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Heritage Moments: America’s first spymaster, and what Buffalo taught him about secrecy

National Archives and Records Administration
Maj. Gen. William J. Donovan as head of the Office of Strategic Services, the spy agency that helped win World War II. Donovan grew up in Buffalo, in a family that hid undocumented Irish immigrants who had snuck across the border from Canada.

Wild Bill Donovan he was called, the most famous son of Buffalo’s Old First Ward. He was the man who basically invented America’s intelligence apparatus, having founded and directed the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, the spy agency that eventually became the CIA.

Handsome, bold and charismatic, Donovan is the subject of at least a half dozen major biographies – but only one contains a hint of what happened during his Buffalo childhood that made him so comfortable with secrecy and espionage.

First, however, a quick review of his achievements. Born in 1898, William J. Donovan attended Miss Nardin’s Academy, St. Joe’s Collegiate and Niagara. He became a lawyer after attending Columbia University in New York and was a founder and officer of a Buffalo National Guard unit. In World War I he fought with distinction amid the slaughter in France, where more than half his unit was lost and he himself was wounded. He returned to Buffalo with the Distinguished Service Cross, the Légion d’Honneur, the Order of the British Empire and the decorations of several other countries. Eventually he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

After the war Donovan was a crusading U.S. attorney (who alienated political allies by carrying out a Prohibition raid on the Saturn Club, where he was a member) and a failed Republican candidate for both lieutenant governor and governor. As a successful Wall Street lawyer he traveled the world, informally collecting information that he relayed to Washington. The U.S. government had no intelligence agency at the time; spying was officially frowned upon.

That changed in 1941 and ’42, as the nation was drawn into World War II. Donovan convinced his old Columbia classmate, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to set up a spy agency, the Office of Strategic Services. FDR chose the swashbuckling Donovan to be its chief. His mandate: use any covert means necessary – propaganda, sabotage, assassination -- to help win the war.

The OSS attempted anything and everything, from trying to inject Hitler’s food with female sex hormones to organizing guerrilla fighters in enemy-controlled countries. Its greatest success: assisting French Resistance forces in the run-up to D-Day. In the OSS, Donovan assembled hundreds of America’s brightest minds to gather intelligence behind enemy lines and analyze it at home, including film director John Ford, actor Sterling Hayden, diplomats Arthur Goldberg and Ralph Bunche, philosopher Herbert Marcuse, poet Stephen Vincent Benét, future Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon, mobster Lucky Luciano, columnist Joseph Alsop, baseball player Moe Berg the future cooking guru Julia Child – and the future Central Intelligence Agency directors Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey.

When the war ended, the agency was dissolved. Donovan served as a prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials and later as ambassador to Thailand. He died in 1959. By then the CIA., formed from the blueprint of Donovan’s OSS, was for better or worse a well-established instrument of American foreign policy.

But Donovan’s talent for secrecy – where did it come from? The answer may lie in Donovan’s childhood, at the family home on 74 Michigan Street, just outside the old First Ward. (Today the street is called Michigan Avenue; the Donovan house stood across from what is now the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino.)

Donovan’s grandparents emigrated from Ireland to Buffalo in the middle of the 19th century. They were strong supporters of the militant Fenian movement, which fought to make Ireland independent of Britain, and hosted several movement leaders who visited the city.

By the 1890s, the house on Michigan contained three generations of Donovans, including young Will Donovan. And even though the militant Fenian movement was by then largely dormant, the family still helped their Irish brethren who sought to leave loyalist Canada and enter the U.S. They did so in a highly clandestine way, as Richard Dunlop explains in his 1982 biography of Donovan:

Many Irish refugees who had left the troubles in their homeland and immigrated to Canada crept across the border into the United States. Buffalo Irish, sympathetic to their compatriots, took them into boats at night on the Ontario shore and ferried them over the dark waters of Lake Erie or the Niagara River to the sandy lakefront. Will Donovan early realized that when his father and mother, usually so cheerful and bantering, fell silent at dinner, men were even then gathering in some secret place on the Canadian shore. … Will would awaken to the muffled sound of the heavy brogans of men, walking up Michigan Avenue and then pausing at the stoop of the brick house at number 74.*

The men would stay for a night or two before moving on. Dunlop recalled one specific episode from 1898, when a young boy was sent upstairs to sleep in 15-year-old Will’s room.

“Are you from Canada?” he asked.

The boy nodded.

“You’re safe in America now,” Will said.

It is unclear whether the Irish men and boys the Donovans sheltered were among the very few militants still operating at the time or -- more likely – were among the many Irish seeking work in the United States while dodging immigration restrictions.

But either way, secrecy was the key, and Wild Bill Donovan learned all about it in Buffalo. Many years later, that knowledge would serve him – and his country – very well indeed.


* The best account of William J. Donovan’s childhood and youth in Buffalo is Donovan: America’s Master Spy, by Richard Dunlop

Cast (in order of appearance):

Mary Mahoney Donovan: Davida Tolbert

William J. Donovan (as a 15-year-old): Trevor Dugan

Irish boy: Olivia Dugan

Narrator: Susan Banks

William J. Donovan (as a 59-year-old): Mike Dugan

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh (WBFO)

Sound editing: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839), performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Nick Lippa, WBNY general manager, 2015-16 academic year

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)

Heritage Moments
William Donovan
Wild Bill Donovan
Office of Strategic Services