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How the CIA got ‘Wild’ Bill Donovan

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Given what New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg apparently thinks about the Irish, he almost certainly would have had some trouble back in January of 1940.  That was when “Wild” Bill Donovan was out and about talking up a new movie starring fellow Irish Americans Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney. 

The movie was The Fighting 69th, about the famously Irish National Guard brigade which leads the St. Patrick’s Day parade down Fifth Avenue every year. 

Given the stars and subject matter of the movie, you can imagine our mayor envisioning the brigade kicking off the march, while dozens of “inebriated Irishmen” hang out of their Fifth Avenue windows.

That moment back in 1940, however, was actually pivotal for one of the most important, lesser-known figures in 20th Century American history – “Wild” Bill Donovan, who earned the Medal of Honor as a member of the Fighting 69th back in World War I.

Donovan, who died exactly 52 years ago, in February of 1959, is back in the spotlight these days.  Just last week, Martin S. Quigley, who was America’s chief spy in Ireland during World War II, died at the age of 93.  Quigley worked directly under Wild Bill Donovan during the war.

This comes just as a brand new biography of Wild Bill hits bookstores.  Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage (Free Press) by Douglas Waller outlines Donovan’s humble Irish roots, his service with the Fighting 69th and his relationship with Cagney and O’Brien, not to mention Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph P. Kennedy.

Most importantly, Waller argues, we are still living in the cloak-and-dagger world of diplomacy more or less created by Donovan.  The OSS, after all, was the forerunner of the CIA. 

So, any time you here about intelligence gathering or paranoid “spooks” working for “the agency,” you can thank this humble Irish Catholic from Buffalo.

Donovan was born on New Year’s Day, 1883, the son of Timothy and Letitia Donovan, from Ulster and Cork, respectively. 

Though dubbed “a poor Irish Catholic boy from Buffalo” this week in a New York Times review of Waller’s book, Donovan went on to earn a stellar education. 

It was at Columbia, while playing football, that he earned the nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life.
A 1905 Columbia graduate, Donovan worked as a lawyer before leading a cavalry troop of the New York State militia, during the build-up to World War I.  In the Great War, Donovan served as major, then colonel, ultimately earning the Medal of Honor for his service in France.

Donovan is still the only American to receive four of the nation’s highest military distinctions -- the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and the National Security Medal.

After World War I he was a U.S. attorney (who vigorously prosecuted bootleggers), and entered politics – as a Republican, of all things!

Donovan ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor (against the sainted Al Smith) in 1922 and governor in 1932.

Donovan was a vocal critic of Franklin Roosevelt, though unlike some Irish American isolationists Donovan seemed to grasp the threat raised by Nazi Germany and the looming European war.

In fact, on the eve of World War II, Roosevelt tapped Donovan to visit Britain, where Joseph Kennedy was serving as ambassador and had raised a stink by declaring that Britain was not ready to fight in World War II, and adding that the U.S. should remain isolated from the tensions. 

Donovan disagreed, arguing Britain could serve as a bulwark against Nazi imperialism – especially with U.S. aid.

This came in handy when Roosevelt had to decide who might be the best person to centralize all U.S. intelligence during and after the war. Donovan was selected as the head of the Office of Strategic Services -- the OSS. 

Donovan fell out of favor with Washington big-wigs, in part because he picked a fight with J. Edgar Hoover.  But when the Cold War rose and the CIA was formed, though Donovan was not its leader, he had set up the infrastructure which remains deeply flawed but utterly fascinating to this day.

(Contact “Sidewalks” at tomdeignan@earthlink.net or facebook.com/tomdeignan)

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