Congress Blog

Congress should honor the heroes of the OSS

Imagine the following scenario: The United States is the victim of surprise attack that kills thousands of Americans and deeply wounds the American psyche. Following the attack, the question arises as to why the United States was so vulnerable and not able to stop the attack before it happened. While this may appear to be a description of the attack on 9/11, it happened once before. Seventy-four years ago, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. In both instances, a lack of intelligence, or intelligence sharing, as was the case on 9/11, was blamed.

Recognizing the United States sorely lacked intelligence and special operations capabilities that would be critical to America's victory in World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War II predecessor to the CIA and the U.S. Special Operations Command, on June 13, 1942. His executive order creating the OSS was remarkably short. It duties were to "collect and analyze such strategic information ... [and] plan and operate such special services as may be directed by the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff." As its director, he appointed one of the greatest figures in American history: General William J. Donovan, the only person in American history to receive our nation's four highest decorations, including the Medal of Honor. Despite strong political differences, Roosevelt and Donovan formed a close alliance based on their common belief of the threat posed by Nazi Germany. Roosevelt sent Donovan to London in 1940 as his personal emissary to build support in the United States to help Great Britain withstand the German onslaught that it was facing alone.

No one in Washington other than Roosevelt wanted the OSS, which was viewed as a threat by the military, diplomatic and law enforcement establishment. William Casey, who served in the OSS and would later serve as Director of Central Intelligence under President Reagan, 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 end. 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." Donovan was particularly well-suited to the task of fighting the Washington establishment. Father Francis Duffy, who served with Donovan in the famed "Fighting 69th" Infantry Regiment during World War I, said Donovan was one of the very few men he knew who enjoyed combat. Donovan said that he had greater enemies in Washington than Hitler had in Europe.

To build the OSS, Donovan recruited an incredible array of brilliant and brave Americans from every branch of the military and the civilian population. They included the actor Sterling Hayden who served in the OSS Maritime Unit, the predecessor to the US Navy SEALs, and would later star in "Dr. Strangelove" and "The Godfather"; Ralph Bunche, the first African-American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize; the "French chef" Julia Child; Hollywood director John Ford; Virginia Hall, the only American civilian woman to receive the Distinguished Service Cross during World War II; Marlene Dietrich, who recorded songs in German that were used to demoralize German soldiers; James Donovan, who was portrayed by Tom Hanks in "Bridge of Spies"; and many others. Donovan said they performed "some of the bravest acts of the war."

OSS personnel, whom Donovan described as "glorious amateurs," went behind enemy lines in Europe and Asia to gather intelligence, conduct sabotage, and engage in direct action against the enemy. They undertook the greatest rescue mission of World War II (Operation Halyard). They gathered intelligence in advance of Operations Torch (North Africa) and Overlord (Normandy). General Eisenhower said that if it did nothing else, the intelligence gathered by the OSS before D-Day alone justified its creation. It recruited the nation's leading academics to whom Donovan attributed much of OSS' success. It built resistance movements around the world. The OSS laid the foundation for the US intelligence and special operations communities, which is why they both chose the OSS insignia, the spearhead, as their insignias and consider Donovan their founding father.

The Office of Strategic Services Congressional Gold Medal Act was recently introduced in the Senate (with the full support of the Senate Intelligence Committee) by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.); and in the House by Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio). As we mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and with their numbers rapidly dwindling, Congress should pass this bill soon to honor the surviving members of the OSS, General Donovan's "glorious amateurs."

Pinck is president of The OSS Society.

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