An exhaustive but never dull account of the founder of America’s original intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
Former Time correspondent Waller (A Question of Loyalty: General Billy Mitchell and the Court-Martial that Gripped the Nation, 2004, etc.) has plumbed archives and newly declassified OSS files to produce a definitive life of William Joseph Donovan (1883–1959). The son of Irish immigrants, Donovan was already a successful lawyer when his exploits in World War I earned him the Medal of Honor. Afterward, he dabbled in Republican politics and bitterly opposed the New Deal, but travels during the 1930s convinced him of the danger of war. After Germany invaded Poland, Roosevelt began cultivating anti-isolationist Republicans. Aware that America’s primitive, parochial intelligence agencies were split among feuding fiefdoms in the Army, Navy, State Department and FBI, Roosevelt persuaded Donovan to fix matters. Taking office in July 1941, he created a worldwide organization that ran espionage networks, dropped saboteurs behind enemy lines, supplied guerrillas from France to China and dispensed propaganda. Waller delivers an entertaining account of the OSS’s colorful personalities, devious plots, triumphs, debacles and often nasty fireworks that occurred under Donovan’s charismatic leadership. Ironically, he never united the many feuding intelligence entities—nor has anyone since. The military fiercely guarded their agencies, and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover detested Donovan and worked hard to undermine him. Waller concludes that OSS operations contributed only modestly to the war effort. Its successor, the CIA, has not done better, and experts still debate whether spying and covert operations do more harm than good.
A wholly satisfying biography of the man whose vision continues to guide American intelligence operations—both the daring and unconventional thinking and the delusions.