As we look back on American military heroes over Memorial Day weekend, the lists include generals, West Point graduates and famous politicians. The most decorated veteran of all time, however, is a lawyer who went on to become the person widely considered the father of the Central Intelligence Agency.
In his new book, “Hope and History: A Memoir of Tumultuous Times,” famous 20th Century diplomat Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel described in great detail his years as an aid to William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan. Over the course of the section on Donovan, he describes the military career of a man who is the only American to have won all four of the highest military honors: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and the National Security Medal.
Donovan’s early life had nothing to do with the military, or military intelligence. He was born in Buffalo in 1883. He eventually became a college football star, went to Columbia Law School and entered private practice.
After joining the National Guard in 1912 and serving during border skirmishes with Mexico, Donovan went to Europe to serve in World War I. Across the course of several battles, he was wounded and eventually promoted to colonel. According to his CIA biography, “Donovan was wounded in action three times during World War I. On July 18, 1918, for bravery under fire on the River Ourcq during the Second Battle of the Marne, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.”
Donovan served in the Roosevelt administration and was asked in 1941 to run the Office of the Coordination of Information, set up to coordinate information collection so that it could be more useful to Roosevelt in the early portion of the Second World War. The name was changed to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942, and it continued to gather information covertly for the balance of Roosevelt’s presidency. The OSS was closed at the end of the war. However, Donovan and others believed that there should be a permanent agency that performed duties similar to those done by the OSS. The CIA was launched in 1947. Donovan was not given the job to run it. However, because the CIA was fundamentally a spin-off of the OSS organization, the “father of the CIA” designation remained.
Donovan returned to private practice for several years, until President Eisenhower appointed him Ambassador to Thailand in 1953.
Donovan made his name as a military hero primarily because of his actions in World War I. Fittingly, that war is the earliest one from which all veterans are honored, which is one of the things most people don’t know about Memorial Day but should.