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Review: Wild Bill Donovan

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Wild Bill Donovan
Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas C. Waller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas Waller is a biography of Bill Donovan, the found of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) which was the World War II forerunner of today’s CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). In addition to a biography of Donovan, it also serves a secondary purpose as a history of the OSS. In both, I find Waller’s accounts objective and fair. This isn’t a work of hero worship, nor is it an attempt to tear Donovan down, instead it’s an unbiased account of both Donovan’s life and the OSS.

Waller traces Donovan’s life from childhood to death, but the majority of the book focuses on the OSS and World War II. He relates Donovan’s childhood in Buffalo, NY and shows it shaped him as an adult. He then details Donovan’s business, military, and political career showing he connections he made and networking he developed that would be important later on. Throughout it all, Waller continues to tell the tale of Donovan’s family life, one of almost constant separation, absent parenthood, and tragedy. This is one of the main areas where it’s obvious he’s giving a balanced portrayal of Donavan; he doesn’t gloss over Donovan’s shortcomings as a husband and parent. The portrayal of the OSS and World War II years are also balanced. Waller details Donovan’s skills and shortcomings as a leader and how both pushed the OSS ahead and held it back, leading to mistakes. At the same time, the book also shows just how fragmented and chaotic US intelligence efforts during World War II were; it also details the political and personal conflicts that kept intelligence efforts divided. Throughout the latter part of the book, you see the seeds of the CIA being planted. Personalities like Dulles, Colby, Casey, Helms, Angleton – you see them all pop up in the OSS.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Waller’s Wild Bill Donovan; it was informative and engaging. It’s also well researched and well documented, this is not a book based on rumor and myth. Published in 2011, it is a book published in an era where “black ops” can be worshiped, intelligence services belittled, and personalities like Donovan put on a pedestal (or trashed based on one’s perspective) but Waller doesn’t fall into those traps. He treats both Donovan and the OSS with objectivity and presents both their successes and their shortcomings. If you’re interested in World War II, Intelligence/Espionage, a good biography, or just a good story Wild Bill Donovan would be a great selection.

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