In a review of Douglas Waller’s “Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the O.S.S. and Modern American Espionage” that appeared in The New Yorker, Harvard Professor Louis Menand presented a very negative portrait of Office of Strategic Services founder Major General William J. Donovan and discounted the significant contribution the O.S.S.—predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Special Operations forces—made to America’s victory in World War II.
Donovan recruited some of Harvard’s leading scholars and alumni to serve in the O.S.S. They include Cora DuBois, H. Stuart Hughes, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Robert Lee Woolf, Crane Brinton, John Clive, Carleton Coon, John K. Fairbank, Gordon Brown, Franklin Ford, Henry Murray, William Langer, Hugh Montgomery, and Fisher Howe.
These scholars served in the O.S.S. Research and Analysis Branch that, according to Menand’s article, "was transferred to the State Department—where it was quickly abolished." In fact, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research proudly traces its origins to its O.S.S. predecessor.
Menand writes that “most of what came before and after [Donovan’s O.S.S. service] was failure and frustration.” Prior to World War II, Donovan earned the Medal of Honor in World War I, served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney General, as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, as an advisor to President Roosevelt, as a candidate for governor of New York, and as a leading attorney. Following World War II, the plan he created for a post-World War II O.S.S. was used to create the C.I.A. President Eisenhower appointed him as ambassador to Thailand. Donovan remains the only American to win our nation’s four highest military honors. His time onstage, far from brief as Menand contends, lasted from World War I to the Cold War.
Menand dismisses O.S.S. successes as "minor exceptions.” Such successes include negotiating the early surrender of the German army in Northern Italy that saved untold thousands of lives and shortened the war in Europe, the valuable intelligence gathered in advance of Operations Torch and Overlord, the accomplishments of Detachment 101 in Burma, which was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation by President Eisenhower, its Operational Groups, forerunners of today's U.S. Special Operations forces, which Donovan said “performed some of the bravest acts of the war”; its assistance to resistance groups throughout Europe, and the recruitment of Fritz Kolbe, a German diplomat who was America's greatest Nazi spy. Following World War II, intelligence collected by the O.S.S. was used to prosecute Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.
Donovan’s alleged recklessness cited by Menand includes his participation in several invasions. (He also went behind enemy lines in Burma.) His aide, Ned Putzell, said that Donovan was "unwilling to ask anyone to take a risk that he himself would not take." In an organization whose personnel volunteered for the most dangerous missions of World War II, one can only imagine the powerful effect that Donovan's example had on those who served under his command. Donovan made it clear that he was willing to risk his life, not just the lives of others.
The O.S.S. was by no means a perfect. In his 1945 farewell address, Donovan said that "We were not afraid to make mistakes because we were not afraid to try things that had not been tried before." Facing the grave threat posed to the United States by Nazi Germany and our lack of a centralized intelligence service at the beginning of World War II, one can hardly fault Donovan and the O.S.S. for its willingness to take risks, even if it meant failure. Donovan frequently told O.S.S. personnel that they "could not succeed without taking chances” or engaging in what he termed “calculated recklessness.” An ideal O.S.S. candidate was described as a “Ph.D. who could win a bar fight” and Donovan said that he would “rather have a young lieutenant with enough guts to disobey a direct order than a colonel too regimented to think and act for himself.”
Menand cites Waller’s conclusion that “Donovan’s operation did nothing to shorten the war.” This is incorrect. General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said of the O.S.S-aided resistance that “without their great assistance, the liberation of France and the defeat of the enemy in western Europe would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves.”
In assessing Donovan, I would recommend repeating the words of other World War II leaders who knew him well from their wartime service together. Lord Mountbatten said that he doubted "whether any one person contributed more to the ultimate victory of the Allies than Bill Donovan.” Upon learning of his death in 1959, President Eisenhower said: “We have lost the last hero.”