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William J. Donovan

"Decisions of national policy based on accurate information can make a peace that will endure."

William J. Donovan (1883–1959)
General
Columbia College 1905, Law 1908, LLD 1908

While it is still largely unknown, William J. Donovan (1883–1959) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt formed a close relationship during their time at the law school together. At the time, Donovan was a star of the Columbia football team and simultaneously attended both the college (BA 1905) and law school (LLD 1907). Roosevelt, an avid sports fan, became even more admiring of Donovan after he won the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal and Medal of Honor as a battalion commander in the "Fighting 69th" Regiment in World War I. Promoted regimental commander, Donovan led his unit in the New York City victory parade in 1919. In considerable secret, Roosevelt—then assistant secretary of the navy—made Donovan a member of the Office of Naval Intelligence after Donovan returned from Europe. Roosevelt sent Donovan to Siberia in 1920 to observe and report on anti-Bolshevik operations and Japanese activities. This began Donovan's career as a presidential intelligence agent. Despite being members of different parties (as Republican candidate, Donovan ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York against Herbert Lehman in 1932) and Donovan's outspoken opposition to the New Deal, the two men remained close friends. For example, Donovan was one of a small number of guests at FDR's birthday party in Warm Springs, Georgia, in early 1933. What helped cement their friendship was their common internationalism and recognition that German and Japanese policies were driving the world toward another world war. Officially, Donovan was a Wall Street lawyer deeply involved in Republican party politics in the 1920s and 1930s. But he led a secret, double life. FDR sent Donovan to Ethiopia in 1935–36, to Spain during the Civil War, to Britain in 1940 and to a large swathe of Europe and the Middle East in 1941 to observe events and report back to the president. The 1941 mission also involved making it clear to Axis and neutral states that the U.S. was determined to prevent the defeat of Britain by any means necessary. These missions led to Donovan's appointment as civilian coordinator of information (COI) in 1941, followed by his recall to active duty as a colonel and appointment to head the military Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942. The activities of the OSS during World War II are too well known to require description here. As its head, Donovan traveled the world incessantly to observe his organization in action, to encourage its members and to gauge the shape of the postwar world. Early on, Donovan became convinced that a struggle between the U.S. and USSR was inevitable and became preparing accordingly. While there is no direct evidence, it does appear that Donovan persuaded Roosevelt that, after the war, the U.S. would require a civilian intelligence agency to provide information on emerging threats, especially from the Soviet Union. Certainly, FDR appreciated Donovan's wartime efforts, promoting him first to brigadier general and then to major general. While Truman rejected the plan following FDR's death (largely due to determined criticism from J. Edgar Hoover), the events of 1945–47, convinced the president of the validity of the intelligence organization proposal. The result was the creation of the CIA in 1947, built largely on the framework of the OSS and staffed overwhelmingly by COI and OSS veterans. Anticipating a Republican presidential victory in 1948, then in 1952, Donovan campaigned quietly but intensively to head the CIA in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was gravely disappointed by Eisenhower's refusal to do so. Instead, Donovan was appointed ambassador to Thailand, where he carried activities related to containing the expansion of the PRC. Poor health forced him to resign, and he died shortly afterwards. But, for better or worse, his legacy as the founding figure of the CIA has had enormous influence over the conduct of U.S. foreign and national-security policy over the past fifty years. His statue in the main entrance to the CIA building attests to his perpetual presence as the guiding spirit of the organization.

Submitted by Brian Sullivan, Columbia College 1967, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences 1984, who is solely responsible for the content.

Read more about this nominee in Columbians Ahead of Their Time.

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