Updated at 11:58 a.m. ET on July 22, 2019.
At the start of World War II the United States had no civilian agency dedicated to gathering foreign intelligence. Not that Americans never spied: The Army and Navy both had intelligence branches, and even private companies like General Electric sponsored corporate espionage. But the genteel Ivy Leaguers who ruled the federal government tended to view such activity as immoral, even dirty. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of war, Henry Stimson, once said, “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.” This squeamishness put the United States at a disadvantage compared with Great Britain, Germany, and Russia, all of which had sophisticated intelligence bureaus and happily spied on adversaries and allies alike.
Pearl Harbor finally forced the U.S. government to admit its shortcomings and establish the Office of Strategic Services. Most people know it today as the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, but OSS’s mandate was broader than that. In addition to espionage, it carried out paramilitary operations overseas and helped pave the way for the U.S. military’s Special Forces. In many cases, the espionage and the extralegal activities went hand in hand.
OSS was primarily shaped by two men: its director, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, and its chief scientist, Stanley Lovell. Donovan first won fame during World War I for leading a spectacularly idiotic assault. He commanded the 69th Infantry of New York, the famous “Fighting Irish,” who were trying to conquer a German fortress in the Argonne Forest in October 1918. During an intense shoot-out one day, Donovan received orders to fall back. After considering his options, he ordered his men to charge instead. When the Fighting Irish hesitated, he screamed, “What’s the matter with you? You want to live forever?” and charged off alone, confident his men would follow. They did.