William Wild Bill Donovan: Biography & Patton

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

The Central Intelligence Agency has long been the focus of many government rumors and conspiracies. One of those involves the assassination of World War II hero George Patton, supposedly ordered by CIA forerunner William Donovan.

World War I Hero

Before becoming involved in government rumors and espionage, William 'Wild Bill' Donovan was a New York lawyer. Born in Buffalo, New York in 1883, he began practicing law in 1907. After joining the National Guard in 1912, he assisted the U.S. army with the tracking of Mexican bandit Pancho Villa.

When the U.S. joined World War I in 1916, Donovan was transferred to another National Guard unit, one known as the Fighting 69th. This unit later joined the 42nd division of the U.S. Army and became known as the 165th division. While serving, Donovan rose up in the ranks and became a colonel, later being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

It was during this time that Donovan earned his nickname 'Wild Bill' from his soldiers, due to his coolness under pressure as well as the physical drills he made them do. The Fighting 69th were some of the toughest fighting men, returning to New York as heroes and later immortalized in the 1940 film The Fighting 69th.

Donovan and 165th Regiment return to New York
regiment

Between the Wars

After World War I was declared over in 1918, Donovan didn't want to go back to practicing regular law. He became more involved in government work, serving on different delegations and commissions. In 1922 he was appointed U.S. district attorney for western New York, and later he served as assistant attorney general in the Justice Department (1924-29). During the 1930s he established his own law firm in New York City, focusing on antitrust and commercial litigation, where he worked when he wasn't traveling. Through his travels he made many connections in different international governments, which brought him to President Franklin Roosevelt's attention in 1940.

Bill Donovan
bill

Intelligence Agency Beginnings

Although America wouldn't enter World War II until after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Roosevelt was already preparing for war. He sent Donovan to England in 1940 to meet with British intelligence officials, like Stewart Menzies, who was head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. Donovan also met with Winston Churchill and King George VI. Donovan went back to America, sharing with Roosevelt what he had learned from the British, and it was decided that the U.S. needed a centralized way of collecting foreign intelligence -- and that they needed to help the British fight Hitler.

Office of Strategic Services

Roosevelt asked Donovan to lead the intelligence office, then known as the Office of the Coordination of Information (COI), after he established it in July of 1941. The task of the COI was to coordinate intelligence from abroad. In 1942 the office became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS, much like its British counterpart MI6, was charged with taking down the enemy from behind the battle lines; essentially, they were spies, saboteurs, and researchers.

Donovan wasn't content with sitting behind a desk, however. He would often review soldiers as well as visit the front lines. The day after the D-Day invasion in 1944, Donovan landed on the same beaches the Allies had been on. He did this against the wishes of his superiors, who didn't want to risk Donovan being captured by the Germans.

Donovan reviews soldiers before they are shipped off to China
soldiers

The CIA

Donovan knew threats from enemy countries would not end with victory over Adolf Hitler. He tried to convince Roosevelt and later Truman that the United States needed a centralized intelligence agency. The OSS was dissolved in 1945, and finally with the National Security Act of 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was established. Donovan declined any role in the agency but is still considered the father of the CIA.

Conspiracies and Rumors

The extroverted OSS leader was not without his critics. J. Edgar Hoover, one of the most famous leaders of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, disliked Donovan and the agency, thinking the CIA wasn't necessary. This feud created a 'turf war' that still exists between the FBI and CIA today.

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