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William Donovan: Lawyer, Businessman, Patriot, Volunteer

The founder of modern intelligence did what needed to be done

William Joseph (“Wild Bill”) Donovan (January 1, 1883 – February 8, 1959) was an absolutely incredible figure. In World War I he was highly decorated for bravery. He is the only person to have received all four of the United States’ highest awards, the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal. As a lawyer after the war he argued cases in front of the Supreme Court and was famous in D.C. circles. He was also a strong advocate for intelligence as the geopolitical situation heated up and lobbied as he could for the US to bring more focus on intelligence gathering.

On 11 July 1941 Donovan was named Coordinator of Information for the government (an order signed by Roosevelt). This was the start of more focused intelligence work in government. At the time, the US had a few scattered intelligence activities, but they had been neglected (recall that in 1929 the Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson had abolished the highly effective “Black Chamber” codebreaking unit from World War I (in Stimson’s view, Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail).

Donovan moved quickly, organizing a New York office in Room 3603 of Rockefeller Center. He asked Allen Dulles to head it. From that point on the COI began to grow, later renamed the OSS, they were an organization where the mission came first and ideas ran like wildfire.

On December 7, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Donovan met privately with Roosevelt and Edward R. Murrow and FDR told Donovan, “It’s a good thing you got me started on this.” When Hitler gave a speech declaring war on the United States, he mentioned Donovan, who he called “utterly unworthy.”

Donovan set up espionage and sabotage schools, front companies, allied intelligence sharing networks, and relationships with companies globally. He pushed for new inventions of weapons and cameras and devices of all kinds. he recruited people with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, from intellectuals and artists to people with criminal backgrounds. He hired many female spies.

Donovan was great at networking into the establishment and recruited many rich and powerful players to help the cause of victory. In 1942 the COI ceased being a White House operation and was placed under the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Donovan was returned to active duty and made a Colonel (later promoted to brigadier general). Then things really heated up. More training centers were established, more people recruited, and more plans cooked up to help the war effort.

Donovan was a hands on guy. He took part in the allied invasion of North Africa in 1942 and the Allied landing at Salerno Italy in 1943, then the Anzio landing on 22 Jan 1944. He landed at Normandy 7 June 1944, the day after D-Day. Going ashore at Normandy he and his commander of covert operations in Europe, Colonel David Bruce, were shot at by a German plane, then moved on toward the American front lines and encountered German machine-gun fire. As they lay on the ground, Bruce later recalled, Donovan said, “David, we mustn’t be captured. We know too much.” Donovan said that he had two suicide pills, but then discovered he didn’t. “I must shoot first,” Donovan said. Bruce replied, “Yes, sir, but can we do much against machine guns with our pistols?” Donovan explained: “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.”

Donovan is an incredible figure in history, and one of the greatest spymasters who ever lived.

For more see: Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage

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