The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) left a legacy of daring and innovation that has influenced American military and intelligence thinking since World War II. OSS owed its successes to many factors, but most of all to the foresight and drive of William J. Donovan, who built and held together the office’s divergent missions and personalities. Given the toughness of OSS’s adversaries and the difficulty of the tasks assigned to the office, Donovan and his lieutenants could take pride in what they achieved. Ironically, by the end of the war, he had done his job so well that his presence was no longer essential to carry American intelligence into a new peacetime era. When the White House wanted to retire him in 1945, it also took care to save valuable components of the office that he had created.
Today’s Central Intelligence Agency derives a significant institutional and spiritual legacy from OSS. In some cases this legacy descended directly; key personnel, files, funds, procedures, and contacts assembled by OSS found their way into the CIA more or less intact. In other cases the legacy is less tangible —but no less real.
Intelligence agencies are usually laid open to public view only when a nation is defeated in war and its conquerors are able to ransack its archives. The Office of Strategic Services is perhaps unique among intelligence services in that most of its story has been opened up by voluntary release. Over the last two decades, the Central Intelligence Agency—the heir of OSS—has gradually transferred almost all of OSS’s records in its custody to the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. Scholars and writers are mining these files to produce a growing body of accurate and insightful work on OSS.
OSS was perhaps too large and sprawling to describe in a single essay. General Donovan volunteered his office for a wide variety of missions, but he had little patience for administrative detail and never tried to force OSS into a neat organizational framework. The office restructured itself so frequently that no single chart can adequately summarize its many components. Indeed, the rapid proliferation of offices and missions means that many worthy components and exploits regretfully must be left out of such a brief survey in order to leave room for the overall picture.
What follows is an attempt to describe some of the important components of OSS and to highlight some of its significant missions and personalities.
CIA History Staff