William Donovan file photo [23182]

William Donovan

Given NameWilliam
Died8 Feb 1959
CountryUnited States


ww2dbaseWilliam Joseph Donovan was born in Buffalo, New York, United States in 1883 to Irish immigrants Timothy P. Donovan and Anna Letitia "Tish" Donovan (née Lennon). He attended St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute in Tonawanda, New York; Niagara University in Lewiston, New York; and then Columbia University in New York, New York. He acquired the nickname "Wild Bill" while playing football at Columbia. He acquired a bachelor's degree from Columbia in 1905, and would go on to graduate from the Columbia Law School. He was a member of the New York State Militia; with this unit he commanded a cavalry troop on the US-Mexico border in 1916. During WW1, his unit was federalized, and he became the commander of the 1st battalion of the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions near Landres-et-Saint-Georges, France between 14 and 15 Oct 1918. The citation read:

Lt. Col. Donovan personally led the assaulting wave in an attack upon a very strongly organized position, and when our troops were suffering heavy casualties he encouraged all near him by his example, moving among his men in exposed positions, reorganizing decimated platoons, and accompanying them forward in attacks. When he was wounded in the leg by machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued with his unit until it withdrew to a less exposed position.

ww2dbaseAt the end of WW1, Donovan was at the rank of colonel and had also been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart. After WW1, he returned to his law career. In 1922, he ran for the position of lieutenant governor of New York, but he was not elected. Between 1922 and 1924, he was the US Attorney for the Western District of New York; his US Attorney career was remembered for his strict enforcement of the Prohibition law, for which he was a target of assassination by organized crime and was alienated by the upper class. In 1924, US President Calvin Coolidge made him the assistant to Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty for the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. In 1932, he ran for the governorship of New York, again failing to win.

ww2dbaseIn the late 1930s, Donovan began to earn the trust of Franklin Roosevelt, who shared Donovan's views that another European War was likely. The European War would begin in Sep 1939. In 1940 and 1941, he traveled to Britain as an unofficial emissary to meet with British leaders; during the two trips, he met with various British military intelligence officials, and thought the United States should reform its intelligence after the British model. In Jul 1941, he was appointed the Coordinator of Information, which nominally controlled all the intelligence gathered by the military, the Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and others. In Nov 1941, he authorized a research program which studied scopolamine, opium, cannabis, mescaline, and tetra-hydro-cannabinol acetate for use as truth serums during investigations. In 1942, he was re-commissioned a colonel in the US Army, and his position was reformed as the chief of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Intelligence gathering activities for Europe and continental Asia became his primary responsibility (as an aside, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI refused to give up control of South American intelligence gathering, and Douglas MacArthur of the US Army that of the Philippine Islands). Most fellow US Army generals did not trust him as an intelligence chief, for that he was known to be overly rash. To that end, one of his earlier OSS operations called for infiltrating Germany with 21 two-man espionage teams; without proper preparation for such a undertaking, all but one were discovered and apprehended by the Germans. Nevertheless, he performed his OSS role with as much enthusiasm as in his previous position in the Department of Justice, earning further favor from Roosevelt but also earning more political enemies, especially in foreign countries. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who initially supported Donovan's initiatives, became wary of his aggressive tactics and his ostensibly undisciplined agents. Chinese President Chiang Kaishek and his intelligence chief Dai Li were simply offended by Donovan's open threat that should the Chinese refuse to give OSS permission to insert agents, he would simply infiltrate China without permission (Chiang would still refuse Donovan, giving the Sino-American Special Technical Cooperative Organization (SACO), a US Navy sponsored program, full authority instead). In a display of petty inter-service rivalry, Donovan attempted to commandeer SACO's Camp Four weather station in Xamba, Suiyuan Province, China, simply because it was very effective in providing intelligence for the US Navy, thus if he could take it away it would damage the US Navy's credibility and capability. Such maneuverings ultimately gained him control of SACO, but they rendered impossible any chance of cooperation between US Navy and OSS. As the war neared its end, he attempted to persuade Roosevelt to maintain the OSS into peace time, and Roosevelt offered little opposition to this idea.

ww2dbaseDonovan was in Paris, France when he received the news of Roosevelt's untimely death. When a confidant asked him about the future of OSS without Roosevelt, Donovan fretted that OSS was probably going to close. He knew that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI had much more influence and capability in the realm of intelligence, and that Harry Truman did not trust him. He attempted to express to Truman the importance of OSS, but Truman expressed little enthusiasm; in fact, when Donovan paid Truman a visit at the White House for the first time in May 1945, Truman only gave the OSS chief a 15-minute window to speak to him. In Sep 1945, Truman gave the orders to disband OSS; further, he ordered that it was to be completed in 10 days. Many of the OSS agents would be discharged, but, defying Truman's orders, Brigadier General John Magruder and Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy kept a number of operatives active in an organization named the Strategic Services Unit.

ww2dbaseFor his WW2 service, Donovan earned the oak leaf cluster to his Distinguished Service Medal.

ww2dbaseAfter WW2, Donovan's primary career reverted to law, running his firm Donovan, Leisure, Newton, and Irvine. He assisted Robert Jackson in the Nuremberg Trials against German war criminals. In 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was formed, acquiring the Strategic Services Unit and some of the other surviving personnel of the OSS; Donovan did not have an official role in the CIA, but the leaders of the new agency, many of whom his former colleagues and protégés, sought his advice during the agency's infancy. In 1949, he became the chairman of the American Committee on United Europe. Between 1953 and 1954, he was the Ambassador to Thailand under President Dwight Eisenhower. In this role, he supported the Thai military dictatorship which contained a number of organized crime kingpins among their midst. With this working relationship, he secured Thai permission to establish camps near the Thai border with which the CIA trained fighters and conducted operations in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Donovan passed way from complications of vascular dementia at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington DC, United States in 1959. He was buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, United States.

Linda Kush, The Rice Paddy Navy
Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes

Last Major Revision: Jul 2015

William Donovan Interactive Map


William Donovan as a US Army soldier in France, 1918William Donovan in uniform at a rail station, 1918Colonel William Donovan and the staff of 165th Infantry Regiment passing under the Victory Arch, New York, New York, United States, 1919Portrait of William Donovan, 15 Aug 1924
See all 11 photographs of William Donovan

William Donovan Timeline

1 Jan 1883 William Donovan was born in Buffalo, New York, United States.
11 Jul 1941 William Donovan was made the Coordinator of Information.
6 Dec 1943 William Donovan arrived in Chongqing, China and met with Dai Li, informing Dai that OSS agents would operate in China with or without Dai's cooperation.
7 Dec 1943 William Donovan met with Chiang Kaishek at Chiang's home in Chongqing, China. Chiang, who had been told by Dai Li that Donovan wanted to send OSS intelligence agents into China even without Chinese authorization, told Donovan he would not tolerate such challenge to Chinese sovereignty.
14 May 1945 William Donovan met with the new US President Harry Truman at the White House in Washington DC, United States. Truman only granted him 15 minutes as he did not value the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
25 Sep 1945 William Donovan presided over the closing ceremonies of the Office of Strategic Services.
3 Aug 1953 William Donovan was named the US Ambassador to Thailand.
4 Sep 1953 William Donovan arrived in Thailand as the US Ambassador.
21 Aug 1954 William Donovan stepped down as the US Ambassador to Thailand.
8 Feb 1959 William Donovan passed away at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC, United States.

Did you enjoy this article or find this article helpful? If so, please consider supporting us on Patreon. Even $1 per month will go a long way! Thank you.

Share this article with your friends:


Stay updated with WW2DB:

 RSS Feeds

Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Commenter identity confirmed Alan Chanter says:
14 Jun 2016 09:04:08 AM

A self-seeking empire builder, Donovan had no patience with administration and even less with accountancy which enabled some OSS officers to irresponsibly steal or misuse substantial sums of cash. He was a poor organiser and generally failed to exercise proper control over his subordinates - many of whom were drawn from America's social elite, lacking military experience and seeking a wartime role that would keep them from service in the front line. Often, in this pantomime organization, OSS officers would be allowed them to organise their own projects virtually unsupervised, with disasterous and fatal consequences to agents, or with unacceptable political implications (such as formulating revolts in neutral nations). His uncooperation with the FBI and other intelligence branches was such that the OSS became distrusted and despised by almost everyone, both US and Allied, by the end of the war. One can only summise that it was Donovan's personal friendship with the President that kept him from being sacked as an incompetent, for his oversize and expensive command can be seen, with hindsight, to have done virtually nothing to assist in the war effort.

All visitor submitted comments are opinions of those making the submissions and do not reflect views of WW2DB.

Posting Your Comments on this Topic

Your Name
Your Email
 Your email will not be published
Comment Type
Your Comments


1. We hope that visitor conversations at WW2DB will be constructive and thought-provoking. Please refrain from using strong language. HTML tags are not allowed. Your IP address will be tracked even if you remain anonymous. WW2DB site administrators reserve the right to moderate, censor, and/or remove any comment. All comment submissions will become the property of WW2DB.

2. For inquiries about military records for members of the World War II armed forces, please see our FAQ.

Search WW2DB
More on William Donovan
» Donovan's Memorandum to Truman Regarding Virginia Hall

William Donovan Photo Gallery
William Donovan as a US Army soldier in France, 1918
See all 11 photographs of William Donovan

Famous WW2 Quote
"You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terrors. Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival."

Winston Churchill

Support Us

Please consider supporting us on Patreon. Even $1 a month will go a long way. Thank you!

Or, please support us by purchasing some WW2DB merchandise at TeeSpring, Thank you!