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Remembrance: Gen. 'Wild Bill' Donovan

Britain’s famed commando leader and post-World War II viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, said:

“I doubt whether any one person contributed more to the ultimate victory of the allies than Bill Donovan.”

That is Maj. Gen. William J. (“Wild Bill”) Donovan, recipient of the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism in the trenches of World War I – and founder of the World War II Office of Strategic Services, or OSS.

I’ve just finished reading Douglas Waller’s superb new biography, “Wild Bill Donovan,” which New Yorker magazine reviewer Louis Menand has tried to malign under the headline: “Wild Thing – did the OSS help win the war against Hitler?”

As a longtime admirer of Gen. Donovan, I am most grateful that the president of the OSS Society, Charles Pinck, of McLean, Va., has detailed a number of the smears in this New Yorker article. Those included the notable outrage in which Menand claimed that one of the OSS agents was Mafia gangster “Lucky” Luciano.

The OSS leader in Italy, Max Corvo, specifically ruled against any assistance from the Mafia.

Among additional falsehoods in this Donovan smear are the following:

“Most of what came before and after [Donovan’s OSS service] was failure and frustration.” But Pinck’s letter to the editor of the New Yorker explains: “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 informal adviser to President Roosevelt, and as a leading attorney. Following World War II, the plan he created for a post-World War II OSS was used to create the CIA. 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 until the Cold War.

“Menand dismisses the following OSS successes as ‘minor exceptions’: negotiating the early surrender of the German army in northern Italy, 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, and its Operational Groups, forerunners of today’s U.S. Special Operations Forces, which Gen. Donovan said ‘performed some of the bravest acts of the war’; and the recruitment of Fritz Kolbe, a German diplomat who was America’s greatest Nazi spy. …

“Menand states that ‘Donovan failed to appreciate … that the United States was relatively inexperienced … at espionage and covert political warfare.’ If this is true, why did Donovan describe OSS personnel as ‘glorious amateurs’?

“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 riskiest missions of World War II, one can only imagine the powerful effect that Donovan’s example had on those who served under his command. …

“OSS was by no means 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 OSS for its willingness to take risks, even if it meant failure. Donovan frequently told OSS personnel that they ‘could not succeed without taking chances’ or engaging in what he termed ‘calculated recklessness.'”

From the epilogue of Waller’s 389-page biography of Gen. Donovan, the following:

“Donovan began practically from scratch. The institutional and cultural resistance he faced from the national security establishment of his day was exceptional.” (And, I would add, the longtime and bitter denunciations and attempted undercuttings of him by J. Edgar Hoover – and the presidential resentment of the OSS by Harry Truman, which led to its being killed.)

“Early on, he (Donovan) was spending as much time fighting his allies as he did the enemy. As a result, it was not until more than a year and a half after America’s entry into the war that the OSS really got into the battle.

“Without Donovan’s creativity, his charisma, his intelligence, his open-mindedness, his personal courage and his vision for the future, an unconventional organization like the OSS would likely not have been organized, or sustained throughout the war.

“His operatives earned more than 2,000 medals for bravery and suffered relatively few casualties.

“Donovan’s other major goal was having his OSS survive after the war. His organization did not, but his ideas did. Even his critics – and they argue over his legacy to this day – concede that his OSS was the Petri dish for the spies who later ran the CIA: Alan Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby, Bill Casey – men who cut their teeth under Donovan – became future directors. … Donovan was one of the men who shaped modern warfare.”

I only wish that this enthralling biography of Gen. Donovan included an additional chapter on his extraordinary combat leadership in the trenches during World War I.

During one of the stirring verbal directions to his troops in that war, there came a voice from the back row – from a soldier never identified – who called out the statement:

“But we’re not as wild as you are, Bill!”

This nickname stuck permanently to his reputed – yet never announced – pleasure. Donovan biographer Douglas Waller has also noted the following:

He slept five hours a night and was a speed reader of three or more books a week.

After World War II, Donovan was a deputy prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg. He had 10 interviews with Hermann Goering. But he tangled with his boss, Justice Robert Jackson, and that led to a bitter fight and to Donovan’s departure.

This is the first biography of Donovan in 27 years, and it follows millions of pages of OSS records which have now been made public.