Book review: 'Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage'

Contemporary history is seldom as relevant and engaging as Douglas Waller's new biography, "Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage," which is — by turns — fascinatingly instructive and thoroughly entertaining.

Waller, a former Time correspondent and the author of an excellent biography of Gen. Billy Mitchell, has a great ally in his subject, who was a larger-than-life personality in an American Century favored with more than its share of outsized figures. William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan was born in Buffalo, N.Y., to Irish immigrant parents who'd managed to scramble up the ladder from "shanty" to the lower rungs of "lace curtain" status. A fine athlete, though an indifferent student, Donovan nonetheless graduated from Columbia Law School, where one of his classmates was an aristocratic young man with an eminent name — Franklin D. Roosevelt. Back in Buffalo, the young lawyer married the daughter of a wealthy, socially prominent Protestant family, and, though his new in-laws were wary of the brash young man from a tough Irish ward, he soon became their legal and financial advisor.

World War I was the making of Donovan in several ways. He served in New York's storied, mostly Irish "Fighting 69th" Regiment. Its legendary chaplain, Father Francis Duffy, became his closest friend, and the doomed young poet, Joyce Kilmer, was his adjutant. His men — more than half of whom would die in the fighting — admiringly dubbed him "Wild Bill" for his courage under fire, a nom de guerre that one of his commanders, Douglas MacArthur, echoed, though as a less-than-complimentary reference to his tendency to exceed orders.

Donovan would emerge from the Great War with the Medal of Honor and France's Croix de Guerre, though he refused to accept the latter until the French also bestowed it on the Jewish sergeant who had been at his side in the particular engagement for which they were honored. Back in New York, where he finally received his Medal of Honor, he immediately unsnapped the decoration and presented it to his regiment. "It doesn't belong to me," he said. "It belongs to the boys who are not here, the boys who are resting under the white crosses in France or in the cemeteries of New York." He left the medal in the 69th's Manhattan armory and never retrieved it.

After the war, Donovan returned to Buffalo with a new, international perspective, determined to make his law firm a competitor with the big New York City firms and to give it a presence in European business affairs. It was a formula that made him rich. In an era when the majority of Irish Americans were baptized Catholics but born Democrats, Donovan was a conservative Republican who dabbled in GOP politics as a pugnacious but singularly unsuccessful candidate who was intensely critical of Roosevelt and the New Deal. He was, however, one of those instinctive social conservatives, like Winston Churchill, who saw the danger of Adolf Hitler early on; by 1933, Donovan was actively protesting the Nazis' anti-Semitism. Despite his Republican affiliation, Roosevelt asked Donovan to go to London to assess whether U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy was correct in his defeatist appraisal that Britain had neither the will nor the capacity to resist a resurgent Germany.

Donovan met with Churchill, toured Europe and came back to tell the president that Britain would fight and that Hitler was every bit as dangerous as the president was inclined to believe. When war arrived, Donovan became a fervent supporter of aid to London and an opponent of U.S. isolationism. Encouraged by Churchill and the British espionage operative William Stephenson, he also became convinced that America required a professional intelligence agency like Britain's MI6, staffed with "men calculatingly reckless with disciplined daring." Donovan proposed such a group to Roosevelt, and, in 1941, the president named the New York lawyer "coordinator of information."

Thus was the legendary Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, born: Its agents — both men and women — generally lived up to Donovan's description throughout the war. Much of Waller's narrative is given over to those years, and rightly so, since they were replete with heroism of all sorts. There were stunningly daring, meticulously prepared operations as well as many — like the plan to drop bats with bombs strapped to their bodies over Germany — that simply were harebrained. Others were problematic, like a generalized collapse of OSS operations in Italy that were saved and put on a productive footing by Donovan, who repeatedly and recklessly exposed himself to enemy fire. His administrative overreaching and lack of even normally protective political instincts earned Donovan the distrust of many, as well as the undying enmity of J. Edgar Hoover. When the former spy chief died, in 1959, from complications of senile dementia, the FBI director spread a rumor that the real cause of death was syphilis.

One of the admirable attributes of Waller's well-written history is its realism regarding the OSS war effort. Along with British intelligence, the office made a significant contribution to equipping and mustering the French Resistance in support of the Normandy invasion. In practical terms, that probably was its finest hour. Nothing else it did ever came close to matching the pivotal role played by code-breakers who decrypted the German and Japanese military and naval communications. Waller is also particularly good in showing how Donovan's own weaknesses and predilections would, in so many respects, become those of the Central Intelligence Agency he worked so hard to see established in the postwar years — though Harry S. Truman denied him the opportunity to lead it.

Donovan had a faith in the efficacy of covert action that he inculcated in the lieutenants who would go on to direct the CIA and a casual approach to predictive analysis that would be echoed over and over in subsequent years. OSS, for example, confidently told Roosevelt that Nazi Germany would collapse within a couple of months of the Normandy landings. Similarly, anyone familiar with the so-called "Curveball" disinformation for which the CIA fell during the run-up to the Iraq war will find an eerie foreshadowing in the way a onetime Italian pornographer conned OSS into accepting a steady stream of concocted intelligence on the axis supposedly leaked by Vatican diplomatic circles.

Waller's realism about these issues combined with an obvious affection for the remarkable charter of Wild Bill Donovan have resulted in a splendid biography.