three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
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The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage

A-Wild Bill DonovanDouglas Waller is a former correspondent for Newsweek and Time. His previous book concerned Billy Mitchell, the U.S. Army general who is generally considered the father of the nation's Air Force.

The Topic: Bill Donovan would have been a fascinating subject for a biography even if he had never become the head of the nation's spies in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. From a working-class Irish family, he became the nation's most decorated World War I soldier. After the war, he made several unsuccessful forays into politics as a Republican and a critic of Franklin Roosevelt, but he eventually joined with FDR in the effort to fight Fascism. As head of the organization that would eventually become the CIA, Donovan tried everything he could to undermine the Axis--from arming the French Resistance to attempting to slip Hitler hormones that would render his voice a soprano. Although some of Donovan's plots may not have succeeded, it's the way he kept trying that makes his life such an interesting one.
Free Press. 480 pages. $30. ISBN: 9781416567448

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Contemporary history is seldom as relevant and engaging as Douglas Waller's new biography... which is--by turns--fascinatingly instructive and thoroughly entertaining." Timothy Rutten

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] superb, dramatic yet scholarly biography. ... Wild Bill Donovan is the first carefully researched, in-depth biography of the legendary World War II spymaster. For anyone interested in the history of American intelligence, it is required reading." David Wise

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This book is not the place to seek a comprehensive appraisal of the O.S.S.'s far-flung intelligence operations. Its many successes and debacles are only hastily sketched here. Waller is more concerned with the politics of personality, and the legacy of Donovan's complex, larger-than-life character." Jennet Conant

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Waller] draws on recently declassified material to provide a richly detailed account, by turns juicy and judicious, of the ‘father of American espionage.' ... Waller vividly re-creates Donovan's ‘try almost anything' approach." Glenn C. Altschuler

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Waller] makes a powerful case that Donovan was a great American. ... His contribution to the winning of the war is necessarily hard to quantify, but by the end of Mr. Waller's chronicle a fair-minded reader will judge it to have been considerable." Andrew Roberts

Critical Summary

Readers were generally satisfied by Waller's take on "Wild Bill," especially since (according to most critics) no adequate biography of the man was previously available. But the positive reviews often came with caveats. For example, several reviewers noted that the book should be read not as a complete history of the Office of Strategic Services but as a biography of a fascinating, even great, man. Other reviewers asked what Donovan's life means in the context of contemporary struggles over espionage and intelligence. Like Donovan, then, the book offers plenty of heroism and excitement, but it also leaves many unanswered questions.