Remembering Our Intelligence History


Lately, when Americans hear the acronyms “CIA” or “NSA,” their first thoughts are not of the important work done by the US intelligence community, but of improper or blundering activities such as the NSA’s spying on millions of ordinary Americans and allied foreign governments, and the deadly CIA blunder in Benghazi, Libya. That such scandals received widespread news coverage is to be celebrated, as the US is not an autocracy but a representative republic whose people, not their government, are sovereign. Americans must hold their intelligence agencies to the highest standards, in keeping with the country’s history as a free and open society.

Still, Americans must keep in mind that the work done by the CIA and NSA is vital to the defense of the United States and its allies. For this reason, it is important to remember the history of the Office of Special Services or OSS, the precursor to the CIA that was formed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The US had been a reluctant entrant into World War I and, following the war, drastically reduced its defense spending. Up until the formation of the OSS, US intelligence activities had been carried out in an ad hoc fashion by sundry departments of the federal government’s executive branch. In the run-up to World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt foresaw a broad European conflict that the US would be unable to ignore. Concerned about the country’s lack of a coordinated intelligence agency such as Britain’s vaunted M16, the President asked decorated WWI veteran William Donovan to draft a plan to create such an intelligence service for the US. While Donovan was a conservative Republican and FDR a liberal Democrat, the men were of similar temperament and agreed that Europe would soon be plunged into a second World War.

Initially, Donovan was simply titled “Co-ordinator of Information” (COI), and functioned as a liaison officer rather than a director of a distinct American intelligence service. That would change after the Pearl Harbor attack. On June 13, 1942, President Roosevelt established the OSS by Presidential order. By then, Donovan had resumed military service as a colonel (the rank he had attained in WWI) and left the inchoate office of the COI in the hands of his protégé Allen Dulles. Led by Colonel Donovan, the OSS carried out numerous successful operations in the European and Asian theaters. The OSS armed and trained resistance movements against the Japanese in Burma, China, and French Indochina; trained Austrian and German antifascists for missions inside Nazi Germany; recruited diplomatic couriers from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Switzerland to smuggle US intel into these areas to communicate with native elements hostile to the Nazis and Nazi collaborators; and conducted many other operations designed to weaken the Axis powers.

At the war’s end, Donovan, now a general, hoped to grow the OSS into a permanent US intelligence agency. However, with the death of his friend and ally President Roosevelt, General Donovan’s political capital declined. With the war over, American conservatives swayed public opinion against the establishment of what they termed an “American Gestapo.” While Donovan assisted with the prosecution of Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg, he did so as a civilian attorney, not an intelligence officer of the US government, The Hill reports.

Nevertheless, not two years after the dissolution of the OSS, Donovan’s vision for an American M16-style agency became a reality with the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency.

As citizens of the world’s oldest constitutional democratic republic, Americans are duty-bound to view their government with skepticism; in particular, Americans should be wary of any form of government secrecy. There is no argument that the CIA and other US intelligence agencies have engaged in many controversial and inappropriate activities. However, only the most biased and/or naïve persons would deny that such agencies do work crucial to protecting the US and its allies around the world. Thus, it is essential that the heroic endeavors of the OSS never be forgotten.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE