Friday, 24 May 2013

Book review: Wild Bill Donovan, Douglas Waller (2011)

If WWII was too long for some it was certainly too long for me in this book; I got to page 227 in this 466 page biography which took me to the point just prior to the famous 1945 meeting of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta. General William Donovan's Office of Strategic Services (OSS) - the forerunner of today's CIA - was born during the war in collaboration with the British foreign secret services and against the objections of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI (which itself came into existence during WWI), and so Donovan travelled a lot during those years of combat to visit OSS stations dotted around the globe and to meet with politicians and spy chiefs in many countries. The OSS practiced intelligence gathering, propaganda, subversion and infiltration of foreign agencies. Donovan was a hands-on manager.

But the reason I stopped reading is because I got tired of not being told things. Douglas Waller apparently spent six years covering the CIA in the US, so presumably he knows many things of public interest, but something stops him from revealing too much. The same problem plagues academic Christopher Andrew's history of MI5 (Defend the Realm, 2009). Waller's acknowledgements note that he did talk with the CIA's historian when asking questions. He relied on previously-published biographies, "OSS records that have been declassified since these three books were published," as well as records stored in several US archives. Clearly, Waller's book is a better reconstruction than what had appeared before about the romantic, dashing and charismatic Donovan. But it is troubling that specific details about OSS activities continue to be classified, especially those relevant to WWII. You would think that by now there should be no fear of disclosing any information that could jeopardise the safety of people living.

In his acknowledgements, Waller does address this failing in his book. "I must caution that this biography could not hope to recount every operation Donovan's agency launched during the war; to do them all justice would take up another book," Waller writes. My suggestion to Waller or any other historian with the background knowledge and inclination to do so, is to in fact write that book. Pressure must be put on the secret state to disclose details of operations that were conducted in the not-so-distant past.

Stylistically, Waller's book is a great improvement on Andrew's. Because he has worked as a journalist, Waller understands the limits of people's concentration spans. His chapters are short and themed, and usually start with a sprinkling of drama: on this day at this time this person was doing this thing. The reliance on individual people and their incorporation into the stories as characters is a relief when the method is compared to the completely unstructured - and exhausting - narrative style found in Andrew's book. Oxbridge dons do not need to concern themselves with readability as the only people who read their material are scholars with ways of thinking similar to their own. A journalist is always going to do a better job at maintaining reader interest. And I suspect that Waller actually cared whether his book would sell in volume; the way Andrew's book is written any thought of saleability seems to have been abandoned early on.

Donovan's story is inherently interesting in any case. Born to a family with meagre means in the city of Buffalo, in New York State, Donovan attended university in New York City, married into wealth, and promptly joined the Army with the intention of serving in Europe in WWI. Which he did, earning honours for bravery. A lawyer, Donovan resumed legal practice on his return to civilian life and was also recruited to public office. Donovan kept a high profile in the state and so when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour he was well-placed to gain preferment for other official duties. Donovan cultivated ties with the British and with President Roosevelt and so was chosen to head a new spy agency. A physically active and intelligent man, Donovan oversaw a rapid expansion of the OSS during the war to a point where it employed many thousands of people.

No comments: