Share this article

print logo

Another Voice: It’s open season on memory of ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan

By Charles Pinck

A disturbing phenomenon has arisen in recent years: besmirching Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the founder of World War II’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and arguably one of America’s greatest patriots.

Donovan, a native of Buffalo, is the only person to receive our nation’s four highest decorations, including the Medal of Honor. He was a visionary leader whose combination of intellectual and physical prowess defined the ideal OSS candidate: “A Harvard Ph.D. who can handle himself in a bar fight.” His lifelong service to the United States began in World War I and lasted until the Cold War. In creating the OSS, he formed a close alliance with President Franklin Roosevelt despite strong political differences between the two men.

He recruited America’s most brilliant minds to serve in the OSS, including Cora Du Bois (the first woman to receive tenure in the Harvard departments of Anthropology and Social Relations), Ralph Bunche (the first person of color to receive the Nobel Peace Prize) and Hollywood director John Ford. Donovan went behind enemy lines and participated in several major invasions during World War II. It’s no wonder that when he died in 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower called him the “last hero.”

From the pages of the left-wing New Yorker, which published a critical (and error-filled) profile of him several years ago, to the right-wing Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Patton,” which rehashes an absurd conspiracy theory that Patton was killed on Donovan’s order, it is open season on Wild Bill. Even fictional characters are getting into the act. David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist, has Donovan’s statue removed from CIA headquarters in his most recent novel.

Why is such an inspirational, visionary, courageous and patriotic figure being disparaged from both sides of the political spectrum? Believe it or not, the answer to this question has its roots in World War II and offers insights into our current politics.

Donovan was not a politician. His biographer, Corey Ford, wrote that his reluctance “to indulge in campaign oratory or glittering campaign promises [when he ran for governor of New York] was his political undoing. Because of his unwillingness to compromise with the voters, he never won elective office. His coolness under fire – not only in war but in government service – was the result of stern self-discipline. The very qualities which made him a leader also served to set him apart.”

It is more than a little ironic that 70 years after the end of World War II, Donovan is still under attack by those on the political extremes. Because of his unwillingness to play the political game, Donovan said that he had greater enemies in Washington than Hitler had in Europe. Apparently, he still does.

Charles Pinck is president of the OSS Society in Falls Church, Va.