In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the nation was in a state of shock and horror. The day after the attack, the United States officially declared war on Japan, with Nazi Germany declaring war on the United States three days later. President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized that to win the war, the country needed an organization to gather important intelligence from around the world. The president’s advisors knew just the man to lead such an outfit — Gen. William J. Donovan, also known as “Wild Bill” Donovan.
Born and Raised a Patriot
Donovan was born on New Year’s Day in 1883 in Buffalo, New York. He came from a family of devoutly Catholic Irish immigrants, which influenced him to want to become a priest.
Donovan attended St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and Niagara University. He continued his studies at Columbia University, where he was a star athlete on the football team and a member of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. In 1907, Donovan graduated from Columbia Law School and entered private practice.
In search of a way to serve his country, Donovan joined the New York National Guard in 1912 as a captain. He became part of the 69th “Fighting Irish” Regiment. Donovan also served on the Mexican border in 1916 after his guard regiment was called into federal service to assist the U.S. Army in tracking down the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa.
During World War I, Donovan served his country again, when his regiment was called into federal service. Donovan then became part of the 165th Regiment of the U.S. Army, also known as the “Rainbow” Division because of the cross-country makeup of its ranks. During his time leading the regiment, Donovan earned his nickname “Wild Bill.” The men in his battalion called him “Wild Bill” out of admiration for his coolness and resourcefulness during combat and because of the hard physical drills he made them do to prepare for battle.
Donovan was wounded in action three times during World War I. On July 18, 1918, for bravery under fire on the River Ourcq during the Second Battle of the Marne, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. By the end of the war, Donovan had been promoted to colonel and was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I. Upon returning from Europe after World War I, Donovan — along with Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. — was a co-founder of the American Legion.
Answering the Call to Service
After the war, Donovan decided that he wanted to become more involved with the government. He served on many different federal commissions and delegations. Donovan also unsuccessfully campaigned for lieutenant governor and governor of New York in 1922 and 1932, respectively. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Donovan to serve as the assistant to the Attorney General as an anti-trust lawyer. Donovan even established a Wall Street law firm called Donovan, Leisure, Newton, Lumbard, and Irvine, where he spent most of his time when he wasn’t traveling.
Donovan was a very well-traveled individual. Through his love of travel, he entered the world of intelligence. Donovan traveled a lot for pleasure and for his corporate law clients. During these trips he met with many leaders, including Benito Mussolini of Italy.
Donovan’s extensive travel experience brought him to the attention of President Roosevelt, who asked him to visit England as an unofficial envoy in November 1940 to interview British officials and determine if they could withstand Nazi German. Through his meetings with Col. Stewart Menzies —the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service — as well as King George VI, Winston Churchill and other British government and military leaders, Donovan realized that the United States needed a centralized means of collecting foreign intelligence. Donovan returned to Washington and shared what he had learned with President Roosevelt.
Establishing an Intelligence Organization
On July 11, 1941, President Roosevelt established the Office of the Coordination of Information (COI) and named Donovan as its director. From this moment forward, Donovan became known as the “Father of American Intelligence.”
The COI was tasked with coordinating information collected abroad for the president. After the United States became involved in World War II, the COI became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in June 1942, with Donovan still in charge.
The OSS consisted of men and women from many areas and backgrounds — lawyers, historians, bankers, baseball players, actors, and businessmen. Their assignment was to conduct espionage, sabotage, and morale operations against the Axis powers, and conduct in-depth research and analysis on the nation’s enemies and their capabilities.
Donovan was a fearless leader and became known for saying, “let’s give it a try!” The OSS was instrumental in many of the successes during World War II, including providing the U.S. government with advance information about German efforts to develop atomic weapons and the plot to assassinate Hitler.
Life after the War
Toward the end of the war in 1945, Donovan tried to persuade both Presidents Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman to make the OSS a permanent civilian centralized intelligence agency, but his efforts were unsuccessful. The OSS was dissolved in September 1945. Donovan continued to advocate for the formation of a centralized intelligence agency. His persistence paid off when President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, which established the Central Intelligence Agency.
Donovan retired from active duty and returned to his work as a lawyer. His first job after the war was serving as an aide to the U.S. chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. After that, he practiced law on Wall Street. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Donovan as Ambassador to Thailand.
Donovan died at the age of 76 on February 8, 1959 at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Donovan was the only American to have received the nations four highest awards: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal. After his death, Donovan was awarded the Freedom Award of the International Rescue Committee. He is also a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.