William J. Donovan


It is interesting and, perhaps, curious that a thorough and scholarly biography of William J. Donovan (1883-1959) has been a long time coming. As a decorated hero (Medal of Honor) in World War I, influential Wall Street lawyer, and the "father of American intelligence" as the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II, Donovan seems to have been a much more significant individual than many who have received fuller treatment. Douglas Waller's Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage (2011) has been well received. Joseph Goulden's reference to it as "the defining work on Donovan" (see below) is an encouraging development.

Two of the better known popular biographies of Donovan -- Anthony Cave Brown's The Last Hero (1982) and Richard Dunlop's Donovan, America's Master Spy (1982) -- are so lightly regarded by Walter Pforzheimer that they are noted only in passing as having "such shortcomings" that they were not included in his Bibliography of Intelligence Literature, 8th ed. (1985).

Corey Ford's Donovan of OSS (1970) is readable and not dramatically inaccurate. However, too much information on the period has become available since the book was published for it to be more than a light read for anyone interested in Donovan and his place in U.S. intelligence history.

Thomas Troy's Donovan and the CIA (1981) has an institutional focus that precludes it being regarded as a true "biography" of Donovan. It does contain excellent documentation for linking Donovan directly to the institutionalization of intelligence in this country. Similarly, Troy's later work Wild Bill and Intrepid (1996) is something more and less than a biography of Donovan. Nonetheless, Troy's works are indispensable to trying to understand Donovan's role at this juncture of history.

The books mentioned are listed below. Articles both by and on Donovan are in a separate file. The interested reader should also touch base with the major works which focus more broadly on OSS activities in World War II.

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

Powers, Intelligence Wars (2004), 12-13, and NYRB, 12 May 1983, calls The Last Hero "a huge archive, somewhat haphazardly organized, of detailed cases from all the usual sources plus Donovan's own voluminous files," to which Brown had "exclusive access." For Petersen, this "is the most comprehensive treatment" of Donovan, and "draws upon his personal papers. It should be used with care." Pforzheimer believed that the book had "such shortcomings" that he did not include it in his bibliography. Commenting on Thomas F. Troy's Wild Bill and Intrepid, Ward Warren in CIRA Newsletter 21.2 says of The Last Hero that "nothing but the title is reliable."

Dunlop, Richard. Donovan, America's Master Spy. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1982.

For Powers, Intelligence Wars (2004), p. 12, and NYRB, 12 May 1983, the author "provides the best account of Donovan's life before the OSS. Unfortunately, his footnotes are ... laborious to consult, and he attributes many statements to Donovan without making it clear when he stated them, or to whom." Pforzheimer says that this work has "such shortcomings" that it is not included in Bibliography of Intelligence Literature.

Ford, Corey. Donovan of OSS. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.

Pforzheimer says that this book is "both a biography ... and a history of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)." It is based "in part on some of Donovan's ... private papers.... However, many sources were not exploited." Lowenthal thinks Ford overemphasizes OSS's "operational aspects and their effects on World War II." For Troy, "Writing History...," IJI&C 7.4, this is "more a tribute to an idol than a history"; it is "based only on open sources." Constantinides adds that "Ford's admiration for his subject dulled his critical capacities and led to an incomplete portrayal of the man."

Troy, Thomas F. Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency. Washington, DC: CIA, 1981. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1981.

Troy, Thomas F. Wild Bill and Intrepid: Bill Donovan, Bill Stephenson, and the Origin of CIA. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Warren, CIRA Newsletter 21.2, says that Troy "has destroyed some of the most cherished myths of the intelligence community and replaced them with solid facts and speculation so firmly based that it might as well be fact." It is the relationship between the CIA's father, Donovan, and its Godfather, Stephenson, that Troy has sought to explicate. He "has produced a detailed and fascinating account of two remarkable men and the process by which they established the foundation" for the CIA. "Unfortunately, by concentrating on the process and the details Troy produces little about the personality and character of his two main actors." Of course, doing so was not his goal.

For Morley, WPNWE, 29 Jul.-4 Aug. 1996, Troy's "useful study" demonstrates "in scholastic detail that Donovan was actually working in 1940-41 with senior eminences in the British Secret Intelligence Services.... The CIA, in other words, was not the brainchild of a lone bureaucratic gunslinger but the offspring of an Anglo-American liaison."

Friedman, Parameters 27 (Summer 1997), comments that "[w]idely believed tales surrounding the founding of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) by 'Wild Bill' Donovan and the role of Sir William 'Little Bill' Stephenson ... often turn out to be about as accurate as Parson Weems' fable about George Washington and the cherry tree. Troy sets these myths straight in his well-documented work." Immerman, Choice 34.2, also finds Troy's arguments "persuasive"; his work will necessitate some minor qualification of the "standard characterization of US intelligence as distinctly American."

For Crane, Aerospace Power Journal (Winter 1997), Wild Bill and Intrepid is an "outstanding, thoroughly researched account of the origins ... of the Office of Coordinator of Information (COI) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)." This book "is truly an intelligence treasure"; it is "[r]ich in information about World War II, declassified documents, and charismatic personalities." Kimble, Military Review (May 1998), comments that "[t]he book's endnotes are an excellent source of information for further research."

On the other hand, Hoffman, WIR 15.5, believes that Troy has "stretched [his material] precariously thin." The author's thesis is that Stephenson should be credited with assisting in "the conception and establishment of COI," but his "presentation of the evidence ... is rather confusing." Warner, JAH 83.4, also sounds a cautionary note: "Despite Troy's impressive research and analysis,... this case cannot yet be closed. We do not know whether the president ever heard Stephenson's advice."

Waller, Douglas. Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage. New York: Free Press, 2011.

Harkavy, Associated Press (7 Feb. 2011), calls this a "fast-paced, entertaining and engrossing biography." The author "comes through with a well-calibrated assessment of Donovan and the impact of the OSS on the war." Roberts, WSJ (12 Feb. 2011), sees Wild Bill Donovan as a "fast-moving and well-written biography." Waller "makes a powerful case that Donovan was a great American." Donovan's "contribution to the winning of the war is necessarily hard to quantify"; but by the end of this book, "a fair-minded reader will judge it to have been considerable."

For Goulden, Washington Times (11 Feb. 2011) and Intelligencer 18.2 (Winter-Spring 2011), this work "must be recognized as the defining work on Donovan." Despite admiring Waller's book, "especially his enormous archival work," the reviewer also finds it "disorganized, wandering from subject to subject in the same chapter, with no coherent narrative." Waller also "has a liking for 'you are there' anecdotes of the sort I doubt that he could document.... But these annoyances do not detract from the force of his narrative. At hand is a valuable, and objective, tribute to the man who created modern American intelligence."

Conant, New York Times (11 Feb. 2011), notes that "[t]his book is not the place to seek a comprehensive appraisal of the O.S.S.'s far-flung intelligence operations. Its many successes and debacles are only hastily sketched here." The author "is more concerned with the politics of personality, and the legacy of Donovan's complex, larger-than-life character." Waller demonstrates that "Donovan was a combination of bold innovator and imprudent rule bender, which made him not only a remarkable wartime leader but also an extraordinary figure in American history."

To Wise, Washington Post (25 Feb. 2011), this is a "superb, dramatic yet scholarly biography." It "is the first carefully researched, in-depth biography of the legendary World War II spymaster. For anyone interested in the history of American intelligence, it is required reading." Peake, Studies 55.2 (Jun. 2011), finds this to be "absorbing reading. It is documented with primary sources, though the format used makes it impossible to tell what fact a particular document supports. In all other respects, it is a major contribution to intelligence literature."

Swenson, AIJ 29.2 (2011), says that Waller "meticulously documents the swashbuckling intelligence leader's defining traits, drawing on an impressive range of personal interviews, oral history reminiscences, personal and professional correspondence, Presidential papers, U.S., UK and German government office records, and declassified documents. The author ... admirably reconstructs how Donovan built the sprawling OSS enterprise." The reviewer is bothered, however, by Waller's "failure to explain why" with regard to too many things.

Schwab, IJI&C 25.3 (Fall 2012), finds that the author "has skillfully interwoven three themes": "a compelling biography of Donovan"; "a spy story detailing the multiple espionage operations that Donovan devised and participated in during World War II"; and "a tale of nasty bureaucratic infighting, both foreign and domestic."

Schwab, IJI&C 25.3 (Fall 2012), finds that the author "has skillfully interwoven three themes": "a compelling biography of Donovan"; "a spy story detailing the multiple espionage operations that Donovan devised and participated in during World War II"; and "a tale of nasty bureaucratic infighting, both foreign and domestic."

Wilhelm, Maria. The Fighting Irishman: The Story of "Wild Bill" Donovan. New York: Hawthorne, 1964.

Return to OSS Table of Contents

[1. Photo from: https://www.cia.gov/cia/ciakids/history/donovan.html]