A lively recounting of America’s shadow war against the Axis powers, fraught with peril, treachery, and bad decisions.
William J. Donovan, a distinguished hero of the Great War, fought an uphill battle to establish a military intelligence unit that worked across service and agency boundaries, but he was vindicated by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the aftermath, “Wild Bill’s” fledgling unit was put under the authority of the Joint Chiefs, though given considerable leeway; Donovan used his relative freedom to emphasize an “integrated ‘combined arms’ of shadow war techniques” and to otherwise sharpen the Office of Strategic Service’s skills in the fine arts of “persuasion, penetration and intimidation.” Among OSS’s specialties was a refined understanding of military logistics: its “bespectacled economists, historians, political scientists, and historians” were able to glean considerable intelligence from raw reports and economic data, making the first accurate estimates of such things as German tank production and orders of battle. But, as O’Donnell (Beyond Valor, 2001) writes, drawing on vivid oral histories by unit veterans, OSS types were not all bookworms; hundreds performed heroic and unlikely deeds behind enemy lines, organizing partisan resistance, committing acts of sabotage, and gathering critically important intelligence. One not untypical operative, writes O’Donnell, was a Russian prince who “emigrated to the United States, married an Astor, and became vice president of Hilton International”—and who helped organize the Allied invasion of Sardinia. OSS had its failings, O’Donnell acknowledges, especially in the Pacific Theater and in the Balkans, where operatives missed opportunities to land in Istria and arrive in Vienna before the Soviets—which would have changed the postwar era considerably. Even so, O’Donnell believes, the OSS did well to gather intelligence about the Soviets as well as the Axis, and in the end, he observes, OSS “may have made its greatest contribution, not to winning World War Two, but to winning the Cold War.”
First-rate reading for fans of cloak-and-dagger stuff, and for students of WWII history.