William Donovan: Spymaster, War Hero, and Columbia Law School Graduate

Seventy-five years ago, William “Wild Bill” Donovan created the Office of Strategic Services, the country’s first centralized spy agency.

A 1908 CLS graduate, William Donovan is known as the father of American intelligence. Columbia would play a pivotal role in his career. (Photos courtesy of the CIA)
History recognizes William “Wild Bill” Donovan as the “father of American intelligence” for his service in creating, and then leading, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the country’s first centralized spy agency.

Donovan’s singular achievements in other realms, however, are not quite so well known. Even those who have heard of him may not know that he was a lawyer, let alone a lion of the bar, serving as a U.S. attorney, an assistant to the chief Nuremberg prosecutor, an assistant to the U.S. attorney general, a renowned Supreme Court advocate, and the founder of a powerhouse Wall Street law firm that remained a fixture of the corporate legal landscape for 70 years.

This month, which marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of the OSS, the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency, and Donovan's greatest legacy, Columbia can boast of having played a central role in his remarkable career. A graduate of Columbia College in 1905, Donovan then attended Columbia Law School, where he would meet classmate and future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and CLS dean and future Attorney General and Chief Justice of the United States Harlan Fiske Stone. (Donovan graduated in 1908; Roosevelt attended the fall of 1904 to the spring 1907, but took the bar and passed without graduating. An 1898 graduate, Fiske taught at CLS from 1899 to 1905 and served as dean from 1910 to 1923.)

“American intelligence operations go back to the Revolution,” observes Matthew Waxman, the Liviu Librescu Professor of Law and chair of the Hertog Program on Law and National Security, “but they were largely a wartime phenomenon. Donovan understood that as a world power, the post-World War II United States would need to build and maintain a permanent, standing intelligence capability. He was thus a major architect of the CIA.” 

Wounded Three Times in Battle

Donovan was born to a working class, Irish Catholic family in Buffalo, New York, in 1883. He began college there but transferred to Columbia in 1904, where he became a star quarterback, and then stayed for law school. After graduating, Donovan married and began practicing law. In 1912, he formed a National Guard troop which, in 1916, helped the U.S. Army hunt for revolutionary general Pancho Villa along the Mexican border.  

When World War I broke out, he joined the 165th Regiment. Though accounts differ, many sources say he won his nickname, “Wild Bill,” from a member of his battalion who was weary of the exhausting physical drills he led. Donovan was wounded in battle three times, returning home as one of America’s most decorated soldiers, with a Distinguished Service Cross, the Medal of Honor, the Légion d’Honneur, and the Order of the British Empire, among others.

After the war, Donovan returned to Buffalo, where he became U.S. attorney in 1922. In 1924, he moved to Washington, D.C., where President Calvin Coolidge appointed him to become assistant to the attorney general, who was Harlan Fiske Stone. Stone left for the Supreme Court in 1925, but Donovan stayed, heading the criminal division and, later, the antitrust unit. According to CIA historian Thomas F. Troy’s 1981 biography Donavan and the CIA, Donovan was devastated when, in early 1929, incoming President Herbert Hoover failed to give him the top Justice Department spot.

Donovan left government that year, moved to New York, and founded the white-shoe firm of Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine. His career in elective politics sputtered—he lost a bid to become New York governor on the Republican ticket in 1932—but his legal career thrived. 

An Early Appointment by FDR

Meanwhile, Donovan pursued a secret life. As early as 1919, just after the war, he had been sent to Siberia to perform an intelligence mission for the U.S. military and State Department. Now, upon leaving the Justice Department, he resumed this exotic sideline, traveling to Ethiopia in 1935 and Spain in 1939. In 1940, a friend of President Franklin Roosevelt suggested that he appointed Donovan to his cabinet, according to Troy's biography. 

“Bill Donovan is also an old friend of mine,” Roosevelt responded. “We were in the [Columbia] law school together, and frankly, I should like to have him in the Cabinet, not only for his own ability, but also to repair in a sense the very great injustice done him by President Hoover in the Winter of 1929.”

Though historians disagree about whether Roosevelt and Donovan were really friends in law school, that year Roosevelt did send Donovan to England to scout out that nation’s capacity to withstand the Nazi threat.

After meeting with British intelligence officials, Winston Churchill, and King George VI, Donovan wrote a memo to Roosevelt urging that the U.S. establish a centralized intelligence service. Assisting Donovan on the proposal, according to Troy, was British Naval commander Ian Fleming, who later authored the James Bond novels.  

Donovan (right, seated) was a CLS classmate of President Franklin Roosevelt (center), who later appointed Donovan to his cabinet.
The Birth of the OSS

Persuaded, in July 1941 Roosevelt appointed Donovan to serve in a new position called Coordinator of Information (COI), overseeing wartime intelligence and unconventional warfare. In June 1942, after the U.S. entered the war, the office was rechristened the Office of Strategic Services, with Donovan at its head.

“The Office of Strategic Services means what its name implies,” Donovan said at the time. “Every service of a strategic nature, tried or untried, that may be useful to our Army and Navy and Air Force."

The OSS’s exploits under Donovan are well known. They include efforts to slow and degrade the German response to the Normandy invasion in 1944, but also comprised several bizarre, aborted schemes, as well. The latter include a plot to lace Hitler’s food with female sex hormones, and a scheme to strap incendiary devices to bats, hoping that they’d nest in the flammable wooden homes of Japanese cities.

By the end of the war, Donovan had clashed with a number of generals and cabinet secretaries. Against Donovan’s urgings, President Harry Truman disbanded the OSS in 1945. Then, when Congress created the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, effectively reinstating the office, Truman passed over Donovan for its directorship, choosing Donovan’s OSS subordinate Allen Dulles in his stead.

Still, the advice Donovan uttered near the end of the war, captured in video at the time, remains cogent and timely today. “The national policy of the United States in the postwar world will be shaped by our knowledge or ignorance of our fellow nations,” he asserted. “America cannot afford to resume its prewar indifference.”Donovan died in 1959, at age 76, and is buried in Arlington Cemetery. 


Watch the Central Intelligence Agency's video of William Donovan: 


Want to catch up on more alumni news? Go to our Alumni News page, and check out the schedule for upcoming Reunion 2017 Weekend


Images and video courtesy of the Central Intelligency Agency. 



Posted on June 15, 2017