Remembering the work of the OSS

As our nation’s intelligence community finds itself under attack, it is worth reminding ourselves that it was born in the crucible of World War II when America was itself attacked at Pearl Harbor because our government did not have a centralized system of strategic intelligence. In June 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the World War II predecessor to the CIA and the US Special Operations Command.  Roosevelt, a liberal Democrat, appointed as its director the legendary General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a conservative Republican and the only American to receive our nation’s four highest military honors, including the Medal of Honor. President Roosevelt called General Donovan his “secret legs.”

Fisher Howe, who served as a special assistant to General Donovan, said that “if you define leadership as having a vision for an organization, and the ability to attract, motivate and guide followers to fulfill that vision, you have Bill Donovan in spades.” General Donovan led by example, going behind enemy lines and taking part in several invasions, including D-Day, against the direct orders of Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. (Secretary Forrestal must have heard General Donovan say that he “would rather have a young lieutenant with enough guts to disobey a direct order than a colonel too regimented to think and act for himself.”) General Donovan frequently told OSS personnel that they “could not succeed without taking chances” and said in his 1945 farewell address that “we were not afraid to make mistakes because we were not afraid to try things that had not been tried before.”

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Professor E. Bruce Reynolds said the “OSS was an organization designed to do great things.” It did great things. From building resistance movements behind enemy lines in Europe and Asia (President Eisenhower said that that French Resistance, which was supported by the OSS, was the equivalent of an extra division); to gathering intelligence in advance of Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa; to waging unconventional warfare against the Japanese in Burma by OSS Detachment 101 (the most effective fighting force in the OSS and the recipient of a Presidential Unit Citation); to inventing and implementing innovative technologies (including the first underwater rebreathing device invented by Dr. Christian Lambertsen that was used by the OSS Maritime Unit, a predecessor to the US Navy SEALs); to its recruitment of leading intellectuals by its Research and Analysis Branch (General Donovan said “much of our success was the result of good old fashioned intellectual sweat”), the OSS remains the most remarkable organization ever created by the US government.

William Casey, who served in the OSS and would become one of four OSS veterans to serve as director of central intelligence, summed up the OSS ethos: “You didn't wait six months for a feasibility study to prove that an idea could work. You gambled that it might work. You didn't tie up the organization with red tape designed mostly to cover somebody's rear. You took the initiative and the responsibility. You went around end. You went over somebody's head if you had to. But you acted. That's what drove the regular military and the State Department chair-warmers crazy about the OSS." General Donovan and the OSS encountered a great deal of opposition in Washington, most notably from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, which prompted Donovan to say that he had "greater enemies in Washington than Hitler had in Europe."

At the core of the OSS -- what General Donovan described as an “unusual experiment … to determine whether a group of Americans constituting a cross-section of racial origins, abilities, temperaments and talents could meet and risk an encounter with the long-established and well trained enemy organizations” -- were the remarkable people from all parts of American society whom General Donovan recruited to serve in it. Hitler said that America’s racial diversity was a great weakness. In building the OSS almost single-handedly, General Donovan knew better because, he said, no other country in the world had so many citizens with knowledge of other countries.

General Donovan said OSS personnel “performed some of the bravest acts of the war.” They included the actor and Marine Sterling Hayden, who won a Silver Star; Virginia Hall, the only American civilian woman to receive the Distinguished Service Cross in World War II; Col. Aaron Bank, a founder of US Special Forces; Col. William Eddy, who was described as the “Lawrence of America”; Fred Mayer, the “real inglorious bastard,” who, after being tortured by the Gestapo for several days, convinced his torturers to surrender to him; and members of the OSS Jedburghs and Operational Groups, forerunners of today’s US Special Operations Forces, who went behind enemy lines (as did many other OSS members). OSS personnel received 56 Distinguished Services Crosses, an incredible accomplishment given its small size.

Other notable OSS personnel included the renowned architect Eero Saarinen, Ralph Bunche (who would become the first African-American to win the Nobel Peace Prize), Hollywood director John Ford, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter Budd Schulberg and Julia Child. (One of Child’s responsibilities was giving names to OSS Operational Group missions. Her choices hinted at her future avocation: Apple, Blackberry, Blueberry, Cherry and Crabapple.)  General Donovan called them his “glorious amateurs.”

Legislation was recently introduced in Congress to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the members of the OSS "in recognition of their superior service and major contributions during World War II."

When General Donovan died in 1959, President Eisenhower called him the "last hero." It is time to honor the “last hero” – and all the heroes – of the OSS.

Pinck is president of The OSS Society.