Wild Bill Donovan

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage

A New York Times Bestseller, Washington Post Best Book for 2011, and Wall Street Journal Notable Book for 2011

He was an exciting and secretive general—the man Franklin Roosevelt tapped to be his spymaster in World War II. A mythic figure, William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan was director of the Office of Strategic Services—America’s first national intelligence agency—and the intellectual father of today’s CIA. It was Donovan who introduced this nation to the dark arts of covert warfare on a scale never seen before.

Douglas Waller, a former correspondent for Newsweek and TIME, has mined government and private archives throughout the United States and England, drawn on thousands of pages of recently declassified documents, and interviewed scores of Donovan relatives, friends and associates to produce a revealing biography of one of the most powerful men in modern espionage.

Donovan inspecting a field station in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). National Archives

William Joseph Donovan’s life was packed with personal drama. The son of a poor Irish Catholic family, he married into Protestant wealth and fought heroically in World War I, where he earned the nickname “Wild Bill” for his intense leadership and the Medal of Honor for his heroism. After the war he made millions as a Republican lawyer on Wall Street until FDR, a Democrat, tapped him to be his strategic intelligence chief.

A charismatic leader, Donovan was revered by his secret agents. Yet at times he was reckless—risking his life unnecessarily in war zones, engaging in extramarital affairs that became fodder for his political enemies—and he endured heartbreaking tragedy when family members died at young ages.

Wild Bill Donovan, which was published by Free Press in February 2011, reads like an action-packed spy thriller, with stories of daring young men and women in his OSS sneaking behind enemy lines for sabotage, breaking into Washington embassies to steal secrets, plotting to topple Adolf Hitler, and suffering brutal torture or death when they were captured by the Gestapo.

Donovan in his OSS headquarters office. U.S. Army Military History Institute

It is also a tale of political intrigue, of infighting at the highest levels of government, of powerful men pitted against one another. Donovan fought enemies at home as much as the Axis abroad. Generals in the Pentagon plotted against him. J. Edgar Hoover had FBI agents dig up dirt on him. Donovan stole secrets from the Soviets before the dawn of the Cold War and had intense battles with Winston Churchill and British spy chiefs over foreign turf.

Separating fact from fiction, Douglas Waller investigates the successes and sometimes the spectacular failures of Donovan’s intelligence career. It makes for a gripping and eye-opening portrait of this most controversial spymaster.

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