William Donovan was an American lawyer, soldier, and diplomat who directed (1942–45) the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II.
Donovan was born on New Year's Day in 1883. (Named William, he chose his middle name, Joseph, at the time of his confirmation.) He had two younger brothers and two younger sisters who survived into adulthood and several additional younger siblings who died in infancy or childhood. "From Anna's side of the family came style and etiquette and the dreams of poets," Donovan's biographer, Douglas Waller, has written. "From Tim came toughness and duty and honor to country and clan."
Donovan attended St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, a Catholic institution at which he played football, acted in plays, and won an award for oratory. He went on to Niagara University, a Catholic University and Seminary where he studied pre-law for his undergraduate degree. Considering the priesthood, he ultimately decided "he wasn't good enough to be a priest," although he did win another oratorical contest, this time with a speech warning of corrupt, anti-Christian forces that threatened the United States.
Donovan began the practice of law in Buffalo in 1907. In 1916 he served in the New York National Guard on the Mexican border and in World War I he was in France with the 165th Infantry Regiment (formerly the celebrated New York 69th). He advanced to the rank of colonel and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1922 he was appointed U.S. district attorney for western New York. He served as assistant attorney general in the Justice Department from 1924 to 1929. During the 1930s he returned to the practice of law but maintained his political connections both in the United States and abroad. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1940–41, asked Donovan to draft plans for the creation of a central intelligence service for the United States. Donovan was appointed coordinator of information on July 11, 1941. On June 13, 1942, he was named chief of the newly created OSS. This military agency was charged with collecting foreign intelligence and carrying out counterpropaganda and covert action operations; it conducted operations throughout the world, except for Latin America and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Pacific command, and was most active in Europe.
Donovan was made a brigadier general in 1943. Although he was foremost among the advocates of a peacetime central intelligence service, he declined any role in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which was created in 1947. He served as U.S. ambassador to Thailand in 1953–54.
He married Donovan's grandmother Mary Mahoney, who belonged to a propertied family of substantial means that disapproved of him. Donovan's son, David Rumsey Donovan, was a naval officer who served with distinction in World War II. His grandson, William James Donovan, served as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam and is also buried at Arlington National Cemetery.