THE LAST HERO: Wild Bill Donovan by Anthony Cave Brown
Kirkus Star

THE LAST HERO: Wild Bill Donovan

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

William J. Donovan (1883-1959), the WW I hero who launched US secret intelligence as WW II OSS chief, is the subject of two big new biographies (see also Dunlop, below)--neither of them factually ""definitive,"" a lifelike portrait of Donovan, or a particularly successful book. Cave Brown's is the consequential entry for OSS history. From access to Donovan's private papers (including his microfilmed OSS files), he has produced a minutely detailed account (600 of the book's 800 pages) of Donovan's push for a central intelligence service, embracing sabotage and other ""special means""; of his power-struggles with J. Edgar Hoover, the military intelligence chiefs, and key others--as well as his touchy relations with his Allied counterparts; of labyrinthine OSS operations--many of them disasters--in North Africa, the Balkans, Italy, France, Germany, and South Asia; of his plans for a unified postwar agency--vetoed by Truman. Cave Brown's esteem for Donovan does not rest, patently, on OSS performance: with a few exceptions, ""the OSS did little and what it did do it did not do well."" Rather, Donovan is lauded 1) for supporting the British strategy of attacking Germany from the southern periphery, and by subversive warfare; and 2) for making ""special means acceptable to the American establishment""--wherefrom the CIA. It's a peculiarly British assessment--first, because the historical record does not show that Donovan influenced US strategic policy; second, because Cave Brown has no reservations about Donovan-initiated, CIA Cold War activities. As biography, the book is more problematic--and oddly erratic. Thus, Cave Brown briskly recounts Donovan's quick rise from Buffalo's despised Irish First Ward (via athletics, at Columbia and after) to local prominence as a lawyer and marriage to a WASP heiress--then hems-and-haws about his hardly living with her thereafter (and insists, incorrectly and unnecessarily, that he was a faithful husband). Donovan's ingrained secretiveness is described, his almost furtive restlessness is illustrated--but Cave Brown never thinks to link these traits to his espionage career. And his handling of that career is crucially deficient. Donovan, as both Cave Brown and Dunlop (below) suggest, was probably engaged in espionage from 1916 (when, for still-obscure reasons, he was sent on a European relief mission) to 1940, when he became FDR's official spy. Yet Cave Brown devotes a bare page to his 1919 Siberian journey; fails to report on his 1931 Manchurian-Incident trip--or the 1935 meeting with Mussolini whereby he got into Ethiopia; and altogether makes no attempt to chronicle or interpret his constant travels. At the same time, he throws up speculative dust--British espionage training a pre-1940 meeting with British agent Stephenson (Intrepid) a meeting with Abwehr chief/anti-Hitler plotter Canaris (Hans Hohne's 1979 Canaris is clear on this point.) There remain three facets of Donovan's public life: his WW I exploits--on which Cave Brown is solid; his Republican political involvements--a washout; and his legal career--a cursory appraisal. In some ways exhaustive, then; in others inconclusive. On the OSS: an essential, prospectively controversial source--for scholars and OSS addicts.

Pub Date: Oct. 28th, 1982
Publisher: Times Books