Life of ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan told in new bio

“Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage” (Free Press, $30), by Douglas Waller

The burgeoning size and scope of America’s intelligence-gathering efforts during and after the Cold War mask the harsh reality that the nation’s capacity for clandestine warfare at the outset of World War II was virtually nonexistent.

Thus it was essential for President Franklin Roosevelt to select a go-getter with the skills, background and drive needed to organize a new intelligence agency and whip it into shape to confront the Axis threat.

The man FDR selected to head the Office of Strategic Services, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, was a larger-than-life figure whose career has the makings of a Hollywood screenplay. A Medal of Honor winner during World War I who went on to become a millionaire Wall Street lawyer and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor of New York, Donovan displayed a thirst for action more akin to an infantry commander than a spymaster.

Before accepting the intelligence assignment, he expressed a preference to lead an Army division in combat. During the course of the war he placed himself in harm’s way whenever he had the chance; he took part in the landings in Sicily and Anzio, waded ashore with Gen. Douglas MacArthur at Hollandia in New Guinea, flew in a two-seater aircraft behind enemy lines in Burma, and defied Army orders by landing on D-Day at Utah Beach, where he quickly found himself under enemy machine-gun fire.

His reckless behavior also permeated his private life, in which his extramarital affairs were such common knowledge that agents stationed abroad were aware of his desire for female companionship during his foreign stops. Donovan was almost a stranger to his shy, sensitive wife, Ruth, who came from a wealthy Protestant family that contrasted with his poor Irish-Catholic background.

Donovan’s penchant for collecting secrets took root as he traveled to Europe during the 1930s in search of business for his law firm, met with the likes of Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini, and realized that the U.S. must enhance its intelligence capabilities to wage the war he believed was inevitable.

Although Donovan was never part of the president’s war council, Waller characterizes him as “Roosevelt’s idea man, his secret daredevil, his spark plug for thinking outside the box.” In this fast-paced, entertaining and engrossing biography, the author delivers a portrait of a hard-driving, Type A extrovert willing to take on political enemies such as the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover while recruiting and directing a spy network that targeted Nazi Germany and its occupied territories. Angry when President Harry Truman disbanded the OSS after the war, Donovan saw a new Central Intelligence Agency emerge a few years later but never headed the agency he had pushed so hard to create.

Waller, whose previous books include a biography of Gen. Billy Mitchell and an account of life aboard a Trident nuclear submarine, comes through with a well-calibrated assessment of Donovan and the impact of the OSS on the war.

“Even his critics — and they argue over his legacy to this day — concede that his OSS was the Petri dish for the spies who later ran the CIA,” Waller writes. “The daring, the risk taking, the unconventional thinking, the elan and esprit de corps of the OSS would permeate the new agency.”

The book is replete with fascinating anecdotes and tales of derring-do that offer the stuff of espionage thrillers combined with political chicanery and historical fact. There are code-stealing burglaries at the Vichy French and Spanish embassies in Washington that fueled the rivalry between Donovan and Hoover, paratroop drops in Hungary in an attempt to peel that satellite from the Nazis, and Donovan’s involvement in plots to topple Adolf Hitler, whom he had long regarded as evil incarnate.

Well before Germany’s surrender, Donovan began to build a spy network targeting the Soviet Union. Soon after Hiroshima, he predicted that Russia would have an atomic weapon before long and cautioned that “America has won a war but not a peace.”

A hawkish conservative during the postwar years, Donovan hoped to head the CIA under Dwight Eisenhower’s administration but saw the post go to Allen Dulles, who had been Donovan’s wartime station chief in Bern, Switzerland. Instead, Donovan became ambassador to Bangkok, where his mission of stemming communist advances in Southeast Asia landed him in the emerging troubles of what would, a decade or so later, become America’s all-consuming quagmire, Vietnam.

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Online:

http://www.douglascwaller.com/

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