William J. Donovan: United States Army General, Medal of Honor recipient, and civil servant (n/a - 1959) | Biography
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William J. Donovan
United States Army General, Medal of Honor recipient, and civil servant

William J. Donovan

William J. Donovan
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro United States Army General, Medal of Honor recipient, and civil servant
A.K.A. William Joseph Donovan
Is Lawyer Politician Diplomat
From United States of America
Field Law Politics
Gender male
Birth Buffalo
Death 8 February 1959, Washington, D.C.
The details (from wikipedia)


William Joseph ("Wild Bill") Donovan (January 1, 1883 – February 8, 1959) was an American soldier, lawyer, intelligence officer and diplomat. Donovan is best remembered as the wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, during World War II. He is also known as the "Father of American Intelligence" and the "Father of Central Intelligence".
A decorated veteran of World War I, General Donovan is the only person to have received all four of the United States' highest awards: The Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal. He is a recipient of the Silver Star and Purple Heart, as well as decorations from a number of other nations for his service during both World Wars.

Early life

Of Irish descent, Donovan was born in Buffalo, New York to first generation immigrants Anna Letitia "Tish" Donovan (née Lennon) and Timothy P. Donovan, of Ulster and County Cork origins respectively. His grandfather Timothy O'Donovan (Sr.) was from the town of Skibbereen, being raised there by an uncle, a parish priest, and married Donovan's grandmother Mary Mahoney, who belonged to a propertied family of substantial means which disapproved of him. They would move first to Canada and then to New York, where their son Timothy (Jr.), Donovan's father, would attempt to engage in a political career, but with little success.

He attended St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and Niagara University before starring on the football team at Columbia University. On the field, he earned the nickname "Wild Bill", which would remain with him for the rest of his life. Donovan graduated from Columbia in 1905 and was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Donovan was a graduate of Columbia Law School and became an influential Wall Street lawyer.

In 1912, Donovan formed and led a troop of cavalry of the New York National Guard. This unit was mobilized in 1916 and served on the U.S.-Mexico border during the American government's campaign against Pancho Villa.

World War I

Donovan as a major with the Fighting 69th in France in 1918.

During World War I, Major Donovan organized and led the 1st battalion of the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division, the federalized designation of the famed 69th New York Volunteers (the "Fighting 69th"). In France, one of his aides was poet Joyce Kilmer, a fellow Columbia College alumnus. For his service near Landres-et-St. Georges, France, on 14 and 15 October 1918, he received the Medal of Honor.

By the end of the war he received a promotion to colonel, the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters (the full text of his Medal of Honor citation can be found further below).

Between the wars

Donovan in 1924, during his time in the Department of Justice

From 1922 to 1924, he was US Attorney for the Western District of New York, famous for his energetic enforcement of Prohibition. There were a number of threats to assassinate him and to dynamite his home but he was not deterred. He believed that the Law should be upheld impartially and aroused great indignation when his agents raided the upmarket Saturn Club on Delaware Avenue, Buffalo (of which Donovan was a member) and confiscated large amounts of illegal liquor. The members had assumed that Prohibition did not apply to people such as themselves, and some regarded Donovan as a traitor to his class. In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge named Donovan to the United States Department of Justice's Antitrust Division as a deputy assistant to Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty.

Donovan ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1922, and for Governor of New York in 1932. Assisting Donovan in his 1932 campaign was journalist James J. Montague, who served as "personal adviser and campaign critic."

World War II

During the interwar years, Donovan traveled extensively in Europe and met with foreign leaders including Benito Mussolini of Italy. Donovan openly believed during this time that a second major European war was inevitable. His foreign experience and realism earned him the attention and friendship of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The two men were from opposing political parties, but were similar in personality.

Roosevelt came to highly value Donovan's insight. Following Germany's and the USSR's invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the start of World War II in Europe, President Roosevelt began to put the United States on a war footing. This was a crisis of the sort that Donovan had predicted, and he sought out a responsible place in the wartime infrastructure. On the recommendation of Donovan's friend United States Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Roosevelt gave him a number of increasingly important assignments. In 1940 and 1941, Donovan traveled as an informal emissary to Britain, where he was urged by Knox and Roosevelt to gauge Britain's ability to withstand Germany's aggression.

During these trips, Donovan met with key officials in the British war effort, including Winston Churchill and the directors of Britain's intelligence services. Donovan returned to the US confident of Britain's chances and enamored of the possibility of founding an American intelligence service modeled on that of the British.


On July 11, 1941, Donovan was named Coordinator of Information (COI). America's foreign intelligence organizations at the time were fragmented and isolated from each other. The Army, Navy, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), United States Department of State, and other interests each ran its own intelligence operations, the results of which they were reluctant to share with the other departments. Donovan was the nominal director of this unwieldy system, but was plagued over the course of the next year with jurisdictional battles. Few of the leaders in the intelligence community were willing to part with any of the power that the current ad hoc system granted them. The FBI, for example, under the control of Donovan's rival J. Edgar Hoover, insisted on retaining its autonomy in South America.

Nevertheless, Donovan began to lay the groundwork for a centralized intelligence program. It was he who organized the COI's New York headquarters in Room 3603 of Rockefeller Center in October, 1941 and asked Allen Dulles to head it; the offices Dulles took were on the floor immediately above the location of the operations of Britain's MI6. In the early years of the war Donovan cultivated a close relationship with Winston Churchill and Stewart Menzies, head of the British Secret Service, and learned much from them of the art of spycraft.

In 1942, the COI became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Donovan was returned to active duty in the U.S. Army in his World War I rank of colonel. He was promoted to brigadier general in March 1943 and to major general in November 1944. Under his leadership the OSS would eventually conduct successful espionage and sabotage operations in Europe and parts of Asia, but continued to be kept out of South America as a result of Hoover's hostility to Donovan. In addition, the OSS was blocked from the Philippines by the antipathy of General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the Southwest Pacific Theater.

By 1943, relations with the British were becoming increasingly strained, partly due to British concerns that OSS operations were sometimes regarded as ill-disciplined and irresponsibly managed - especially regarding actions that they felt might be jeopardising the security of the Enigma code-breaking intelligence; and partly due to differences of opinion over the post-war world order as it became increasingly clear that Britain's leadership was on the decline and the US would become the dominant power. MI6 chief Stewart Menzies was extremely hostile towards the idea of OSS operations anywhere in the British Empire, and categorically forbade them to operate within the UK, or to deal with allied governments in exile which were based in London.

According to Elizabeth Bentley, there was a confidential assistant to Donovan, Duncan C. Lee, who was a Communist-Party spy, part of the Silvermaster group working for the Soviets. For many years the operations of the OSS remained secret, but in the 1970s and 1980s, significant parts of the OSS history were declassified and became public record.

Donovan, Head of the OSS

As World War II began to wind to a close in early 1945, Donovan began to focus on preserving the OSS beyond the end of the war. After President Roosevelt's death in April, however, Donovan's political position, which had thrived because of his personal relationship to the President, was substantially weakened. Although he argued forcefully for the OSS's retention, he found himself opposed by numerous opponents, including President Harry S. Truman, who personally disliked Donovan, as well as J. Edgar Hoover, who viewed the OSS as competition for his goal to expand the FBI's investigative operations internationally.

Public opinion turned against Donovan's efforts when conservative critics rallied against the intelligence service that they called an 'American Gestapo.' After Truman disbanded the OSS in September 1945, Donovan returned to civilian life. Various departments of the OSS survived the agency's dissolution, however, and less than two years later the Central Intelligence Agency was founded, a realization of Donovan's hopes for a centralized peacetime intelligence agency.

Research into truth serums

In November 1941, Donovan authorised a research program to seek possible 'truth drugs' to aid the interrogation of agents and criminals. Among the substances investigated were scopolamine, opium, cannabis, mescaline and tetra-hydro-cannabinol acetate. The last of these was used clandestinely in the interrogation of New York gangster August del Gaizo by OSS agent George H. White, apparently yielding useful information about narcotics traffickers. Although Donovan subsequently cancelled the program, its activities were later resumed by the CIA in its controversial MKULTRA campaign.

Role in formation of the CIA

Donovan did not have an official role in the newly formed CIA but with his protégé Allen Dulles and others, he was instrumental in its formation. Having led the OSS during World War II, Donovan’s opinion was especially influential as to what kind of intelligence organization was needed as a bi-polar post-war world began to take shape. Although he was a force to be reckoned with, his idea for consolidating intelligence met with strong opposition from the State, War and Navy Departments and J. Edgar Hoover. President Truman was inclined to create an organization that would gather and disseminate foreign intelligence; Donovan argued that the new agency should also be able to conduct covert action. Truman was unenthusiastic about this additional authority, but Donovan's arguments prevailed and were reflected in the National Security Act of 1947 and the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949. In 1946, Truman appointed Rear Admiral Sidney Souers, USNR, as the first Director of Central Intelligence. This was an important first step but the actual creation of the CIA required another persuasive voice, that of Hoyt Vandenberg. In 1947 Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter was appointed as the first Director of the CIA.

Post-war era

After the war ended, Donovan reverted to his lifelong role as a lawyer to perform one last duty: he served as special assistant to chief prosecutor Robert H. Jackson at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal where he had the personal satisfaction of seeing the Nazi leaders responsible for the torture and murder of captured OSS agents brought to justice. Donovan felt strongly that the German general staff and officer corps should not be prosecuted alongside the Nazi leaders, but failed to get the agreement of Truman and Jackson and resigned from the prosecution team.

For his World War II service, Donovan received the oak leaf cluster to the Distinguished Service Medal.

After resigning from the Nazi war criminal trials, Donovan returned to Wall Street and his highly successful law firm, Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine. He remained always available to postwar Presidents who requested his advice on intelligence matters.

In 1949, he became chairman of the newly founded American Committee on United Europe, which worked to counter the new Communist threat to Europe by promoting European political unity. The vice-chairman was Allen Dulles, and Walter Bedell Smith sat on the board as well. Georgetown University professor Joshua Paul's researches show that ACUE financed the European Movement, the most important federalist organisation in the post-war years. For example, in 1958, the ACUE provided 53.5% of the movement's funds. The European Youth Campaign was 100% funded by the ACUE. Joseph Retinger, Robert Schuman and Paul-Henri Spaak cut their political teeth in the EYC.

In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Donovan Ambassador to Thailand on August 3, 1953. He served in that capacity from September 4, 1953 until his resignation on August 21, 1954.

Donovan's son, David Rumsey Donovan, was a naval officer who served with distinction in World War II. His grandson, William James Donovan, served as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam and is also buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Death and legacy

Donovan died from complications of vascular dementia on February 8, 1959 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. aged 76. He is buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to him as "the Last Hero", which later became the title of a biography of him. After his death, Donovan was awarded the Freedom Award of the International Rescue Committee (not, as some biographies state, the "Medal of Freedom", a different award).

The law firm he founded, Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine was dissolved in 1998. His home Chapel Hill near Berryville, Virginia, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

Major General Donovan is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Awards and decorations

U.S. awards

Medal of Honor
Distinguished Service Cross
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Distinguished Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters
Silver Star
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters
National Security Medal
Mexican Border Service Medal
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
World War I Victory Medal with 5 campaign bars
Army of Occupation of Germany Medal
American Campaign Medal
Bronze star
Bronze star
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with Arrowhead device and 2 bronze service stars
Silver star
Silver star
Bronze star
Bronze star
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Arrowhead device, two silver service stars, and two bronze service stars
World War II Victory Medal
Army of Occupation Medal with Germany clasp
Armed Forces Reserve Medal with one ten-year hourglass device

Foreign awards

Légion d'honneur (France) (World War I)
Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur (France) (World War II)
Silver star
Croix de guerre with Palm and Silver Star (France) (World War I)
Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
Papal Lateran Cross (Vatican) (Italian: Croce Lateranese)
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Sylvester (Vatican) (Italian: Ordine di San Silvestro Papa)
Order of the Crown (Italy) (Italian: Ordine della Corona d'Italia)
Croce al Merito di Guerra (Italy)
Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta (Poland)
Grand Officer of the Order of Léopold of Belgium with Palm
Czechoslovakian War Cross (1939)
Grand Officer of the Order of Orange Nassau (Netherlands)
Grand Cross of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav (Norway)
Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of The Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant (Thailand)

Medal of Honor citation

Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army, 165th Infantry, 42d Division. Place and date: Near Landres-et-St. Georges, France, 14–15 October 1918. Entered service at: Buffalo, N.Y. Born: 1 January 1883, Buffalo, N.Y. G.O., No.: 56, W.D., 1922.


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.

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