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The Birth Of The CIA
When and how it got the green light to conduct “subversive operations abroad”
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
The history of successful ideas is sometimes marked by a trade-off. In his old age General William J. Donovan, founder of the United States intelligence service, may have reflected on the phenomenon. The trade-off goes something like this:
A man has an idea and proceeds to push it. Naturally, his idea is opposed by those to whom its acceptance will mean loss of power, stability, and comfort. Often the man is termed “power-mad”; he may even be hated. But suppose the idea is a very good one. There comes a point in the battle when to those who must decide the issue, a compromise occurs. Why not accept the idea and bar the man who had it from having anything to do with carrying it out?
Some such trade-off—trade-offs are never explicitly stated—hit Donovan very hard on a day in January, 1953, when Allen W. Dulles became Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, an institution that had sprung largely out of Donovan’s brain.
“Ah,” the old soldier sighed when he heard the news, “a very good man, Allen. I chose him personally to be chief of OSS in Switzerland. But Allen is young and inexperienced. He’s never had a large command. He ought to be number two.”
The emissary from Dulles to whom Donovan made this observation was amused at hearing the sixty-year-old Dulles called “young and inexperienced.” But when Donovan’s remark was reported back to Dulles, he was understanding. “Poor Bill. He’s never wanted anything so much in his life. And you know, if they’d bought Bill’s idea in the first place, we’d be a lot better off than we are now.”
Dulles was trying to be generous, but he was not exaggerating. Anyone who looks at the early history of the United States intelligence effort must be struck by the time wasted between Donovan and Dulles, or, to put it more precisely, between 1945, when Joseph Stalin opened his cold-war offensive in Poland, and 1950, when the Soviet Union attacked through its satellite in Korea.
During that period Russia erected its iron curtain; threatened Turkey, the Balkans, West Germany, and the Middle East; fought proposals for a United Nations army, international control of atomic energy, and the Marshall Plan; and began its enormously effective hate-America campaign in western Europe. While all this was going on, what might have been a United States counterforce languished in the hands of ineffectual men, subalterns to chieftains who were carving out empires in a battle over the unification of the armed services.
It was a time when a huge defense establishment was being dismantled at a rate as alarming to the country’s leaders as it was popular with the country’s people, and when Americans, tired of war and trusting in peace, wanted very much to believe that the leaders of the Soviet Union felt the same way. “Wild Bill” Donovan, with his talk of spies and saboteurs, seemed an anachronism.
The name “Wild Bill” was a generational heritage—a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers named William Donovan walked six and hit one in the first three innings of the deciding game of the World Series of 1909. But it was not an inaccurate sobriquet. Donovan was a fearless soldier and a first-rate lawyer. He had a bland manner, enormous round blue eyes, and a habit of walking on the balls of his feet, like a halfback who might suddenly swerve.
But he was also a romantic, and like all romantics he could be from time to time both endearing and irritating. For example, driving across town in New York City shortly after V-J Day, Donovan suddenly ordered his chauffeur to halt, darted from the car and disappeared into the crowd. Reappearing a few moments later, with a boyish grin, he explained to a companion, “I just remembered I ought to pay my respects to Father Duffy. Haven’t talked to him for a long while.”
Father Duffy had been regimental chaplain of Donovan’s Fighting 69th during World War I and had been on the field when Donovan won the Congressional Medal of Honor. But he had, at this time, been dead for many years. Only a man of endearing romanticism would have thought to confer with his statue in Times Square.
On the other hand, Donovan’s romanticism led him to deeds which seemed arrogant. He had himself transported to World War II beaches during landings for no other reason than that he wanted to be there; he went over other peoples’ heads; he ignored channels and organization charts. And he would try anything. The more insane the idea, the more likely it seemed that Donovan would wave his hand and say, “Let’s give it a try.”