An End and a Beginning

General Donovan addressing Jedburghs in England
General Donovan addressing Jedburghs in England, 1944.

OSS trained many of the leaders and personnel who formed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Their ranks included four future Directors of Central Intelligence: Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby, and William Casey. Ironically, however, the one OSS veteran who did the most to promote such an agency—William J. Donovan—did not make the transition to it. He had led from the front, visiting his troops and surveying the ground in England, France, Italy, Burma, China, and even Russia. General Donovan was a charismatic leader and empire builder who inspired his people, but he was also a mediocre administrator, enamored of operations but bored by procedural detail. Tales of OSS inefficiency and waste—some of them true—delighted Donovan’s critics. He had tirelessly battled bureaucratic rivals in Washington and London, but as the war drew to an end his enemies began to fear that he might actually win his campaign to create a peacetime intelligence service modeled on OSS. President Roosevelt made no promises, however, and after his death in April 1945, the incoming President, Harry S. Truman, felt no obligation to save OSS.

Victory in Europe in May 1945 allowed OSS to concentrate on Japan, but it also meant months of bureaucratic limbo for Washington headquarters. President Truman disliked Donovan. Truman mocked him in his diary, perhaps fearing that Donovan’s proposed intelligence establishment might one day be used against Americans. The mood in Congress, moreover, was running against "war agencies" like OSS. Once the victory was won, the nation and Congress wanted demobilization—fast. This obstacle alone might have blocked a presidential attempt to preserve OSS or to create a permanent peacetime intelligence agency along the lines of General Donovan’s plan.

The White House’s Bureau of the Budget drafted liquidation plans for OSS and other war agencies, but initially the Bureau assumed that the termination could be stretched over weeks or months so OSS could preserve its most valuable assets. OSS and the Budget Bureau were to have less time than they expected. In late August, the White House suddenly ordered that OSS be closed as soon as possible. Bureau staffers had already conceived the idea of giving the Research and Analysis Branch to the State Department as “a going concern.” The imminent dissolution of OSS meant that something now had to be done quickly about the rest of the office. In response, a Budget Bureau staffer decided that the War Department should receive the remainder of OSS “for salvage and liquidation.” The War Department, it was decided, might even continue to operate the SI and X-2 Branches (and their overseas networks) for another year or so.

The Budget Bureau’s plan for intelligence reorganization went to President Truman on 4 September 1945. Donovan protested the plan, but the President ignored him, telling the Bureau to proceed with “the dissolution of Donovan’s outfit even if Donovan did not like it.” Bureau staffers soon had the requisite papers ready for the President’s signature. Executive Order 9621 on 20 September dissolved OSS as of 1 October 1945, sending R&A to the Department of State and everything else to the War Department. The Executive Order also directed the Secretary of War to liquidate OSS activities “whenever he deems it compatible with the national interest.” That same day, President Truman sent a letter of appreciation to General Donovan. The transfer of R&A to State, wrote the President, marked “the beginning of the development of a coordinated system of foreign intelligence within the permanent framework of the Government.” The President also implicitly affirmed that the War Department would continue to operate certain OSS components providing “services of a military nature the need for which will continue for some time.”

Due to an oversight in the drafting of EO 9621, Donovan had just ten days to dismantle his sprawling agency. He was too busy to do much about saving the components of OSS bound for the War Department. Donovan microfilmed his office files and bade farewell to his troops at a 28 September rally in a converted skating rink down the hill from his headquarters at 2430 E Street, NW:

We have come to the end of an unusual experiment. This experiment was to determine whether a group of Americans constituting a cross section of racial origins, of abilities, temperaments and talents could meet and risk an encounter with the long-established and well- trained enemy organizations…. You can go with the assurance that you have made a beginning in showing the people of America that only by decisions of nation- al policy based upon accurate information can we have the chance of a peace that will endure.

OSS expired on 1 October 1945. Fortunately, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy had saved the SI and X-2 Branches as the nucleus of a peacetime intelligence service. McCloy was a friend of Donovan’s, and he interpreted the President’s directive as broadly as possible in ordering OSS’s Deputy Director for Intelligence, Brig. Gen. John Magruder, to preserve SI and X-2 “as a going operation” in a new office that McCloy dubbed the “Strategic Services Unit” (SSU). Secretary of War Robert Patterson confirmed this directive and ordered Magruder to “preserve as a unit such of these functions and facilities as are valuable for permanent peacetime purposes.”

Within two years the President and the Congress found a new home for the personnel and assets saved in SSU under Col. William W. Quinn. They went to a new organization called the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) until the National Security Act of 1947 turned CIG into the Central Intelligence Agency, to perform many of the missions that General Donovan had advocated for his proposed peacetime intelligence service. Although CIA differed from OSS in important ways (which is why Truman endorsed it and not OSS), Donovan and his office deserve credit as forefathers of the Agency. Without Donovan’s tireless advocacy of a modern intelligence service—and the record built by OSS during the war—the Truman administration would have taken longer to create the new intelligence establishment that the President wanted and might not have done this task as well.

The US military in recent years has formally honored its own debt to OSS. In creating the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in 1987, the Pentagon consciously looked back to the OSS model of inter-service cooperation and success in unconventional warfare. USSOCOM in a sense represented a fulfillment of Donovan’s original hope that all-arms special operations would become an integral part of US warfighting doctrine and a key supplement to regular combat planning and operations. Special Operations Command personnel, like their CIA counterparts, regard Donovan and OSS to be true ancestors in spirit and deed. They wear the insignia to prove this heritage; USSOCOM’s shoulder patch is a gold lance-head on a black field, and it was modeled on a patch worn unofficially in OSS.

In CIA and USSOCOM, the US Government fulfilled General Donovan’s vision. Central intelligence and unconventional warfare capabilities are now built into the nation’s command and security policies and ready at all times to protect America and its interests.


OSS pin A lapel pin was presented to each OSS employee upon the dissolution of the organization in October 1945.



OSS Book of Honor The Book of Honor listing OSS personnel who died in service.

OSS Memorial

"To those of us here today, this is General Donovan's greatest legacy. He realized that a modern intelligence organization must not only provide today's tactical intelligence, it must provide tomorrow's long-term assessments. He recognized that an effective intelligence organization must not allow political pressures to influence its counsel. And, finally, he knew that no intelligence organization can succeed without recognizing the importance of people—people with discretion, ingenuity, loyalty, and a deep sense of responsibility to protect and promote American values."

From DCI William Webster's remarks
at the dedication of the statue of
Gen. William J. Donovan,
CIA Headquarters, 28 October 1988.

Historical Document
Posted: Mar 15, 2007 04:12 PM
Last Updated: Jun 28, 2008 01:10 PM