Donovan, William J. (William Joseph), 1883-1959

Alternative names
Birth 1883-01-01
Death 1959-02-08

Biographical notes:

General William J. Donovan played an important part in the International Military Tribunal proceedings at Nuremberg in his role as special assistant to the U.S. chief of counsel, Supreme Court justice Robert H. Jackson. Donovan graduated from the Columbia Law School and became a prominent attorney in New York City. In World War I he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor and many other decorations. As the founding director of the Office of Strategic Services--the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency--he offered valuable intelligence to Jackson as the Allies gathered evidence to construct their case against the German war criminals.

From the description of Nuremberg trials archive, 1933-1946. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122529364

Buffalo attorney, World War I hero, and organizer of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.

From the description of Papers, 1913-1920. (Buffalo History Museum). WorldCat record id: 34436802

Lawyer, Major General in the U.S. Army.

From the description of William J. Donovan papers, 1775-1790. (Columbia University In the City of New York). WorldCat record id: 493895062

William Joseph Donovan (1883-1959), lawyer, soldier, and diplomat, was born in Buffalo, N.Y., the son of Timothy Patrick Donovan, a railroad yard superintendent, and Anna Letitia Lennon. He entered Niagara University in 1901 to prepare for the priesthood, but transferred to Columbia University in 1904 to study law. After receiving the B.A. in 1905 and the LL.B. in 1907, Donovan returned to Buffalo to practice law; in 1912 he merged his firm, Donovan and Goodyear, with the leading law firm in Buffalo, O''Brian and Hamlin. On July 15, 1914, Donovan married Ruth Rumsey. They had two children. After serving with the New York National Guard on the Mexican border in 1916, Donovan became a battalion major and subsequently a colonel in the New York 69th Regiment, one of the first American units to see action in France during World War I. He was wounded three times in combat and won the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. After several special assignments both overseas and in Washington, Donovan returned to his law practice as a national war hero. In 1922 Donovan became United States attorney for western New York, and later that year he accepted the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. Victory went to the Democratic ticket headed by Alfred E. Smith, but Donovan ran far ahead of the other Republican candidates. Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone, Donovan''s former professor, appointed him chief of the Criminal Division in 1924; the next year, Donovan rose to assistant to the attorney general for the Antitrust Division. During four years in this post, he endeavored to avoid needless antitrust litigation by previewing, and offering his opinion on, proposed mergers. Donovan thus helped to implement the Coolidge-Hoover policy of cooperating with big business and deemphasizing antitrust actions. In 1928 Donovan worked on behalf of Herbert Hoover, whom he had met during World War I, by helping in the Republican Party''s effort to line up votes among Catholics. When Hoover did not name him attorney general, Donovan opened a law practice in New York City. Still politically ambitious, he unsuccessfully opposed Herbert H. Lehman for governor of New York in 1932. Throughout the 1930''s Donovan practiced corporation law and was a sharp critic of the New Deal. Donovan also spoke in favor of military preparedness. Several of his trips overseas, after which he reported to American officials, attracted much publicity because of their air of mystery and called attention to his ability to obtain and analyze intelligence data. In 1935 Donovan persuaded Benito Mussolini to let him observe Italian forces in Libya and Ethiopia; in 1938 he visited Spain. Two years later, after the outbreak of World War II, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox asked Donovan to assess the British war effort firsthand, and upon his return Donovan published a number of influential newspaper articles on German subversion. He made a secret mission to southeastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean in late 1940 and early 1941; on this trip he appraised British strengths and needs, and encouraged local officials to resist the Germans. As American involvement in the war approached, Donovan, who had become convinced of the power of propaganda and the need for counterpropaganda and subversion during war, advocated the creation of a central American intelligence agency. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked him to head an agency that would collect and analyze strategic intelligence as well as engage in counterpropaganda and clandestine operations; Donovan became coordinator of information on July 11, 1941. He and the staff that he assembled quietly began gathering information, studying everything from the economic structure of Germany to the personalities of world leaders, shaping American propaganda, monitoring foreign radio broadcasts, and--in a limited way at first--directing "special operations" (subversion, sabotage, and counterintelligence) overseas. When President Roosevelt restructured intelligence functions on June 13, 1942, Donovan became head of the new Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was charged with conducting nonmilitary action against the enemy as well as with gathering and analyzing strategic information. Donovan guided the OSS through the jealousy of other American (and Allied) intelligence agencies; the skepticism of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to whom the OSS reported; occasional inappropriate use of OSS agents in the field; attempts to undermine the independence of the OSS; the ridicule of Americans who regarded a "spy agency" as unnecessary or inconsistent with American ideals; and some resentment of his personal domination of the OSS. Opposition even to military rank for Donovan prevailed until 1943, when he was made a brigadier general. Late in 1944, Donovan recommended to Roosevelt that a peacetime intelligence agency modeled on the OSS be established. On Aug. 25, 1945, Donovan (now a major general) resigned in order to demonstrate that his recommendation, which had been leaked to the press, was not motivated by ambition to head such an agency. On September 20, President Harry S. Truman dissolved the OSS. From his New York law office Donovan continued to advocate a permanent intelligence agency. When the Central Intelligence Agency was created, he was regarded as a possible director, especially after Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom Donovan had supported for the Republican nomination in 1952, became president. Donovan wanted the position, but Allen W. Dulles was the new president''s choice. Eisenhower did ask Donovan, a vocal foe of communism, to become ambassador to Thailand, where he served in 1953-1954. He then returned to his law practice, but ill health increasingly limited his activities until his death in Washington, D.C. Although Donovan''s nickname, "Wild Bill," bespoke his colorful public reputation, he actually was a gentle, unassuming, intensely private man who gave the appearance of aloofness. He had few close friends. His most striking qualities were his inexhaustible energy, iron discipline, and self-control in any crisis.

From the description of Donovan, William J. (William Joseph), 1883-1959 (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). naId: 10679485


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  • World War, 1914-1918--Photographs
  • World War, 1939-1945--Personal narratives
  • Ambassadors--Archives
  • World War, 1939-1945--Press coverage
  • World War, 1939-1945--Atrocities
  • World War, 1939-1945--Moral and ethical aspects
  • Military intelligence
  • Nuremberg Trial of Major German War Criminals, Nuremberg, Germany, 1945-1946
  • World War, 1939-1945--Concentration camps
  • World War, 1914-1918--Campaigns
  • Law offices
  • Law--History--20th century
  • World War, 1939-1945--Photographs
  • World War, 1939-1945--Military intelligence


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  • Romania (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Thailand (as recorded)
  • Germany (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Africa, North (as recorded)
  • New York (State)--Buffalo (as recorded)
  • Siberia (Russia) (as recorded)