Ask Alma's Owl: The 'Father of American Intelligence'

Dear Seeking Intel,

In fact, William “Wild Bill” Donovan (CC’1905, LAW,’1908) is recognized 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. Columbia can boast of having played a central role in Donovan’s remarkable career.

June 28, 2017

Dear Alma,

June marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency. I know it was filled with many Ivy Leaguers, but did Columbians play any role in founding the OSS?

—Seeking Intel


He was also a lion of the bar, served as a U.S. attorney, an assistant to the chief Nuremberg prosecutor, an assistant to the U.S. attorney general, a renowned advocate before the U.S. Supreme Court and the founder of a powerhouse Wall Street law firm.

“American intelligence operations go back to the Revolution, but they were largely a wartime phenomenon,” observes Matthew Waxman, the Liviu Librescu Professor of Law and chair of the Hertog Program on Law and National Security at Columbia Law School. “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.”

Born to a working class Irish Catholic family in Buffalo, N.Y., Donovan transferred to Columbia in 1904, where he became a star quarterback and stayed for law school where he became friends with a classmate named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After graduating, Donovan married and began practicing law. In 1912, he formed a National Guard troop that, 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. Wounded in battle three times, Donovan returned home as one of America’s most decorated soldiers.

Returning to Buffalo, he became U.S. attorney in 1922. In 1924, he moved to Washington, D.C., where President Calvin Coolidge appointed him assistant to the attorney general, Harlan Fiske Stone, a graduate and dean of Columbia Law School. Donovan subsequently headed the Justice Department’s criminal division and, later, its antitrust unit. When incoming President Herbert Hoover didn’t appoint him attorney general, Donovan moved back to New York City and founded the corporate law firm Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine.

Meanwhile, Donovan was pursuing a secret life. As early as 1919, he was sent to Siberia on an intelligence mission for the U.S. military and State Department. He resumed this exotic sideline after leaving the Justice Department, traveling to Ethiopia in 1935 and Spain in 1939. In 1940, his former classmate, FDR, appointed Donovan to his cabinet and sent him to England to assess that nation’s capacity to withstand the Nazi threat.

After meeting with British intelligence officials, as well as Winston Churchill and King George VI himself, Donovan wrote a memo to Roosevelt urging him to establish a centralized American intelligence service. Assisting him with the memo was a British naval commander, Ian Fleming, who later wrote the James Bond novels.

In July 1941, Roosevelt appointed Donovan to head the Coordinator of Information, a new office overseeing wartime intelligence and unconventional warfare. After the U.S. entered the war in 1942, it was rechristened the Office of Strategic Services with Donovan as its head.

The OSS engaged in efforts to slow and degrade the German response to the Normandy invasion in 1944 as well as several bizarre, aborted schemes. The latter included 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. President Harry Truman disbanded the OSS in 1945, against Donovan’s urgings. When Congress created the Central Intelligence Agency two years later, Truman passed over Donovan for its directorship.

Still, the advice Donovan offered near the end of the war remains relevant 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 National Cemetery.