and development chief concoct a special female hormone that if they could ever get to Hitler's vegetables, they would inject the hormones into the vegetables and it would make Hitler's mustache fall off and give him a falsetto voice.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, my, that sounds like something we've heard about in modern times doesn't it?

WALLER: For sure.

CAVANAUGH: Now, at the same time these agents were in Europe, and all of this was going on, wild bill Donovan was also lobbying to get his spies into Latin America. Why was that?

WALLER: Well, he wanted really to cover the entire war, and the problem with Latin America was that J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI had been given control of Latin America by Franklin Roosevelt. And Franklin Roosevelt would not see that authority to Donovan. Which really chafed Donovan. He thought his agents should be down there. Upon but Hoover guarded his turf jealously. Not only did Hoover guard his turf, but also Nelson Rockefeller. He would one day be the governor of New York, vice president of the United States, but during World War II, he was Roosevelt's coordinator of information for Latin America, propaganda for Latin America. Donovan thought his OSS should have that roll. And Donovan had some bitter fights with Rockefeller. In fact, one point they were arguing over turf so fiercely at the state captain that Donovan threatened to throw Rockefeller out a nearby window onto the sidewalk.

CAVANAUGH: Those were the days. Of.


CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Douglas Waller about his new book, wild bill Donovan. Spend some time in the book, of course, introducing us to Donovan as a man. And he was a flawed man.

WALLER: Well, he was. He experienced a lot of tragedy in his life. His daughter died in college in an auto accident. Of his daughter in law died of a drug over dose. He had a granddaughter who died at four years old, accidentally swallowing silver polish. Donovan himself had a number of extra marital affairs of he was not a good husband. And in fact, really after World War I, he and his wife Ruth led what amounted to be separate wives -- separate lives. And Donovan didn't really have much to do with raising his other son. At that time. And his other son really grew distant from him. And this was something in later years that Donovan really lamented that he had not paid enough attention to his own family.

CAVANAUGH: He was paying attention to the OSS, and developing this intelligence capacity for the United States. But the OSS, as I understand it, was closed down after the war. Of what happened to intelligence in the United States after that?

WALLER: Donovan liked to say, particularly during the war, that his enemies in Washington were as fierce as Adolf Hitler was in Europe. And that was surely the case. I mean, he had ferocious turf battles with J. Edgar Hoover, who despised him and despised his organization. The penta gone initially fought fiercely the formation of the OSS. The George Marshall, the chief of the staff of the army initially thought that Donovan was trying to set himself up as an intelligence czar to take over army and Navy intelligence which is what Donavan really wanted to do. So the pentagon formed a secret spy unit behind Donovan's back. It was nicknamed the pond, and its job was to spy not only on the axis powers but also on Donovan, spy on his OSS officer, they even collected information on the wives of OSS officers of all these enemies eventually caught up with Donovan toward the end of the war. He wanted to form a central intelligence agency after the war, and he wanted to head it. But Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover spread had nasty rumors about his personal life, with Truman's staff, when Truman came into office, the Pentagon's secret spy unit, the pond, arranged to have a 59 page report land on Truman's desk which accused don an via OSS of all kinds of misdeeds and corruption and blown kind of operations of it even accused the OSS staging a sex orgy in India. All that and the that Truman and Donovan were really not chose personally. There was really kind of bad chemistry between these guys. Truman in September, 1945, shut down the OSS, scattered its functions to the Pentagon and the State Department. Now, Truman knew he needed a foreign intelligence service of he just didn't want Donovan to be a part of it. Eventually, he formed a CIA in 1947. Donovan lobbied behind the scenes to be named director of that CIA, but Truman wasn't gonna have any part of that. And then when Eisenhower became president in 1953, Donovan again thought he might have a chance to become CIA director. But Eisenhower picked Allen Dullis, who was Donovan's subordinate, running his Bern Switzerland operation for the OSS.

CAVANAUGH: These spies play rough.

WALLER: They do.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of legacy does wild bill leave to the spies and the agencies that followed him.

WALLER: Well, it's a mixed legacy. And it's still being debated by historians to this day. Did the OSS win the war for the allies and the short answer is no. Did it shorten the war appreciably? And again, the answer is no. But again, that's setting the war pretty high for any organization. There were much more powerful forces winning the war for the allies. The fact that the allies could put more brute force into the battlefield than the axis could ever match with, that's what really won the war for the US and the British. What Donovan's organization did do is it contributed to the war. Much like, you know, the soldier at the front in norm 18ed, are the sailor in the Pacific, you know, the riveter putting together planes in Los Angeles. Even more important, I think the OSS served as a petri dish for the future leaders of that agency. People like Allen Dullis, Bill Colby, William Casey, Richard Helms, were all OSS officers who cut their teeth under Donovan, learned their trade craft under Donovan, and they eventually became directors of the CIA in the future.

CAVANAUGH: What a person to write about. Douglas Waller, thank you so much for telling us with your new book.

WALLER: Good talking to you.

CAVANAUGH: Douglas Waller has written wild bill Donovan. The spy master who created the OSS, and modern American espionage. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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