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CIA's Leon Panetta and the OSS Ghost of "Wild Bill" Donovan

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As the first historian to record, 40 years ago, both the foibles and fascination of the World War II Office of Strategic Services, I'm always intrigued by renewed glorification of the OSS legend.

Last week, Jeff Stein, writing in the Washington Post, noted that a newly-published biography of OSS founder "Wild Bill" Donovan recalls the bungling and zaniness of that precursor of today's CIA - a reality check on the political Right's perennial calls for  refashioning the modern Agency in the spirit of its ancestor.

Also last week, as if to prove Stein's point, there was  a news story about a private Intelligence organization, working in Afghanistan, run by a conservative veteran of CIA and the Iran-Contra scandal, which is purposely modeled on the OSS "success of the past".

I plead guilty to perpetuating a liberal echo of the OSS legend. In the last edition of my OSS history, I wrote that "a new OSS" might help us "understand and meet the most pressing challenges of a brave new world and provide the knowledge and understanding from which a new and complex and far-sighted American foreign policy can be fashioned...Then, perhaps, some of the best and brightest and most imaginative and insightful of Americans can transcend political differences, as they did once before, and again come together to recreate the madcap brilliance that was OSS."

When I wrote those words five years ago, I overlooked my own original conclusion that OSS, above all, embodied the personal spirit of its founding father, what CIA icon Allen Dulles later remembered as General Donovan's "indefatigable energy and wide-ranging enthusiasm combined with great resourcefulness."  And I ignored the possibility that, after a succession of unmemorable chiefs, CIA might have a Director who would reprise many of Donovan's amazing qualities.

Leon Panetta may seem to have nothing in common with Republican, Wall Street lawyer and New York socialite Donovan - but only if you swallow another legend, one recently spawned in Hollywood by the film "Good Shepherd" - that Donovan intended his organization to be dominated by Ivy League, secret handshake compatriots.   A far cry from Panetta, the liberal Democrat who once bused tables in his family's Italian restaurant in Monterey?

Not so far, really. Donovan was no wasp-y blue-blood. He was a strapping Irishman, the son of first generation immigrants. His alma mater was Columbia, not Harvard or Yale. And Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose him to organize America's first modern international secret service because, most importantly, he understood the unparalleled resources of the cockeyed, innovative, seat-of-the-pants democratic conglomerate that is American society.

There were Italo-Americans in OSS, some of them Communists, some thugs, and many stereotyped - by the Ivy Leaguers who were there too - as recent, maybe illegal, immigrants who "couldn't wait to get back to the Old Country and start throwing knives."

Arthur Schlesinger and Arthur Goldberg and Julia Child and Herbert Marcuse were also in OSS.  So was Ralph Bunche, the first African-American to be given a position of responsibility in American Intelligence, not as a racial token, but as a tribute to his ability - even if he did have to lunch with his friend Dean Rusk at a segregated train station.

When, today, Director Panetta honors African-American pioneers of the Civil Rights movement at CIA Headquarters - or invites a group of Chasidic Jewish military chaplains to tour the "super-secret" building - it's easy to laugh this off as liberal "political correctness". But, in fact, Panetta is merely recalling what Donovan so keenly understood during the Roosevelt New Deal - that the greatest international strength of an American Intelligence Service is the racial, religious and ethnic diversity of our culture.

Panetta also shares Donovan's irreverence and "indefatigable energy".  At 72, he has perhaps visited more CIA Stations abroad - always a morale boost for the harried troops - than any other Director in the Agency's history.

And though his fellow liberal Democrats may shrug, Panetta, like Donovan, exhibits his own brand of "sophisticated American nationalism."  He recognizes that America still has enemies - very real, not imagined - whose blind hatred and suicidal determination to harm this nation throws us into a battle that is too easily forgotten in the business-as-usual of American daily life. A battle in which the CIA is our first, sometimes our only, line of defense.

As we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the birth of OSS, we don't sleep better at night knowing that our forces in this conflict are directed by a man who has truly inherited the legacy of "Wild Bill" Donovan. But perhaps we should.

 

Smith is a diplomatic historian and public policy consultant. After serving briefly as a junior Intelligence officer during the Cold War, in 1972, with the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as mentor, he wrote the first history of the OSS, the World War (more...)
 

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