Columbians Ahead of Their Time
William Joseph Donovan

William Joseph Donovan

"The Office of Strategic Services means what its name implies: every service of a strategic nature, tried or untried, that may be useful to our Army and Navy and Air Force."

William Joseph Donovan (1883–1959)
Columbia College 1905, Law 1908
LLD (hon.) 1947

A military hero and confidant of presidents, William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan was the father of the modern American intelligence service. As chief of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of today's Central Intelligence Agency, Donovan developed the espionage techniques that became central to CIA operations. He also trained and mentored men—William Casey among them—who became cornerstones of the postwar intelligence establishment. Decorated for bravery as commander of a regiment during the First World War, Donovan became an intelligence agent after the war, conducting a mission to Siberia in 1920 on behalf of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Republican Donovan and the Democrat Roosevelt had met at Columbia Law School and remained friends despite their partisan differences, sharing an internationalist outlook and, in the 1930s, concerns over German and Japanese aggression. As president, FDR sent Donovan on a series of intelligence missions and, after the outbreak of the Second World War, appointed him civilian coordinator of information in 1941, and then head of the new OSS when it was created in 1942. In 1947, the National Security Act established the CIA, which was built on the foundation of the OSS and staffed by many of its veterans. Disappointed by President Harry Truman's refusal to make him CIA director, Donovan contributed to preparations for the Nuremberg trials and then returned to his private law practice. But Truman's successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower—with whom Donovan had worked during the general's tenure as Columbia's president—summoned him back to government service in 1953, appointing him ambassador to Thailand, at the time a vital diplomatic post. When Donovan died six years later, he had been awarded the nation's highest decorations—the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Distinguished Service Medal.

As a Columbia College undergraduate, Donovan starred in football, crew, and cross-country. After graduating from the law school, he remained closely connected to Columbia until the end of his life, and was repeatedly recognized for his service. Donovan's many honors included the Alexander Hamilton Medal, the Alumni Athletic Award, and an honorary doctorate of laws. He also chaired the University's Council on Development and Resources, a body formed in 1951 to direct and coordinate all the University's fundraising and development activities, and the sixth annual Columbia College fund drive. When he died in February 1959, the Columbia Varsity "C" Club's obituary notice in the New York Times called Donovan "an extremely active member of our Club, a man whose interest in Columbia athletics never flagged, whose activities in behalf of Columbia athletics were continuous and whose loyalty to Alma Mater never died."

Nominated by Brian Sullivan, Columbia College 1967, GSAS 1984

Read more about Donovan in the Columbia Encyclopedia.


The OSS vs. the Nazis.


Wartime president who launched the OSS.


Military hero, university president and U.S. president.

Write Columbia's History

Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here. Add your perspective.

Columbians Ahead of Their Time

Columbians have changed the world and how we see it.

C250 Celebrates | C250 Perspectives | C250 Forum | C250 Events | C250 To Go |
Contact C250 | Privacy Policy | About This Web Site | © Copyright 2004 Columbia University