CIA Joins Niagara University Tribute to OSS Chief William Donovan
October 2, 2007
On September 27, Niagara University honored nine distinguished alumni, including General William J. Donovan, director of the Office of Strategic Services, CIA’s wartime parent. Donovan, from Niagara’s Class of 1903, is a pivotal figure in the history of American intelligence. Recognizing the General as a continuing source of inspiration to the Agency, Associate Deputy Director Michael Morell attended the ceremony on the Niagara University campus, just outside Donovan’s hometown of Buffalo, New York.
At the event, Donovan and other figures from Niagara’s past and present were cited for their exceptional dedication and service to others. Morell said he was “truly honored” to represent the Agency at the celebration.
“For the men and women of CIA, the legacy of Donovan and those he led remains a tangible reality today, nearly half a century after his death,” Morell explained. “It may be found in artifacts from the General’s crowded life, carefully preserved in the Agency museum alongside weapons and tools the OSS employed in World War II. But the CIA also inherited the defining spirit of Donovan and his organization—a readiness to meet challenge with courage and innovation.”
A product of Buffalo’s Irish First Ward, Donovan combined a taste for learning with a taste for action. Leading troops on the battlefields of World War I, he earned the nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor. The decades that followed saw Donovan prominent in law and public service, ultimately traveling to Europe as an emissary of President Roosevelt. Understanding more clearly than most America’s need for better intelligence in a troubled world, Donovan spent the months before Pearl Harbor trying to create a new service to pull that information together.
Donovan’s vision eventually became OSS. Blending scholarship with daring operations behind enemy lines, it reflected his character and bore his stamp. He assembled a rich and remarkable variety of talent, from American families new and old. Virtually from scratch, Donovan built an organization which, like CIA, fused clandestine activities and in-depth analysis with novel technical and logistical support.
The premium was on ideas and actions to help defeat America’s enemies. As one OSS veteran put it: “No scheme was too wild to be considered.” To be sure, there were setbacks in those efforts, as there often are in the difficult field of intelligence. But there were also important contributions to victory, and essential experience in what was for our country a fresh and different exercise of national power.
With the end of the war came the end of OSS, what Donovan termed “an unusual experiment.” It was, he said in his final speech as its chief, an experiment “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.” They could, and they did. Drawing on that fact, Donovan advocated a peacetime intelligence agency to meet the rising Soviet threat.
“Though he would never serve at CIA, many of those he guided did,” Morell said. “They brought with them and conveyed to those who came after the timeless lessons of Donovan and OSS: the value of study, boldness, and diversity.”