COI Came First

William J. Donovan

William J. Donovan Before World War II, the US Government traditionally left intelligence to the principal executors of American foreign policy, the Department of State and the armed services. Attachés and diplomats collected the bulk of America’s foreign intelligence, mostly in the course of official business but occasionally in clandestine meetings with secret contacts. In Washington, desk officers scrutinized their reports in the regional bureaus and the military intelligence services (the Office of Naval Intelligence [ONI] and the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division, better known as the G-2). Important and timely information went up the chain of command, perhaps even to the President, and might be shared across departmental lines, but no one short of the White House tried to collate and assess all the vital information acquired by the US government. State and the military developed their own security and counterintelligence procedures, and the Army and Navy created separate offices to decipher and read foreign communications. Senior diplomat Robert Murphy later reflected “it must be confessed that our Intelligence organization in 1940 was primitive and inadequate. It was timid, parochial, and operating strictly in the tradition of the Spanish-American War.”

As another European war loomed in the late 1930s, fears of fascist and Communist “Fifth Columns” in America prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ask for greater coordination by the departmental intelligence arms. When little seemed to happen in response to his wish, he tried again in the spring of 1941, expressing his desire to make the traditional intelligence services take a strategic approach to the nation’s challenges—and to cooperate so that he did not have to arbitrate their squabbles. A few weeks later, Roosevelt in frustration resorted to a characteristic stratagem. With some subtle prompting from a pair of British officials—Admiral John H. Godfrey and William Stephenson (later Sir William)—FDR created a new organization to duplicate some of the functions of the existing agencies. The President on 11 July 1941 appointed William J. Donovan of New York to sort the mess as the Coordinator of Information (COI), the head of a new, civilian office attached to the White House.

The office of the Coordinator of Information constituted the nation’s first peacetime, nondepartmental intelligence organization. President Roosevelt authorized it to

collect and analyze all information and data, which may bear upon national security: to correlate such information and data, and to make such informa- tion and data available to the President and to such departments and officials of the Government as the President may determine; and to carry out, when requested by the President, such supplementary activities as may facilitate the securing of information important for national security not now available to the Government.

“Wild Bill” Donovan 

“OSS was a direct reflection of Donovan’s character. He was its spark plug, the moving force behind it. In a sense it can be said that Donovan was OSS.”

Stewart Alsop and Thomas Braden, Sub Rosa (1946)

In selecting William J. Donovan as his Coordinator of Information in July 1941, President Roosevelt chose an energetic civilian who shared his desire to do whatever it took to resist Nazism and the danger it posed to America. “Wild Bill” Donovan owned a sterling résumé, with distinguished military service, executive and legal experience, an abiding interest in foreign affairs, and a vision of the importance of “strategic” intelligence that colleagues found inspiring.

Donovan was a Buffalo, New York, native who had earned his law degree at Columbia. He joined the 165th Infantry Regiment (also called the “Fighting 69th” from its Civil War days) and earned a Medal of Honor as a battalion commander charging German lines in World War I. After the war he visited Europe, Siberia, and Japan, served as assistant attorney general in the Coolidge administration (briefly supervising a young J. Edgar Hoover and his new Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI]), practiced antitrust law in New York City, and lost the 1932 election as the Republican candidate for Governor of New York. His interest in world affairs never diminished. Nor did his zest for being where the action was; he even toured the Italian battlelines in Ethiopia in 1935. Donovan also made wide contacts in government and among public-spirited financial and legal figures in New York City: men like Frank Knox, David Bruce, and the Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster.

William J. Donovan in St. Mihiel, France, When Frank Knox became FDR’s new Secretary of the Navy in 1940, he brought William Donovan to Roosevelt’s attention (FDR and Donovan had been classmates—although not companions—at Columbia Law School). That summer, Roosevelt confidentially asked Donovan to visit Britain and report on London’s resolve and its staying power against Hitler. Donovan’s British hosts understood his mission. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, hoping to win American support for Britain’s desperate war effort, ensured that Donovan saw everything he wanted, granting him extraordinary access to defense and intelligence secrets. Donovan also toured the Balkans and British outposts in the Mediterranean in early 1941. Roosevelt was impressed with Donovan’s reports and with his ideas on intelligence and its place in modern war. When the President decided to force the military and civilian services to cooperate on intelligence matters in the summer of 1941, Donovan was the man he tapped to perform this mission.

William J. Donovan happily accepted the challenge and set to work with typical charisma and zeal. When the war came to America at Pearl Harbor, however, Donovan wanted to command troops on the battlefield again and hoped to gain a commission in the US Army. His hopes were soon dashed. An automobile accident in the spring of 1942 aggravated an old war wound, and Donovan realized that he would never again hold a field command. Nevertheless, he eventually wore a general’s stars. As the Director of OSS and a representative of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Donovan commanded thousands of service personnel, and it was deemed helpful to recommission him for the duration of the war. He was placed on active duty and promoted to Brigadier General in March 1943 and won promotion to Major General in November 1944.

COI, said historian Thomas F. Troy, was “a novel attempt in American history to organize research, intelligence, propaganda, subversion, and commando operations as a unified and essential feature of modern warfare; a ‘Fourth Arm’ of the military services.” The office grew quickly in the autumn before Pearl Harbor, with Donovan cheerfully accumulating various offices and staffs orphaned in their home departments.

One of Donovan’s hand-me-down units brought to COI a mission unforeseen even by him: espionage. Donovan had intended the clandestine intelligence gathering of his office to serve its analytical and propaganda branches; he had not originally sought to duplicate the foreign intelligence missions of the armed services. Nevertheless, it was the armed services, uncomfortable with the peacetime espionage mission, that persuaded COI in September 1941 to accept the small “undercover” intelligence branches of ONI and the G-2. Along with this acquisition, COI won authority to utilize “unvouchered” funds from the President’s emergency fund. Unvouchered funds were the lifeblood of clandestine operations. They were granted by Congress to be spent at the personal responsibility of the President or one of his officers, and were not audited in detail—Donovan’s signature on a note attesting to their proper use sufficed for accounting purposes. These funds, combined with the espionage authority granted COI by the military, planted the seed of the modern CIA’s Directorate of Operations.

Donovan recruited Americans who traveled abroad or studied world affairs and, in that age, such people often represented “the best and the brightest” at East Coast universities, businesses, and law firms. As war against Hitler loomed, not a few of America’s leading citizens looked for opportunities to join the struggle against Nazism. (COI’s successor, OSS, eventually drew such a high proportion of socially prominent men and women that Washington wits dubbed it “Oh So Social.”) These recruits brought into COI the practices and disciplines of their academic and legal backgrounds.

Donovan himself had traveled widely since his Army service in World War I, and he had been a careful observer of social, political, and military conditions. Similarly, his legal briefs on behalf of corporate clients were patiently and voluminously documented. As Coordinator of Information, he saw an opportunity to make research a cornerstone of his new information agency. Donovan won cooperation from the Librarian of Congress (the poet Archibald MacLeish) for his plan to analyze Axis strengths and vulnerabilities. At roughly the same time, COI established its own Research and Analysis Branch (R&A) to test Donovan’s hypothesis that answers to many intelligence problems could be found in libraries, newspapers, and the filing cabinets of government and industry:

We have, scattered throughout the various departments of our government, documents and memoranda concerning military and naval and air and economic potentials of the Axis which, if gathered together and studied in detail by carefully selected trained minds, with a knowledge both of the related languages and technique, would yield valuable and often decisive results.

By autumn 1941, Donovan was proudly submitting the first of R&A’s meticulously prepared studies to President Roosevelt. The Branch was still small and focused on Europe at the time of Pearl Harbor, however, and it had no role in the operational and intelligence failures surrounding that disaster.


Historical Document
Posted: Mar 15, 2007 04:12 PM
Last Updated: Jun 28, 2008 01:09 PM