The Office of the Strategic Services, or the (OSS), played an important and sometimes overlooked role in bringing victory to the allies in World War II. This innovative and ever changing agency took on a life of its own throughout America's involvement in the war. The OSS proved itself useful even to its toughest critics by the end of the war. Today's premier intelligence agency, the CIA, owes its existence to what the OSS was able to accomplish throughout WWII.
As the threat of war became more real and the fear of communism and fascism grew, the United States found itself in need of intelligence. Fighting was breaking out in Asia and now in Europe. Who was going to be next? And most importantly, how can we stop the enemy? By late June, the Germans had defeated France. Now Britain found itself in the midst of an all out air war. Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that the war had reached a critical stage. He was looking for different ways to help Britain in the war effort. Roosevelt asked a WWI veteran, Colonel William J. Donovan, to go to Britain and report on Britain's chances against Germany. Winston Churchill made sure this visit went well. Donovan was able to see all sides of the Britain's strategy and defenses. Because of Britain's desperate need for American support, Donovan was given access to all kinds of defensive and intelligence secrets. Donovan was impressed with many of Britain's operational agencies, especially Britain's intelligence function.
When Donovan came back to the United States he prepared extensive reports of everything he encountered in Britain. He also added many of his own ideas on intelligence and the need for a nondepartmental intelligence agency. Roosevelt was intrigued with Donovan's ideas on the need for intelligence in warfare. President Roosevelt decided that there was a need for an agency that could coordinate all intelligence arms of the United States. On July 11, 1941, FDR created a new office with Donovan at the head as the Coordinator of Information, or the COI.
Colonel William J. Donovan was law graduate from Columbia Law School where he was a classmate of FDR. He was a decorated war hero who earned the Medal of Honor for his service in the 165th Infantry Regiment in WWI. He was a well-traveled man who was interested in world affairs. During the Coolidge administration he served as the assistant attorney general. This is where he would meet one of his toughest critics. He briefly supervised J. Edgar Hoover and the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation. He made numerous contacts in government, one of which was Frank Knox who became FDR's Secretary of the Navy in 1940. Frank Knox and Donovan were old friends. "Knox tried mightily to get his close friend and political colleague, Colonel Donovan, appointed secretary of war" (Troy 23). FDR didn't appoint Donovan to his cabinet, but by Knox initiating communication between Donovan and FDR, it led to the development of the COI.
Before World War II, our intelligence organization was quite primitive. "The U.S. government traditionally left intelligence to the principal executors of American foreign policy, the Department of State and the armed services. Attaches and diplomats collected the bulk of America's foreign intelligence, mostly in the course of official business but occasionally in clandestine meetings with secret contacts" (Warner 2). The Office of Naval Intelligence or O.N.I., the army's Intelligence Division or M.I.D., and the Military Intelligence Service or M.I.S. were the main foreign intelligence gatherers for the armed services. These agencies, however, were usually small and poorly funded. The biggest problem though was the lack of coordination between the different departments. Information that was collected was rarely shared with other departments and there was no central point for intelligence analysis. This decentralization was not seen as a big problem until America found itself on the verge of entering the war.
In July of 1941 FDR gave the newly formed COI its list of objectives. FDR authorized the new office to "collect and analyze all information and data, which may bear upon national security: to correlate such information and data, and make such information and data available to the President and to such departments and officials of the Government as the President may determine; and to carry out, when requested by the President, such supplementary activities as may facilitate the securing of information important for national security not now available to the Government" (Warner 2). This authorization was broad in nature and left many things to Donovan's interpretation. The organization grew quickly in the next few months. He started accumulating various offices and staffs throughout the government. Donovan recruited some of the best and the brightest the country had to offer. This included people of world knowledge who had studied abroad. Many came from prestigious Ivy League Universities. He was building a small army of patrons that possessed a wealth of knowledge for a series of operations that would be tried and tested throughout the war.
The new organization was still receiving a lot of resistance from existing agencies like the FBI and the War Departments Military Intelligence Division, also known as the G-2. They didn't like the idea of this newly formed rag-tag organization to have so much power. They wanted to be able to control the organization so it was proposed an initiative to put the COI under the control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Donovan didn't think this was such a bad idea. By putting the organization under the Joint Chiefs of Staff he would gain access to military resources. Another compromise of the move was that the President wanted to keep the COI's Foreign Information Service out of military control. The FIS carried out white propaganda for the COI through radio broadcasting. So the FIS department went to the new Office of War Information and the rest of the organization was placed under the control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The organization that resulted was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) on June 13, 1942.
Even though the OSS was now under the Joint Chiefs of Staff it still encountered resistance. "The State Department and the armed services arranged a Presidential decree that effectively banned the OSS and several other agencies from acquiring and decoding the war's most important intelligence source: intercepted Axis communications" (Warner 3). They had no access to MAGIC and only limited access to ULTRA. This made it tough on the OSS to make a valuable contribution to the war effort. No matter what limitations were put on the OSS Colonel Donovan was determined to take an active role in the war.
The OSS had many different offices that changed throughout the war and many of them contributed. Some of the main branches of the OSS included Research and Analysis (R&A), Secret Intelligence (SI), Special Operations (SO), and the X-2 branch, which was involved in counterintelligence operations. The R&A was composed of about 900 Scholars. One of their main jobs was to use all sources available to them and map out Axis strengths and vulnerabilities. Donovan believed that many open source materials such as libraries, newspapers, and government and industry information would yield valuable information for the Allies. This turned out to be very useful in the Allied bombings in Europe. The R&A branch collected extensive information on German vulnerabilities. The information gathered pointed to German oil production. If the oil was cut off you could take the wind out of the sails of the Germans. Allied bombers struck German aircraft factories first to weaken the Luftwaffe. Once the force was diminished Allied bombers could start hitting German oil facilities. The Germans were unable to keep many tanks and trucks running due to the lack of diesel and gasoline.
The Secret Intelligence Branch (SI) preformed many of the functions of today's intelligence organizations. They concentrated on human intelligence also known as spying and espionage. SI operatives established contacts all through Europe and Asia. Allen W. Dulles was named the SI station chief in 1942. He made contacts within France and Germany that provided the Allies with reports on German deployments and resistance movements within the countries themselves. Case officer work became extremely important. It was near impossible to get an American agent into Germany for clandestine reporting so William J. Casey, the head of the London SI office, attempted to "double" many German POWs in England. These POWs received all the necessary training and documentation from the Allies and were placed into the Third Reich. The intelligence gathered by these double agents aided the Allies in tactical battle situations. Many of the double agents paid with their lives if they were caught.
The Special Operations Branch (SO) also had important contributions throughout Europe and Asia. They worked very closely with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Donovan always wanted a way to get involved in the offensive in the war. The SO unit was his answer to that. The main focus of the SO was guerrilla operations and sabotage behind enemy lines. Women played an important role in many of these operations. The OSS frequently used woman throughout the organization. Of these women, one of the most famous was Virginia Hall who gets credit for being the first American operative in France. She began by working with the SOE when she was first placed in France (Funk 20). During her time in France she coordinated a number of underground operations with the French resistance. Another important SO/SOE operation in France invoved the "Jedburgh" teams. These were teams of agents that parachuted into France before the Normandy landings took place. Together with the French resistance they aided in the success of D-Day by running small operations and providing an effective diversion.
The X-2 branch was created in part to share in important ULTRA intercepts with the British. The OSS was still denied many valuable intercepts, but they worked closely with British intelligence and made the most of their resources. The X-2 helped the British in counterintelligence operations abroad. With the help of ULTRA the British were able to catch every German spy working in Britain. The X-2 in many ways became the elite organization of the OSS. One group within the X-2 branch was the secret Insurance Intelligence Unit. "The unit mined standard insurance records for blueprints of bomb plants, timetables of tide changes, and thousands of other details about targets, from a brewery in Bangkok to a candy company in Bergedorf, Germany." "They knew which factories to burn, which bridges to blow up, and which cargo ships could be sunk in good conscience" (Fritz 1).
The development of intelligence operations during the war provided the Allies with a great advantage over its enemies. The countless operations and bundles of information gathered added a new dimension in warfare. Although the OSS was disbanded shortly after the war it had a definite impact on the way wars were fought in the future. With the changing nature in warfare the 1947 National Security Act created a new office of intelligence called the Central Intelligence Agency. The OSS contributed significantly to the creation of the CIA in some structural ways and by training many of the leaders who would run the new agency. By no means did the OSS win the war alone but it "played a significant role as a supplementary instrument of military operations in World War I" (Bradley p. 418).
Fritz, Mark. "Insurance agents were vital weapons in World War II." Articles. ../ar/145/articles145.html (24 Feb 2001).
Funk, Arthur L. "American Contacts With the French Resistance in France, 1940-1943." Military Affairs. Volume 34, Issue 1 (Feb., 1970), 15-21.
Secrets of War: Spy Games of World War II. DVD. The History Channel, 208 min.
Smith, Bradley F. The Shadow Warriors: O.S.S. and the Origins of the C.I.A. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Troy, Thomas F. Wild Bill and Intrepid: Donovan, Stephenson, and the origin of the CIA. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Warner, Michael. "The Office of Strategic Services: America's First Intelligence Agency." Central Intelligence Agency. May 2000. http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/oss/ (5 April 2001).