Wild Bill Donovan: Book summary and reviews of Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas Waller

Wild Bill Donovan

The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage

By Douglas Waller

Wild Bill Donovan
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  • Published in USA  Feb 2011,
    480 pages.

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Book Summary

He was one of America’s most exciting and secretive generals—the man Franklin Roosevelt made his top spy in World War II. A mythic figure whose legacy is still intensely debated, “Wild Bill” Donovan was director of the Office of Strategic Services (the country’s first national intelligence agency) and the father of today’s CIA. Donovan introduced the nation to the dark arts of covert warfare on a scale it had never seen before. Now, veteran journalist Douglas Waller has mined government and private archives throughout the United States and England, drawn on thousands of pages of recently declassified documents, and interviewed scores of Donovan’s relatives, friends, and associates to produce a riveting biography of one of the most powerful men in modern espionage.

William Joseph Donovan’s life was packed with personal drama. The son of poor Irish Catholic parents, he married into Protestant wealth and fought heroically in World War I, where he earned the nickname “Wild Bill” for his intense leadership and the Medal of Honor for his heroism. After the war he made millions as a Republican lawyer on Wall Street until FDR, a Democrat, tapped him to be his strategic intelligence chief. A charismatic leader, Donovan was revered by his secret agents. Yet at times he was reckless—risking his life unnecessarily in war zones, engaging in extramarital affairs that became fodder for his political enemies—and he endured heartbreaking tragedy when family members died at young ages.

Wild Bill Donovan reads like an action-packed spy thriller, with stories of daring young men and women in his OSS sneaking behind enemy lines for sabotage, breaking into Washington embassies to steal secrets, plotting to topple Adolf Hitler, and suffering brutal torture or death when they were captured by the Gestapo. It is also a tale of political intrigue, of infighting at the highest levels of government, of powerful men pitted against one another. Donovan fought enemies at home as often as the Axis abroad. Generals in the Pentagon plotted against him.

J. Edgar Hoover had FBI agents dig up dirt on him. Donovan stole secrets from the Soviets before the dawn of the Cold War and had intense battles with Winston Churchill and British spy chiefs over foreign turf. Separating fact from fiction, Waller investigates the successes and the occasional spectacular failures of Donovan’s intelligence career.

It makes for a gripping and revealing portrait of this most controversial spymaster.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Exhaustively researched but not exhaustively written, this will probably stand as the definitive biography of a seminal figure in the history of American intelligence." - Booklist

"Entertaining history...As [Waller] amply shows, Donovan was a combination of bold innovator and imprudent rule bender, which made him not only a remarkable wartime leader but also an extraordinary figure in American history." - The New York Times Book Review

"Contemporary history is seldom as relevant and engaging as Douglas Waller's new biography, Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, which is - by turns - fascinatingly instructive and thoroughly entertaining." - L.A. Times

"Wild Bill Donovan, the founding father of American espionage, jumps off the page in Douglas Waller’s superb biography of one of the nation’s most important and least understood leaders of the 20th Century. " - James Risen, author of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration

" In Wild Bill Donovan, Douglas C. Waller’s impressive research and riveting writing bring the ‘Father of American Intelligence’ to life, drawing the reader into one of the most thrilling and remarkable periods in American history." - Lee H. Hamilton, former Chairman, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

"This superb, dramatic yet scholarly biography, tells a great deal about the man who built a far-flung intelligence organization from scratch in the midst of World War II." - The Washington Post

"In this fast-paced, entertaining and engrossing biography, the author delivers a portrait of a hard-driving, Type A extrovert willing to take on political enemies…A well-calibrated assessment of Donovan and the impact of the OSS on the war…The book is replete with fascinating anecdotes ...and tales of derring-do." - Associated Press

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Author Information

Douglas Waller Author Biography

Photo: douglascwaller.com

Douglas Waller is a veteran magazine correspondent, author and lecturer. In almost two decades as a Washington journalist, he has covered the Pentagon, Congress, the State Department, the White House and the CIA for such prestigious publications as Time and Newsweek.

Waller is the author or co-author of eight books, including Wild Bill Donovan, Big Red: Three Months On Board A Trident Nuclear Submarine, and Air Warriors: The Inside Story of the Making of a Navy Pilot.

Born in Norfolk, Virginia on June 30, 1949, Waller holds a B.A. in English from Wake Forest University and an M.A. in Urban Administration from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. A former captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, he lives in Annandale, Virginia.

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