William Joseph Donovan

The first head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, William J. Donovan (1883-1959) ran the agency that served as the direct precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Before his career in intelligence, however, Donovan was one of the best known lawyers in the country, reaching the post of assistant Attorney General during the administration of Herbert Hoover in the 1920s. After his term at OSS, Donovan remained both an influential lawyer and an expert in the world of espionage. Appointed ambassador to Thailand in 1953 for a brief period, Donovan continued to use the latter skills in building up America's resistance to Communism in the Far East. At the time of his deathin 1959, Donovan was remembered as a public servant and statesman in addition to his success as anattorney and businessman.

In contrast to his later elite connections and world travels, William Joseph Donovan was born into working-class surroundings in Buffalo, New York, on January 1, 1883. His father, the son of Irish immigrants, dropped out of school early in life and eventually worked as a railroad superintendent. However, Donovan's father insisted that his children be well read and managed to send them to parochial schools at significant expense. The oldest surviving child in the family, William Donovan realized his father's ambition; after completing his college degree at New York City's Columbia University, where he gained a reputation as "Wild Bill Donovan" for his exploits on the football field, he then entered the university's law school. Although his grades were bad enough to put him on the verge of flunking out, Donovan nevertheless obtained his law degree in 1908. According to one story, it was future Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone, then the dean of the law school, who intervened to keep Donovan from being expelled. While Donovan's academic work was substandard, Stone was impressed by his forceful personality and ability to maintain a clear argument during debates.

Returning to Buffalo to enter private practice, Donovan soon joined the elite of the city as a successful lawyer with a promising future. His status was confirmed when he married the former Ruth Rumsey in July 1914; a product of a family said to be Buffalo's wealthiest, the marriage elevated Donovan into the city's upper crust. By the time he was thirty, then, Donovan had traveled far from his rather humble origins in Buffalo's First Ward, an Irish enclave for generations. His rise was not without criticism, however; when he formed a National Guard unit that took up arms against striking railcar workers in 1914, Donovan was assailed as an agent of class warfare. The charge would later be revived against Donovan during his political campaign for governor of New York in 1932 and helped to defeat him at the polls. Yet Donovan refused to see his actions as anything more than enforcing law and order in the streets, even if such a position made him unpopular with voters.

Lawyer and War Hero

Although he was a wealthy and influential lawyer at the time of World War I, Donovan answered a request to help out with relief efforts under Herbert Hoover in 1916, just before America entered the conflict. Traveling to Europe, Donovan aided efforts to get food to starving people in neutral nations; after America entered the war, he also served as the leader of the First Battalion of the 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard. In this capacity, he was wounded in October 1918, just a month before the war ended. For his effort, he received the Purple Heart.

Donovan returned to private practice in Buffalo after World War I; by that time, his family had grown to include a son, David, born in 1915 and a daughter, Patricia, born in 1917. Tragically, Patricia would die in a car accident in 1940; David Donovan's daughter, Sheilah, also died from a freak accident after ingesting silver polish in 1951, and his wife succumbed to a drug and alcohol overdose in 1955. Given the magnitude of the losses, William Donovan's marriage endured its own tensions over the years. Although he was devoted to his wife, his frequent travel, especially when she was suffering from one in a series of gynecological illnesses, tested their bonds. Unlike her husband, Ruth Rumsey Donovan was uncomfortable in the spotlight, particularly in the fishbowl atmosphere of Washington, D.C., where the family moved in 1925.

Failed Run for New York Governor

While Donovan's private practice had made him a wealthy corporate lawyer, his turn to public office as the U.S. District Attorney for the Western District of New York in 1922 was not without controversy. Personally opposed to Prohibition, Donovan nevertheless was expected to enforce the laws against the manufacture, sale, and consumption of liquor. When he refused to press charges against patrons of an exclusive, private Buffalo club that had been raided, however, Donovan was accused both of being soft on Prohibition as well as deferential to his social peers. The scandal later resurfaced and was cited as one of the reasons that his legal career in Washington, D.C., never reached the heights that he expected. Appointed as an assistant to the U.S. Attorney General in 1925, Donovan was never elevated to the higher post. While some pointed to his soft stance on Prohibition as the reason, other observers noted that the potential appointment of a Roman Catholic as Attorney General would instigate enormous opposition, especially from the then-powerful Ku Klux Klan. It was not the first time that Donovan experienced prejudice because of his Irish-Catholic background; when he had married Ruth Rumsey, a Protestant, some had criticized his insistence that their children be raised as Catholics.

Donovan was rumored to be a potential vice-presidential candidate alongside Herbert Hoover in 1928. The two men had close ties from their days as relief workers in World War I, however, Hoover feared another controversy if he chose a Catholic to share the ballot. Instead, Donovan left public service to open his own law partnership with offices in Washington, D.C., and New York City. Given Donovan's ties to the political and business arenas, the venture was an immediate success. Indeed, Donovan suffered little, if any, from the onset of the Great Depression and continued to spend lavishly on his own comforts. Unfortunately, his air of privilege and success worked against him in his first major run for political office in 1932. Running to replace president-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) as the Governor of New York, Donovan ran a campaign that leveled an unmitigated attack against FDR's New Deal proposals. Although Donovan referred to his own life as an example of the self-made man and heralded his wartime heroism, voters were not swayed. In addition to criticism of his attacks on government relief efforts, old charges of his anti-labor tactics resurfaced, and Donovan lost the election by a huge margin.

Established Office of Strategic Services

During the rest of the 1930s, Donovan continued to build his private law practice with a number of important corporate clients. With tensions building in Europe, however, he was once again prevailed upon to take up public service. Ironically, it was FDR, whom Donovan had attempted to succeed as New York governor, who asked Donovan to serve as a special envoy for the U.S. in 1941. In this capacity, Donovan undertook a series of intelligence-gathering trips, most notably to Great Britain and then the Balkans in 1941. Not only did such trips cement Donovan's ties to the military intelligence personnel of America's future wartime allies, it also placed him in a strategically important position within the U.S. government itself. Soon after completing his trip to the Balkans, Donovan was appointed the chief of the Office of Coordination of Information (COI), one of the first comprehensive efforts of the U.S. government to gather military information in preparation for actual maneuvers. The following year, on June 13, 1942, the office was reorganized into the Office of Strategic Security (OSS), with Donovan once again as its head.

While America had been lackluster in its intelligence gathering during the interwar period, the establishment of the OSS carried with it several ambitious goals. First, its secret intelligence branch would carry out the actual field espionage to gather information in countries around the world. Second, a staff of highly trained analysts would interpret the data and add background information as needed. Third, a counterespionage section would keep track of other countries' efforts to spy on the United States. Fourth, a special operations team would undertake covert efforts to instigate or dampen civil unrest in other countries to further American objectives. Finally, the OSS would also direct morale operations to spread propaganda aimed at undermining public support of the war in enemy nations.

Given the initial lack of espionage experience among his team, Donovan delivered impressive results with the OSS that significantly aided the Allies' efforts in the duration of the war. The OSS was particularly helpful in gathering intelligence in preparation for the Allied invasion of southern Europe, an effort that was crucial in reducing the casualty rate among Allied troops. For his work, Donovan received awards including the Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1945 and the Oak Leaf Cluster added to his U.S. Distinguished Service Medal in 1946. Just weeks after the war's end in early September 1945, however, the OSS was disbanded. While most observers praised Donovan's ability to raise the professionalism of American intelligence-gathering efforts, others deemed him too controversial and partisan a figure to continue leading such a program. Instead, the CIA was created under the National Security Act of 1947 as an independent agency that would undertake both wartime and peacetime espionage efforts.

Cold Warrior

After his departure at the demise of the OSS, Donovan once again took up his private practice and business concerns; however, he remained keenly interested in public affairs. Although his efforts to secure the Republican Party nomination as a Senate candidate failed, he remained well respected as a government advisor. As a sign of his stature during the Cold War, Donovan secured an appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Thailand (or Siam, as the country in Southeast Asia was then known) in 1953. Although the post might have seemed an unusual one for the longtime government official, Donovan's intelligence-gathering capabilities were crucial in furthering America's efforts in the region. In particular, the Eisenhower administration had cast a suspicious eye on the designs of the People's Republic of China over the region, tensions that would eventually lead to the Vietnam War.

A series of strokes limited Donovan's effectiveness as ambassador, however, and he returned to the United States in 1954. Faced with the tragic deaths of his granddaughter in 1951 and daughter-in-law in 1955, Donovan's own health deteriorated in the last year of his life, when he was largely incapacitated. Donovan died on February 8, 1959, in Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Remembered at the time of his death as an effective administrator and supreme loyalist to America's interests, Donovan was later viewed as a symbol of America's efforts against Communism and Third World movements during the early years of the Cold War.


Brown, Anthony Cave, Wild Bill Donovan: The Last Hero, Times Books, 1982.

Dunlop, Richard, Twice Thirty: Donovan: America's Master Spy, Rand McNally and Company, 1982.

Hersh, Burton, The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992.

McCormick, Thomas J., America's Half-Century: United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War and After, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Troy, Thomas F., Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency, Aletheia Books, 1981.