Quite frankly I'm done with the old William J. Donovan. When will the real William J. Donovan rise from the ashes to reclaim his former glory?
Donovan was born in Buffalo, New York, attending St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and Niagara University before starring on the football field at Columbia University, On the field, he got the nickname that he would earn over and over again in a long and eventful life: "Wild Bill". Donovan was also a member of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. He graduated in 1905.
Donovan was a member of the New York City "Establishment," a powerful Wall Street lawyer and a Columbia Law School classmate (1908) (but credited to 1907) of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, although they were not close at the time.
In 1912, Donovan formed and led a troop of cavalry of the New York State Militia, that in 1916 served on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Pancho Villa campaign.
During World War I, Donovan organized and led a battalion of the United States Army, the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division, the federalized designation of the famed 69th New York Volunteers, (the "Fighting 69th"), on the battlefield in France. As a lieutenant colonel, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest American award for valor, for leading a successful assault, despite serious wounds. By the end of the war he was a full colonel and his other awards included the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award, and three Purple Hearts In those wars.
After the war, he was the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, famous for his energetic enforcement of Prohibition. He ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for Governor of New York in 1932 and was soundly defeated by Democrat Herbert H. Lehman. President Calvin Coolidge named him to the Justice Department's Antitrust Division.
After the start of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt began to put the United States on a war footing. On the recommendation of Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Roosevelt gave Donovan a number of increasingly important assignments, trusting him absolutely until Roosevelt's death in 1945, even though they were political opponents — Roosevelt was a Democrat and Donovan a lifelong Republican.
In 1940 and 1941 he served as an emissary and information gatherer for Knox and President Roosevelt, traveling to Britain and parts of Europe that were not under Nazi control.
In June 1941, Donovan received what would be his most important assignment: Roosevelt named him Coordinator of Information (COI). This made him the first overall chief of the United States Intelligence community, which at the time was fragmented into Army, Navy, FBI, State Department, and other interests. The FBI retained its independence, and control of intelligence in South America, at the insistence of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
It was Donovan who crucially organised 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 over had been the location of the operations of Britain's MI6.
In 1942, the COI became the OSS and Donovan was returned to active duty in his World War I rank of colonel (by war's end, he would be promoted to major general). The OSS was responsible for espionage and sabotage in Europe and in parts of Asia. The OSS was kept out of South America by Hoover's hostility to Donovan, and out of the Philippines by the antipathy of Douglas MacArthur.
For many years, the exploits of the OSS remained secret, but in the 1970s and 1980s, significant parts of the OSS history were declassified, making Donovan a household name to a new generation.
After Roosevelt's death, Donovan's political position, which depended on his personal connection to the President, was substantially weakened. He argued forcefully for the retention of the OSS in the years after the war, but President Harry S. Truman was not interested (although the subsequent formation of the CIA did generally follow a related proposal initiated by Donovan).
After the war, Donovan reverted to his lifelong role as a lawyer to perform one last duty: he served as special assistant to chief prosecutor Telford Taylor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal.
There, he had the personal satisfaction of seeing Nazi leaders responsible for the torture and murder of captured OSS agents brought to justice. For his WWII service, Donovan received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award the United States military gives for service (rather than valor). He also received an honorary British knighthood.
At the conclusion of the trial, he returned to Wall Street where his firm, Donovan, Leisure, Newton and Irvine, was a powerhouse. He remained always available to the postwar Presidents who needed his counsel — or his intelligence management experience.
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.
Donovan's son, David Rumsey Donovan, was a naval officer who served with distinction in WWII. His grandson William James Donovan served as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam.
Donovan died on February 8, 1959, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. at the age of 76, and 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.
General Donovan is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
Medals and Honors
Medal of Honor
Distinguished Service Cross
Distinguished Service Medal with 1 Oak Leaf Cluster
Purple Heart with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters
National Security Medal
Mexican Service Medal
Mexican Border Service Medal
World War I Victory Medal with 5 Battle Clasps
Army of Occupation of Germany Medal
American Defense Service Medal
American Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with Arrowhead and 2 Bronze Service Stars
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Arrowheads, 2 Silver Service Stars, and 2 Bronze Service Stars
World War II Victory Medal
Armed Forces Reserve Medal with one ten-year hourglass device
Légion d'Honneur (France) (WWI)
Commandant de la Légion d'Honneur (France) (WWII)
Croix de Guerre with Palm and Silver Star (France) (WWI)
Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
Lateran Medal (Vatican)
Order of St. Sylvester (Vatican)
Grand Officer of the Order of Léopold of Belgium with Palm
Czechoslovakian War Cross (1939)
Grand Officer of the Order of Orange Nassau (Netherlands)