William Donovan, the son of Timothy P. Donovan and Anna Lennon Donovan, was born in Buffalo, United States, on 1st January, 1883. He attended St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and Niagara University before starring on the football team at Columbia University. It was his style of play that got him the nickname, "Wild Bill".
After graduating from Columbia Law School and became an influential Wall Street lawyer. In 1912, Donovan formed and led a troop of cavalry of the New York State Militia and served on the United States-Mexico border during the American government's campaign against Pancho Villa.
During the First World War Donovan organized and led the 1st battalion of the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division. He served on the Western Front and in October, 1918 he received the Medal of Honor. The citation read: "Lt. Col. Donovan personally led the assaulting wave in an attack upon a very strongly organized position, and when our troops were suffering heavy casualties he encouraged all near him by his example, moving among his men in exposed positions, reorganizing decimated platoons, and accompanying them forward in attacks. When he was wounded in the leg by machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued with his unit until it withdrew to a less exposed position." By the end of the war he had been promoted to the rank of colonel. In 1919 he visited Russia and spent time with Alexander Kolchak and the White Army.
Donovan was an active member of the Republican Party and after meeting Herbert Hoover he worked as his political adviser, speech writer and campaign manager. Donovan ran unsuccessfully as lieutenant governor in 1922 but was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge as his assistant attorney general. In 1928, Donovan had been acting attorney general in the Coolidge administration. When he became president in 1929, it was assumed that Hoover would appoint Donovan as attorney general. Hoover did not do so because, it was rumored, powerful Republicans did not want a Catholic in the cabinet.
By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 Donovan was a millionaire Wall Street lawyer. He was a strong opponent of Roosevelt's New Deal but became a close advisor to the administration. Ernest Cuneo, who also worked for Roosevelt, claimed that Donovan was the leader of "Franklin's brain trust". It appears that Donovan shared the president's concern about political developments in Nazi Germany.
During the First World War Donovan became friends with William Stephenson. When Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940 he appointed Stephenson as the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC) that was based in New York City. Churchill told Stephenson: "You know what you must do at once. We have discussed it most fully, and there is a complete fusion of minds between us. You are to be my personal representative in the United States. I will ensure that you have the full support of all the resources at my command. I know that you will have success, and the good Lord will guide your efforts as He will ours." Charles Howard Ellis said that he selected Stephenson because: "Firstly, he was Canadian. Secondly, he had very good American connections... he had a sort of fox terrier character, and if he undertook something, he would carry it through."
As William Boyd has pointed out: "The phrase (British Security Coordination) is bland, almost defiantly ordinary, depicting perhaps some sub-committee of a minor department in a lowly Whitehall ministry. In fact BSC, as it was generally known, represented one of the largest covert operations in British spying history... With the US alongside Britain, Hitler would be defeated - eventually. Without the US (Russia was neutral at the time), the future looked unbearably bleak... polls in the US still showed that 80% of Americans were against joining the war in Europe. Anglophobia was widespread and the US Congress was violently opposed to any form of intervention." An office was opened in the Rockefeller Centre in Manhattan with the agreement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI.
In July, 1940, Roosevelt appointed Frank Knox as Secretary of the Navy. The two men discussed the possibility of appointing Donovan as Secretary of War. Knox told Roosevelt: "Frankly, if your proposal contemplated Donovan for the War Department and myself for the Navy, I think the appointments could be put solely upon the basis of a nonpartisan nonpolitical measure of putting our national defense departments in such a state of preparedness as to protect the United States against any danger to our security." Roosevelt replied "Bill Donovan is also an old friend of mine - we were in law school together and frankly, I should like to have him in the Cabinet, not only for his own ability, but also to repair in a sense the very great injustice done him by President Hoover in the winter of 1929."
Eventually, Roosevelt decided to appoint fellow Republican, Henry Stimson, as Secretary of War. Jean Edward Smith, the author of FDR (2008) has argued that Roosevelt was determined to get the timing of the decision right: "It was important to stress the bipartisan nature of the defense effort, he told Knox. Even more important, if the GOP nominated an isolationist candidate, Knox and Stimson would be deemed guilty of bad sportsmanship in joining FDR's team afterward." Knox was allowed to bring in James V. Forrestal, an investment banker, as his undersecretary.
In the summer of 1940 Winston Churchill had a serious problem. Joseph P. Kennedy was the United States Ambassador to Britain. He soon came to the conclusion that the island was a lost cause and he considered aid to Britain fruitless. Kennedy, an isolationist, consistently warned Roosevelt "against holding the bag in a war in which the Allies expect to be beaten." Neville Chamberlain wrote in his diary in July 1940: "Saw Joe Kennedy who says everyone in the USA thinks we shall be beaten before the end of the month." Averell Harriman later explained the thinking of Kennedy and other isolationists: "After World War I, there was a surge of isolationism, a feeling there was no reason for getting involved in another war... We made a mistake and there were a lot of debts owed by European countries. The country went isolationist.
William Stephenson later commented: "The procurement of certain supplies for Britain was high on my priority list and it was the burning urgency of this requirement that made me instinctively concentrate on the single individual who could help me. I turned to Bill Donovan." Donovan arranged meetings with Henry Stimson (Secretary of War), Cordell Hull (Secretary of State) and Frank Knox (Secretary of the Navy). The main topic was Britain's lack of destroyers and the possibility of finding a formula for transfer of fifty "over-age" destroyers to the Royal Navy without a legal breach of U.S. neutrality legislation.
It was decided to send Donovan and Edgar Ansel Mowrer to Britain on a fact-finding mission. They left on 14th July, 1940. When he heard the news, Joseph P. Kennedy complained: "Our staff, I think is getting all the information that possibility can be gathered, and to send a new man here at this time is to me the height of nonsense and a definite blow to good organization." He added that the trip would "simply result in causing confusion and misunderstanding on the part of the British". Andrew Lycett has argued: "Nothing was held back from the big American. British planners had decided to take him completely into their confidence and share their most prized military secrets in the hope that he would return home even more convinced of their resourcefulness and determination to win the war."
William Donovan arrived back in the United States in early August, 1940. In his report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt he argued: "(1) That the British would fight to the last ditch. (2) They could not hope to hold to hold the last ditch unless they got supplies at least from America. (3) That supplies were of no avail unless they were delivered to the fighting front - in short, that protecting the lines of communication was a sine qua non. (4) That Fifth Column activity was an important factor." Donovan also urged that the government should sack Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who was predicting a German victory. Donovan also wrote a series of articles arguing that Nazi Germany posed a serious threat to the United States.
In July 1941, Roosevelt appointed Donovan as his Coordinator of Information. The following year Donovan became head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an organization that was given the responsible for espionage and for helping the resistance movement in Europe. Donovan published a secret document where he outlined his objectives: "Espionage is not a nice thing, nor are the methods employed exemplary. Neither are demolition bombs nor poison gas, but our country is a nice thing and our independence is indispensable. We face an enemy who believes one of his chief weapons is that none but he will employ terror. But we will turn terror against him - or we will cease to exist."
Over the next few years William Stephenson worked closely with Donovan. Gill Bennett, the author of Churchill's Man of Mystery (2009), has argued: "Each is a figure about whom much myth has been woven, by themselves and others, and the full extent of their activities and contacts retains an element of mystery. Both were influential: Stephenson as head of British Security Coordination (BSC), the organisation he created in New York at Menzies's request and Donovan, working with Stephenson as intermediary between Roosevelt and Churchill, persuading the former to supply clandestine military supplies to the UK before the USA entered the war, and from June 1941 head of the COI and thus one of the architects of the US Intelligence establishment."
Ray S. Cline was one of Donovan's agents: "Wild Bill deserves his sobriquet mainly for two reasons. First, he permitted the wildest, loosest kind of administrative and procedural chaos to develop while he concentrated on recruiting talent wherever he could find it - in universities, businesses, law firms, in the armed services, at Georgetown cocktail parties, in fact, anywhere he happened to meet or hear about bright and eager men and women who wanted to help. His immediate lieutenants and their assistants were all at work on the same task, and it was a long time before any systematic method of structuring the polyglot staff complement was worked out. Donovan really did not care. He counted on some able young men from his law firm in New York to straighten out the worst administrative messes, arguing that the record would justify his agency if it was good and excuse all waste and confusion. If the agency was a failure, the United States would probably lose the war and the bookkeeping would not matter. In this approach he was probably right."
Donovan was given the rank of major general and during the war he built up a team of 16,000 agents working behind enemy lines. He later recalled: "Intelligence service that counts isn't the kind you read about in spy books. Women agents are less often the sultry blonde or the dazzling duchess than they are girls like the young American with an artificial leg who stayed on in France to operate a clandestine radio station; girls like the thirty-seven who worked for us in China, daughters of missionaries and of businessmen, who had grown up there. I hope that the story of the women in OSS will soon be written. Our men agents didn't fit the traditional types in spy stories any more than the women we used. Do you know that one of our most notable achievements was the extent to which we found we could use labor unions? Our informer in this war was less often a slick little man with a black moustache than a transport worker, a truck driver, or a freight train conductor."
Ray S. Cline admitted: "Donovan did manage during the war to create a legend about his work and that of OSS that conveyed overtones of glamour, innovation, and daring. This infuriated the regular bureaucrats but created a cult of romanticism about intelligence that persisted and helped win popular support for continuation of an intelligence organization." One of those who was "infuriated" with Donovan was John Edgar Hoover who saw the OSS as a rival to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Richard Deacon, the author of Spyclopaedia: The Comprehensive Handbook of Espionage (1987), has pointed out: "Hoover constantly worked against Donovan... and OSS activities had to be confined mainly to Europe and North Africa. Increasingly, towards the end of the war, Donovan felt that the Americans and the British were giving away too much intelligence to the Russians, and fearing that Russia would be the prime enemy afterwards, he pressed for the creation of a permanent Secret Service for the USA, based on the OSS."
As soon as the Second World War ended President Harry S. Truman ordered the OSS to be closed down. However, it provided a model for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) established in September 1947. Others have suggested that it was the British Security Coordination (BSC) that was really the important organisation. According to Joseph C. Goulden several of the "old boys" who were around for the founding of the CIA like repeating a mantra, “The Brits taught us everything we know - but by no means did they teach us everything that they know.”
Donovan returned to his law practice but later set up the British-American-Canadian-Corporation (later called the World Commerce Corporation) with William Donovan. It was a secret service front company which specialized in trading goods with developing countries. William Torbitt has claimed that it was "originally designed to fill the void left by the break-up of the big German cartels which Stephenson himself had done much to destroy."