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.
The Germans stopped them cold, and a machine-gun bullet shattered Donovan’s knee. But he once again refused orders to evacuate, and spent the next five hours hobbling around and preparing his men for the inevitable German counterassault. When it came, he rallied the Fighting Irish and drove the Huns back into the fortress in a rout, all but winning the battle single-handedly. Had the assault failed, Donovan would have been court-martialed (assuming he even lived). As it was, he earned the Medal of Honor and returned home one of the most highly decorated soldiers in American history.
When World War II rolled around, Donovan was working in a New York law firm. He happened to have attended law school at Columbia with Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Roosevelt sent his old chum to England in July 1940 to provide a more accurate picture of events there than Joseph Kennedy Sr., the defeatist ambassador to the U.K., could. Although Donovan agreed that things were grim, he emphasized the grit of the British people and singled out Winston Churchill as a stupendous leader.* The assessment bucked up FDR’s spirits and contributed to the Churchill-Roosevelt alliance that would ultimately help defeat Hitler.
Donovan parlayed his field trip to England into a job as Roosevelt’s coordinator of intelligence, and from there he founded OSS and became its chief. But while the role made sense on paper—Donovan clearly had the vision and drive to see OSS succeed—Wild Bill also lacked pretty much every other skill necessary to run a government agency. Even those who adored him admitted that he had “abysmal” if not “atrocious” administrative skills, and he simply didn’t have the patience or fortitude to manage people. As a result OSS became one of the most poorly run agencies in American history. Employees used to laugh over a line from Macbeth that perfectly summed up the enterprise: “Confusion now has made his masterpiece.”
Nowhere were Donovan’s flaws more evident than in his hiring practices. Needing to throw together an agency quickly, he turned to his circle of friends in New York and hired blue bloods by the dozen. The OSS roster was lousy with Mellons, Du Ponts, Morgans, and Vanderbilts. Columnists joked that the agency’s initials actually stood for “Oh So Social.” In Donovan’s defense, hiring aristocrats did make sense on some level: They usually spoke several languages and knew Europe well. But holidays on the Riviera were a far cry from war. As one reporter noted, “Knowing how to speak French in a tux didn’t necessarily prepare recruits for parachuting into enemy territory or blowing up bridges.” More than a few heirs and heiresses suffered “dramatic mental crackups” in the field.
Even more than aristocrats, however, Donovan loved misfits, and he staffed OSS with a bizarre array of talent. There were mafia contract killers and theology professors. There were bartenders, anthropologists, and pro wrestlers. There were orthodontists, ornithologists, and felons on leave from federal penitentiaries. Marlene Dietrich, Julia Child, John Steinbeck, John Wayne, Leo Tolstoy’s grandson, and a Ringling circus heir all pitched in as well. Observers sometimes referred to OSS as “St. Elizabeths,” after the well-known Washington, D.C., lunatic asylum. One top official there admitted that “OSS may indeed have employed quite a few psychopathic characters.” Donovan once said, “I’d put Stalin on the OSS payroll if I thought it would help defeat Hitler.” No one knew whether he was kidding.
Donovan did hire some brilliant misfits as well, including the chief scientist, Stanley Lovell. When Donovan first interviewed Lovell, he asked him to become the OSS equivalent of Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis. But it’s more accurate to think of Lovell as Q from the James Bond franchise: His job basically consisted of puttering around in a lab and thinking up cool spy tools. He and his labmates developed bombs that looked like mollusks to attach to ships. They crafted shoes and buttons and batteries with secret cavities to conceal documents. They invented pencils and cigarettes that shot bullets. They devised an explosive powder called Aunt Jemima with the consistency of flour that could be mixed with water and even baked into biscuits and nibbled on without any danger; only when ignited with a fuse did Aunt Jemima detonate.
Like overgrown toddlers, Lovell’s team also developed several feces-based weapons. One, called caccolube, destroyed car engines far more thoroughly than sugar or sand when dumped into gas tanks. Another weapon involved creating artificial goat turds to bombard North Africa with, in the hope of attracting flies that spread diseases. (They called it Project Capricious.) Yet another project required synthesizing what was essentially eau de diarrhea, a compound that, as Lovell said, “duplicated the revolting odor of a very loose bowel movement.” They then hired small children to dart out and squirt it onto the pants of Japanese officers in occupied China. Lovell dubbed it the “Who, Me?” bomb.
And those weren’t even the cockamamie ideas. After hearing that Hitler and Mussolini would be holding a summit at the Brenner Pass between Austria and Italy, Lovell devised a scheme to dump a vial of caustic liquid into a vase of flowers in the conference room. Within 20 minutes, this volatile liquid would evaporate, turning into mustard gas and frying the corneas of everyone present. To really add some punch, Lovell suggested contacting the pope ahead of time and having him prophesy that God would strike the fascists blind for violating the Ten Commandments. When the mustard gas fulfilled this “prediction,” the citizens of Germany and Italy would surely revolt, Lovell argued, and take down the fascists from within. (Alas, the summit location was changed at the last second, and the plan never went into effect.)
Lovell also developed what he called the “glandular approach” to winning the war. Drawing on some dubious Freudian theory, Lovell declared that Hitler straddled the “male/female gender line” and therefore might easily be pushed toward one sex or the other. Accordingly, Lovell isolated several feminine hormones to inject into beets and carrots in Hitler’s personal vegetable garden. He hoped that Hitler’s breasts would swell, that his mustache would fall out, that his voice would rise to a humiliating soprano register. The plan got far enough for Lovell to bribe one of Hitler’s gardeners, but ultimately nothing came of it. As Lovell later admitted, “I can only assume that the gardener took our money and threw the syringes and medications into the nearest thicket.”
The stories go on and on. But the craziest, nuttiest, most unbelievable thing about OSS was this: Often as not, its schemes worked. Whatever his faults as an administrator, Wild Bill Donovan possessed a rare combination of physical courage and mental daring. As the film director John Ford—another OSS recruit—once said, “Bill Donovan ... thought nothing of parachuting into France, blowing up a bridge, pissing in Luftwaffe gas tanks, then dancing on the roof of the St. Regis Hotel with a German spy.” A man like that couldn’t help but inspire people. And for every 20 of Lovell’s far-fetched ideas, one or two worked brilliantly, seriously disrupting Axis missions. In fact, given the chaos of the world then, perhaps only something as haphazard as OSS could have succeeded.
This post is adapted from Kean’s new book, The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb.
* This article previously misstated that Churchill took office after July 1940. In fact, he became prime minister in May 1940.