Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller

This week I'm reviewing another biography, in this case about Wild Bill Donovan, who did a variety of things during his long and somewhat varied career but is most famous for heading the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA during World War II. I am often fond of saying that a good historian tries to maintain an air of neutrality, or at least pretends to be neutral, when talking about the past. When we are presented with extremes that go from the bounds of subjective morality to objective morality, however, this carefully constructed facade of neutrality is stripped away. And while I certainly wouldn't say Bill Donovan is a figure who is plainly objectively bad, he certainly straddles the line and goes into very grey areas.

The largest section of this book focuses on Donovan's service during World War II as director of the OSS and the myriad operations he supervised to gather and analyze intelligence, as well as launch propaganda against the Axis forces. His life before World War II, such as his work as a lawyer, service as an officer during World War I, (for which he'd be awarded the Medal of Honor) work with the Department of Justice, and construction of an informal information network during his global adventures, are all covered rather quickly and serve as a prelude, as it were, to the main event. Yet early on in his life the less savory aspects of Donovan's personality become apparent.

Donovan was a notorious womanizer, to the point where Washington society where extramarital affairs were common thought he was too libertine. Personally I have nothing against open and poly relationships but Donovan's was anything but that, much to the frustration of his wife, Ruth. I actually even feel bad for Ruth because in many letters he tells her to buck up and be happy, rather than empathizing with her problems. Donovan explicitly tells Ruth to get lingerie and be a good little cheerful wife for him because that's what he wants and what she wants is of no concern to him. Waller points out that Donovan was fairly progressive in hiring women as lawyers for his law firm and other jobs, but I feel like it pales with his attitude towards his wife.

Donovan was also an insatiable fighter throughout his life. There are plenty of examples of people who have served as soldiers, such as William McKinley and Dwight Eisenhower, who have seen the horrors of combat and become reluctant to commit soldiers to warfare because they understand the true human cost. Donovan belongs in the other camp of people, such as Theodore Roosevelt and George Patton, who absolutely revel in fighting and never seem to lose their taste for bloodletting. Donovan was absolutely ecstatic to be a front-line commander during World War I and actually looked forward to the possibility of a noble death in combat. During World War II, despite approaching his sixties and being the mind behind every covert operation the United States had running, Donovan repeatedly tagged along at Allied beach landings for no apparent purpose other than to sight-see. Donovan even placed himself at grave risk during the D-Day landings at Utah beach and despite explicit orders from his superiors that he was not to tag along. The absolutely cavalier attitude Donovan took towards his own safety, especially when he's the only one who knew everything the OSS was doing, bothers me the most and pushes Donovan from an unpleasant individual to despicable.

Donovan does deserve credit for cobbling together an intelligence network from practically nothing in the early days of the war. The United States did not have a centralized intelligence network during the interwar era. The Military Intelligence departments of the Army and Navy, under the name Magic, had managed to break Japanese codes, Director J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI utilized his agents to gather a large amount of information on a variety of people, and the State Department had their own patchwork system of informants, but there was no single group directing and organizing America's intelligence programs. As war loomed ever closer the need became even more apparent to Franklin Roosevelt who eventually approved Donovan's plan for a central office which was started with some help from the British.

Because Donovan was building from the ground up, there were quite a lot of oddball ideas and more than a few mistakes and false starts, much to the irritation of the more experienced and professional British MI-5 and MI-6. One thing that I found interesting was that in some cases the more ridiculous aspects of spy fiction that get satirized, such as the womanizing and alcoholism, could be fairly rampant in the OSS. In fact there was an example of an American agent in Istanbul who didn't even try to maintain his cover and the band at the nightclub he frequented played a song with the words ''Baby I'm a Spy'' whenever he'd come in. It feels like Stirling Archer, ridiculous as he is, would fit in with the rest of the OSS. Donovan spent some time curbing excesses, but he seemed far more interested in results.

Overall the book is okay, but there are issues. Depending on your personal mores Donovan may seem like a globe trotting man of action and adventure, much like James Bond the most classic spy. To me, however, he just comes across as an arrogant jerk more than anything else. Towards the end of the book Waller spends considerable effort justifying Donovan's approach as well as the need for the CIA and other intelligence agencies, which goes onto some shaky ground. I would say we do need an intelligence agency so we're aware of what's going on, but the actions of the CIA in the past such as toppling governments to establish friendly regimes, and the more recent security state trawling of internet activity has certainly raised doubts about what intelligence agencies should do rather than what they can do.

- Kalpar

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