The OSS, the United States’ first full-service intelligence organization, left a legacy of daring and innovation that has influenced American military and intelligence thinking since World War II. In fact, today’s Central Intelligence Agency derives a significant institutional and spiritual legacy from the OSS.
In some cases, this legacy descended directly. Key personnel, files, funds, procedures, and contacts assembled by the OSS found their way into the CIA more or less intact. In other cases, the legacy is less tangible but no less real—as exemplified by the increasing professionalism of intelligence and the essential role of national intelligence in policymaking and war fighting.
Before World War II, the US government traditionally left intelligence to American foreign-policy experts in the Department of State and the armed services. Important and timely intelligence information went up the chain of command, perhaps even to the President, and was sometimes shared across departmental lines. But no one—short of the White House—tried to collate and assess the full spectrum of vital information.
FDR Creates COI
The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ask for greater coordination by the departmental intelligence arms. On July 11, 1941, the President appointed William J. Donovan to tackle the problem as the Coordinator of Information (or COI), the head of a new civilian office attached to the White House.
The office was the nation’s first peacetime, nondepartmental intelligence organization. The office grew quickly in the autumn before Pearl Harbor, with Donovan accumulating various offices and staffs orphaned in their home departments.
America Enters World War II
America’s entry into the war in December 1941 provoked new thinking about the place and role of COI. Working with the Secretary of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Brig. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith—who would later to be the fourth Director of Central Intelligence—Donovan devised a plan to bring COI under the Joint Chiefs in a way that would preserve the office’s autonomy while winning it access to military support and resources.
“Go Ahead and Try It”
This plan led to the establishment of the Office of Strategic Services on June 1942.
The OSS owed its successes to many factors, most of all to the foresight and drive of Donovan, who built and held together the office’s divergent missions and personalities. “[The] OSS was a direct reflection of Donovan’s character,” two former officers wrote soon after the war. “He was its spark plug, the moving force behind it. In a sense, it can be said that Donovan was OSS.”
In selecting Donovan to be COI and then head of the OSS, 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,” as he was known, owned a sterling résumé of distinguished military service, executive and legal experience, an abiding interest in foreign affairs, and a vision of the important role that intelligence, irregular warfare, and propaganda could play in rolling back the Axis.
Donovan succinctly stated the mission of his new organization: “The Office of Strategic Services means what its name implies: every service of a strategic nature, tried or untried, that may be useful to our Army and Navy and Air Force.” Even more succinctly, he conveyed the spirit of the OSS: “Go ahead and try it.”
OSS Employs “The Best and the Brightest"
Donovan recruited Americans who, like himself, had traveled abroad or had studied or been involved in world affairs. In that age, such people often represented “the best and the brightest” at East Coast universities, businesses, and law firms.
At its peak in late 1944, the OSS employed almost 13,000 men and women—both civilians and military personnel. About 7,500 OSS employees served overseas, and about 4,500 were women (with 900 of them serving in overseas postings).
For the first time in its history, the United States had, in the OSS, a single national-level intelligence agency engaged in all basic secret activities: espionage, covert action, propaganda, and counterintelligence. Though the OSS was excluded from some theaters in the war by Donovan’s opponents, it was strong and active in North Africa, China, Burma, India, and Europe.
WILLIAM J. DONOVAN
TENURE AS DIRECTOR:
- Coordinator of Information, 11 July 1941–13 June 1942
- Director of Strategic Services, 13 June 1942–1 October 1945
1 January 1883, Buffalo, New York
Attended Niagara College
Columbia University, B.A., 1905
Columbia University Law School, LL.B., 1908
- Released from US Army, 12 January 1946
- Practiced law in New York
- Ambassador to Thailand, 1953-54
Died 8 February 1959