The Secret Legs of Democracy


Throughout the 1930s, world leaders watched as Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich grew more powerful, but many turned a blind eye to the danger facing them. Those daring enough to speak out, such as Winston Churchill, were denounced as warmongers who threatened the peace that had existed for twenty years. It was only after Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939 that Britain and France declared war on Germany. In less than a year, however, France was overrun, British troops had evacuated European soil, and Hitler’s armies were preparing to invade Britain. Now Prime Minister, Winston Churchill promised to fight the Germans “on the beaches, … in the fields and in the streets,” but he could not defeat Hitler alone. He needed help, but with Europe engulfed, aid could only come from only one place — the United States. Across the Atlantic, President Franklin Roosevelt knew he must act, so he dispatched a renowned American hero to Britain to gather intelligence on British capabilities. This former officer devoted himself to the task and to finding a way for America to save Britain from conquest. His name was William “Wild Bill” Donovan. This is the story of how he paved the way for the British-American alliance that led to Nazi Germany’s defeat.

In departing America for Britain, William Donovan was about to confront Germany for the second time in his life. He was born in Buffalo, New York on New Year’s Day, 1883 to a railroad yardmaster and grew up amid the poor Irish workers inhabiting the Lake Erie waterfront. Despite this low social status, he attended Columbia Law School, studying alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt, and upon graduating, he returned to Buffalo and opened his own practice. Desiring to serve his nation as well as his community, the young lawyer joined New York’s National Guard and rose to command Troop (Company) I of the 1st Cavalry. In late 1914, however, his attention shifted across the Atlantic as Europe was engulfed in war. When the U.S. entered the struggle in April 1917, Donovan was commissioned a major in the 165th Infantry, called the “Fighting 69th” due to its previous designation as the 69th New York, a regiment whose exploits dated back to the Civil War. His troops soon took to calling him “Wild Bill” for his bold leadership. Arriving in Europe in November 1917, he spent the winter preparing for combat, and in February 1918 he led his men to the front. After seeing action around Luneville, France and in the Meurthe Valley, “Wild Bill” assaulted German soldiers at Chateau-Thierry on July 25th. Despite suffering from a gas attack, and receiving wounds to the hand and leg, he drove the Germans from their positions. He refused to let up, however, and pursued the enemy along the Ourcq River. In September, he spearheaded an attack against German forces at St. Mihiel. Outracing British and French tanks, Lieutenant Colonel Donovan and his men seized the fortifications, halting only after they passed their objective. Donovan’s supreme moment, however, occurred during the Argonne Offensive in mid-October when he heroically rallied his men in the face of stiff resistance while assaulting German troops outside Landres and St. Georges, France, even exercising command for a full day after sustaining a second wound to the leg. His actions earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor and a promotion to colonel. After the war ended in November, Donovan and the regiment served on occupation duty in Germany before returning home in April 1919. The war was over, but “Wild Bill’s” service to his country had only begun.

No sooner had he been mustered out of the army than William Donovan embarked on his long career as an intelligence operative. At the behest of President Woodrow Wilson, he traveled to Russia in July 1919 to investigate the civil war raging between the communist Red Bolsheviks and the anti-communist White Russians. He found the Whites’ morale was deteriorating, and he concluded it would not be long before the Reds emerged triumphant. Returning home by way of Japan, he noted the prevalent anti-American attitude and the unabashed desire to expand the island nation’s sphere of influence, which eventually resulted in the Japanese invasion of China in the early 1930s. Shortly after, Donovan realized peace was just as fragile in Europe. In 1920 he visited Germany, only to find the country gripped by political and economic chaos. He listened as inhabitants denounced the humiliating terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, particularly the loss of territory such as the Rhineland, the reduction of the army to 100,000 men, and most importantly, the assumption of responsibility for the war and the payment of reparations. He recognized such national disgrace ensured a second war was all but inevitable. This view intensified in 1923 after he met a young, charismatic politician named Adolf Hitler. Donovan kept an eye on German affairs throughout the 1920s, even while serving in the U.S. Justice Department. In 1932 he returned to Europe to find principled leaders like Franz von Papen struggling to prevent the Nazi Party from assuming its position as the majority party in the Reichstag, Germany’s Parliament. “Wild Bill” considered it a last-ditch effort to avoid a future conflict. Unfortunately, it was to no avail. His worst fears were realized on January 30, 1933 when Adolf Hitler was proclaimed Chancellor. Less than two months later, the Third Reich was born, and the countdown to war had effectively begun.

As the likelihood of war increased, Donovan frequently ventured overseas to ascertain Germany’s military capabilities. In 1937 he witnessed the Wehrmacht (German Army) test its newest tank, the Panther, in field maneuvers, and a year later, he viewed the tank and the Stuka dive-bomber in action as they were utilized in support of the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. He stared in awe at the destruction reaped by both weapons, and he easily recognized Germany was gauging the weapons’ capabilities in wartime. He also observed German soldiers engaging in exercises at Nuremberg. To him, it was clear the army was readying for a war of lightning fast movement, and the likely targets of the campaign were the Low Countries of Belgium and the Netherlands. Hitler proved Donovan correct in May 1940, following quickly on the heels of the invasions of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Poland in September and Norway in April 1940. After driving through the Low Countries, German troops stormed into France, and by early June, only Britain stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut.

The situation grew worse throughout July as the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) pounded British airfields and towns despite the Royal Air Force’s stubborn efforts to stem the tide. From the American Embassy, U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, father of future President John F. Kennedy, pessimistically touted Germany’s seemingly inevitable triumph. Intelligence officers shared this defeatist outlook — predicting the RAF’s collapse in weeks. Realizing he needed a more objective opinion, Franklin Roosevelt dispatched his old law school classmate to London as an unofficial representative. Upon arriving, Donovan met King George VI, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Admiral John Godfrey, head of naval intelligence and found each fully committed to the ongoing struggle. As he toured the country, he discovered that determination resonated in the hearts of British pilots and individual citizens. He also spoke with U.S. officers like Lieutenant Colonel Carl Spaatz, a future Air Force general, who told Donovan he expected British forces to prevail. In the wake of the discussions, “Wild Bill” observed the superiority of British Spitfires as they dueled with German fighters in the skies over London. He determined Britain could hold out, and he resolved to urge President Roosevelt to give greater support to Britain, most importantly through ensuring adequate military supplies.

Upon arriving back home in August, Donovan reported to President Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and proposed America provide its surplus military stockpiles to Churchill’s government. He urged the transfer of old destroyers to the Royal Navy to help protect food convoys crossing the Atlantic as well as the sale of Enfield rifles to equip Britain’s home defense forces. He found an enthusiastic supporter for his plan in President Roosevelt who, until he convinced his countrymen of the need to join the fight, desired to show Churchill America would not let Britain fall from lack of military stores. It would also demonstrate to Hitler the U.S. steadfastly opposed his designs for world domination. However, Roosevelt faced an uphill battle with his political foes, primarily Republicans, for his willingness to involve America in “European affairs. Determined to overcome the isolationists, “Wild Bill” consistently lobbied Congress to trade 50 aging destroyers for 99-year leases on British bases in Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Newfoundland. Likely due in part to his efforts, Congress passed legislation providing for “Lend-Lease” in March 1941. With supplies finally on their way to Britain, Donovan set about cooperating with British officials to halt further Nazi aggression.

Returning to London in December 1940, Donovan learned of Hitler’s intentions to invade the Soviet Union, and, along with Winston Churchill, he hatched a plan to establish resistance in the Balkans so as to delay the invasion as long as possible. Accompanied by British Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Dykes, “Wild Bill” stopped in Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia and encouraged each nation to defy the Nazis massing along their borders. (After German forces drove into the Balkans in April 1941, it took five weeks to subdue the resistance, thus postponing the Russian invasion and possibly ensuring its ultimate failure.) Leaving southern Europe, Donovan made his way to Spain where, along with British Ambassador Sir Samuel Hoare, he coerced Fascist dictator Francisco Franco to reject an alliance with Hitler, thus giving Britain continued control of Gibraltar. Back in the U.S., he frustrated Nazi efforts by gathering intelligence in conjunction with British operatives like Ian Fleming, who later created the famed spy of book and film — James Bond. International cooperation deepened upon the founding of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which later transformed into the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). America’s chief spy even opened a London office in late October 1941. By the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and Germany declared war two days later, “Wild Bill” Donovan was ready to officially join his British comrades in eradicating Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.

Upon America’s entry into World War II, newly-reinstated Brigadier General William J. Donovan conducted intelligence operations across the globe, but like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he considered the first order of business to be the destruction of Nazi Germany. He began the long march to victory in early 1942 by laying the groundwork for the Allied invasion of North Africa, codenamed Operation Torch. He sent operatives to coordinate with the French resistance and to investigate those beaches and harbors chosen for the landings. He also ordered them to neutralize enemy aircraft and enemy artillery batteries. These efforts ensured Operation Torch was a success, and in the ensuing months, Donovan watched in pride as his spies provided the tactical intelligence allowing for German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s defeat. With North Africa secure, he assisted the drive into Italy and the subsequent capture of Rome by cooperating with the Italian underground. Then in early 1944 he dispatched teams to Normandy, France and gathered such critical information as the location of the feared Panzer Lehr Division. During the Allied landings on “D-Day,” June 6th, he directed the OSS and French Resistance activities behind enemy lines. As Allied troops pushed inland, operatives roamed the countryside with impunity. In late August “Wild Bill” led a team into Paris and personally liberated the Ritz Hotel. As the war drew to a close, he ordered 200 agents into Germany to further destabilize Hitler’s regime. Like those he led, Donovan celebrated the Allies’ hard fought victory over Germany in May 1945.

Following war’s end, Donovan remained in Europe and participated in the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. Simultaneously, he perceived the rising danger of the Soviet Union. This experience led him to champion a comprehensive and centralized intelligence agency. In 1947 his dream was realized with the CIA’s creation. He also called for stronger ties among European nations, including Germany, to deter Soviet aggression. In 1953 Dwight Eisenhower appointed Donovan U.S. Ambassador to Thailand. In this position, America’s aging spymaster witnessed Communism’s rise in China and in nearby Vietnam, and he feared a “domino effect” throughout Southeast Asia. Ultimately, the cumulative strains of his years of service became too great, and he resigned his post before returning home to New York. In March 1957, he developed a blood clot in his brain, and he was further incapacitated by two strokes. William “Wild Bill” Donovan died at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C. in February 1959 and was deeply mourned by the nation he strove to protect for so many years.

Throughout his life, William Donovan understood the U.S. had a responsibility to serve as the “arsenal of democracy.” When liberty was most strenuously threatened, he, perhaps more than any other American, grasped the gravity of the situation. As he watched Nazi Germany menace Britain, Donovan knew he could not stand by as western democracy faced annihilation. He had to act, so he did. Befitting the warrior he always was, “Wild Bill” fought tenaciously to provide material support to Britain, and he cultivated contacts with British leaders that proved invaluable to the U.S. upon its entrance into the war. Today, it is Franklin Roosevelt who is primarily credited with cementing America’s alliance with Britain, but in reality, that praise rightfully belongs to the man Roosevelt called “my secret legs” —- William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan.


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2 responses to “The Secret Legs of Democracy

  1. Excellent story Jake! Great title for the piece as well. I had heard of “Wild Bill” but knew almost nothing about this patriot. Thanks for this very well written Take.

  2. Mark Bushell

    Catching up and wow – I love this! The founder of our intel community essentially- Another WOW on this story about his ‘early’ life… What a man!

    Thank you Jake! 🙂

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