Seventy years ago, on June 13, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 69 establishing the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War II predecessor to the CIA and the U.S. Special Operations Command. The brevity of this 224-word executive order would reflect the outsized influence that OSS, which had only 13,000 personnel at its peak, would have on U.S. national security during and after World War II. He appointed the legendary William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a World War I Medal of Honor recipient, as its director.
Donovan was the perfect choice for America’s first intelligence chief. Allen Dulles, who served under Donovan in the OSS, said that “Donovan knew the world, having traveled widely. He understood people. He had a flair for the unusual and for the dangerous, tempered with judgment. In short, he had the qualities to be desired in an intelligence officer.” Roosevelt described Donovan as his “secret legs.”
No one other than Roosevelt and Donovan wanted the OSS. Not the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Not the State Department. Most certainly not FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The reason for this fierce opposition was best expressed by William Casey, who served in the OSS and would become director of central intelligence under President Ronald Reagan: “You didn’t wait six months for a feasibility study to prove that an idea could work. You gambled that it might work…you took the initiative and the responsibility. You went around end, you went over somebody’s head if you had to. But you acted. That’s what drove the regular military and the State Department chair-warmers crazy about the OSS.”
Despite vicious political opposition – Donovan said that he had greater enemies in Washington than Hitler had in Europe – Roosevelt created the OSS because he understood that that the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor exposed one of America’s greatest national security vulnerabilities: its lack of an effective intelligence-gathering and unconventional warfare capability.
Donovan’s courageous spirit infused the OSS. He said 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.” He frequently told OSS personnel that they “could not succeed without taking chances” or engaging in “calculated recklessness.” Donovan led from the front, going behind enemy lines and participating in major invasions – including D-Day – against the orders of Navy Secretary James Forrestal.
But you needed more than guts to be in the OSS. You needed brains, too. An ideal OSS candidate was described as a “Ph.D. who can win a barfight.” OSS recruited both from all parts of American society. Its members were drawn from Wall Street, academia, journalism, the arts, high society (earning OSS the sobriquet “Oh So Social”) and the military. Donovan called them his “glorious amateurs” and the OSS an “unusual experiment.”
Donovan was a visionary leader. Fisher Howe, who served as an assistant to Donovan, said that “if you define leadership as having a vision for an organization, and the ability to attract, motivate and guide followers to fulfill that vision, you have Bill Donovan in spades.” So powerful were his leadership skills that an OSS captain said that “he talked to me for half an hour and I walked out of his office convinced that I could do the impossible.”
OSS personnel were often asked to do the impossible, volunteering for missions behind enemy lines despite knowing that their capture meant torture and certain death. In a speech to OSS personnel a few days before its dissolution on Oct. 1, 1945, OSS Deputy Director Edward Buxton said that, “thousands of devoted people took the uneven odds. People of all ages lived or died as duty demanded or circumstances permitted. They killed or were killed alone or in groups, in jungles, in cities, by air or sea. They organized resistance where there was no resistance. They helped it grow where it was weak. They assaulted the enemy’s mind as well as its body. They helped confuse its will and disrupt its plans.”
If the attack on Pearl Harbor served as a catalyst for the creation of the OSS, the attack on 9/11 has had a similarly profound effect. It has brought the CIA and the U.S. Special Operations Command much closer together, reuniting the two halves of the OSS legacy.
Gen. Michael Hayden said recently that the “CIA has never looked more liked its direct ancestor, the OSS, than it does right now.” Gen. David Petraeus said that “the concepts pioneered by Gen. Donovan and the OSS continue to guide those in the contemporary intelligence and special operations fields.”
Donovan’s “glorious amateurs” have become today’s quiet professionals.