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William J. Donovan and the Office of Strategic Services

Starting from scratch



“Strategy, without information upon which it can rely, is helpless. Likewise, information is useless unless it is intelligently directed to the strategic purpose.” – June 10, 1941 memo from William J. Donovan to President Franklin D. Roosevelt

In 1941, with a world aflame in war and America´s neutrality becoming increasingly tenuous, the thing President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed the most was the one thing he was getting the least: intelligence about the Axis’ capabilities, intents, and actions. The existing agencies responsible within the Army (G-2), Navy (Office of Naval Intelligence, or ONI), the State Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had proved so inadequate and parochial that he had secretly created his own informal network in an attempt to keep himself abreast of the situation abroad. It wasn’t enough. He knew it, and he confessed that fact to his friend William J. Donovan, a member of that informal network, hoping the World War I veteran and lawyer’s vast experience might hold the answer. A few days later, Donovan handed the president his response. The memo was bold – breathtakingly so – and unprecedented. Donovan proposed that America, for the first time in the nation’s history, should have nothing less than an independent, fully functioning espionage agency like those in place with the combatants in Europe and Asia. Roosevelt agreed, but asked Donovan to take the job of establishing it.

Donovan´s challenge was enormous. Not only would he have to start from scratch, it was arguable who would be his greater foe: the Axis or turf-guarding bureaucrats from America´s other intelligence-gathering agencies. But, as he so often was able to do, in William Donovan, President Roosevelt found the right man.

She was so successful that she became the Gestapo’s top target in France; they called her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” Only after American troops landed in French North Africa and the Nazis occupied the rest of France did she leave, making a dangerous trek over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain on foot, a grueling experience because of her wooden leg.

Roosevelt’s executive order dated July 11, 1941, created the office of the “Coordinator of Information” (COI), responsible for military intelligence (gathered either independently or in partnership with existing agencies), covert operations, and propaganda. After the United States became a co-belligerent in December 1941, Roosevelt decided to separate the functions of propaganda and espionage. On June 13, 1942, with Executive Order 69, he abolished the COI and replaced it with two agencies: the Office of War Information (OWI) responsible for the former, and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) responsible for the latter. Donovan was named director of the OSS.

Though all the military branches were playing catch-up with regard to war readiness, Donovan’s table of organization situation was unique. Unlike the military, which had a foundation and infrastructure upon which to build, Donovan’s agency literally began as a one-man operation that needed everything – from office space, typewriters, and pencils on up.

By mid-1942, Donovan had accomplished the miracle of having an infrastructure in place that included training camps and schools with instructors and recruits, laboratories and plants working on everything needed for espionage, and a core of agents and operators in the field. According to the organization’s own booklet Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Organization and Functions, the OSS had two deputy directors, each leading several branches. Under the Deputy Director for Strategic Services Operations fell the Special Operations (SO) branch, which organized and supplied sabotage operations behind enemy lines; Morale Operations, which was responsible for subversion of enemy morale at home and at the front; the Maritime Unit, which would sabotage enemy shipping as well as provide transport for agent infiltrations and the supply of agents and underground groups; Special Projects, which carried out missions of a specialized nature not falling under the jurisdiction of any other branch of SSO; the Field Experimental Unit, included in the SSO division for administration, but under direct control of Donovan; and the Operational Group, which organized and operated guerrilla forces in deep penetration operations.


Maj. Gen. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, founder of the OSS, father of the CIA and American intelligence. OSS Society Photo

The Deputy Director for Intelligence Services led the Secret Intelligence (SI) branch, responsible for obtaining secret intelligence through espionage worldwide; X-2, responsible for counterespionage abroad as well as security functions in active theaters; Research and Analysis, which coordinated strategic, political, geographical, and economic intelligence from all sources and produced finished intelligence studies; Foreign Nationalities, which analyzed and reported on the “political temperature” of various nationality groups within the United States in reaction to political events abroad; and Censorship and Documents, with dual functions of securing censorship materials for the organization and monitoring enemy broadcasts for commercial, economic, and political intelligence, as well as researching and supplying personal documents required for undercover operations by other branches.

With the country up to its neck in a global shooting war, Donovan chose to jump-start recruitment by reversing traditional training programs with the credo of hiring on the spot “anyone of great ability,” then “later on we’ll find out what they can do.” In other words, the criteria began with people already possessing the specialized skills the organization needed who then could be trained to agency standards. They became what Donovan called, in admiration, his ¨glorious amateurs.¨

At the high end of the spectrum were people listed in the Social Register (so many, in fact, that wags suggested that OSS actually stood for “Oh So Social”) and such individuals as labor lawyer Arthur Goldberg, Wall Street banker Junius S. Morgan III, historian Arthur Schlesinger, author Stephen Vincent Benét, professional baseball player Moe Berg, Academy Award-winning director John Ford, and actor Sterling Hayden. At the extreme other end were people with prison records: safe crackers, burglars, even Mafia members. And in between were civilians with a love of adventure, like Julia Child, then working in public relations, who would serve overseas in China and after the war would become a famous celebrity chef.


Aaron Bank, an OSS Operations Group leader who went on to found U.S. Army Special Forces. National Archives

Virginia Hall, known as “the Limping Lady” because she had a wooden lower left leg (which she named “Cuthbert”), was perhaps the OSS’ best female field agent. The daughter of a well-to-do family from Baltimore, she had a gift for languages and a love of adventure, and after graduating from college and studying in Europe, she began working as a clerk in the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. Transferred to Turkey, it was there that she suffered a hunting accident that caused her lower leg to be amputated and put an end to her dream of becoming a diplomat.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...