General “Wild Bill” Donovan and the Birth of American Intelligence

Intelligence

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A deep commitment to public service. A passion for national security. Tremendous courage under fire. Intellectual superiority. Devotion to the art of intelligence. Seventy-six years ago in July, President Roosevelt established the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) antecedent, the Office of the Coordination of Information (COI). Roosevelt put William J. Donovan in charge, and intelligence would never be the same. Here are some remarkable highlights of the life of Gen. Donovan, the Patron Saint of the CIA.

of the lost generation

Gen. Donovan sensed at a young age that he was destined for a life of service. The son of Irish immigrants steeped in Catholicism, young Donovan was drawn to the priesthood. While his life never finally took that particular turn, Gen. Donovan remained committed to serving, and he answered that call in both public service and military service. While many great old heroes were born of the Greatest Generation, Donovan was a child of what Gertrude Stein famously described as the Lost Generation, that World War I cohort of expatriates and veterans and expatriates like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot (who tried to serve in the Navy, but was rejected) too often forgotten. Their war was The Great War. Their war as The War to End All Wars.

MEDAL OF HONOR

Lt. Colonel “Wild Bill” William Donovan was presented the Medal of Honor for his actions in mid-October 1918 at Landres-et-St. Georges, France. “The men in his battalion called him ‘Wild Bill’ out of admiration for his coolness and resourcefulness during combat and because of the hard physical drills he made them do to prepare for battle,” the CIA reports. His own preparation for battle included notoriety on the Columbia University’s gridiron, what Gen. MacArthur called the “field of friendly strife” and service in the New York National Guard. Donovan had a hand tracking down Pancho Villa along the Mexican border. In France on October 14 and 15, 1918, “Wild Bill” earned his place among those happy few whose courage in combat far exceeds any expectations.

Donovan’s Medal of Honor citation explains, “Lt. Col. Donovan personally led the assaulting wave in an attack upon a very strongly organized position, and when our troops were suffering heavy casualties he encouraged all near him by his example, moving among his men in exposed positions, reorganizing decimated platoons, and accompanying them forward in attacks. When he was wounded in the leg by machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued with his unit until it withdrew to a less exposed position.”

FATHER OF AMERICAN INTELLIGENCE

The COI was America’s first spy agency. And from the COI came the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the summer after Pearl Harbor. Donovan led that transition. The OSS, explains the CIA, “consisted of men and women from many areas and backgrounds — lawyers, historians, bankers, baseball players, actors, and businessmen. Their assignment was to conduct espionage, sabotage, and morale operations against the Axis powers, and conduct in-depth research and analysis on the nation’s enemies and their capabilities.” While the OSS proved its immense value to the country and Allies in WWII, it’s interesting to note that many senior leaders questioned the value of the agency and, in fact, worked successfully to bar the OSS from operations in the Pacific and South America.

Ultimately, it was both the great success of the OSS and Donovan’s persistence and devotion to the nascent intelligence community that culminated with establishment of the CIA in 1945. “Donovan continued to advocate for the formation of a centralized intelligence agency,” reports the CIA. “His persistence paid off when President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, which established the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Read more about Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan at the CIA’s News & Information page.

Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.