William J. Donovan and the Establishment of the Office of the Coordinator of Information, July 1940-July 1941

Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

In July 1940, several weeks after France capitulated to Germany, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox proposed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Secretary of State Cordell Hull that someone be sent to England to study the situation, with particular reference to the work of the German fifth column in Europe. He further suggested his friend, William J. Donovan, as the man for this job. [1] 

Born in Buffalo on January 1, 1883, Donovan graduated from Columbia University in 1905, took his law degree there two years later, and commenced to practice law in Buffalo. During WWI he served as assistant chief of staff of the 27th division, and as a Major, lt. Col. and Col. of the 165th Infantry Regiment (the old 69th of New York) of the American Expeditionary Force. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, as well as the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal. He was wounded three times, He received the French Legion of Honor as well as the Croix de Guerre with palm and silver star. While on his honeymoon in 1919, Donovan visited Siberia with the US Ambassador for Japan to evaluate the state of the White Russian government. In 1920, he accompanied the American banker Grayson Murphy on a tour of war-ravaged Europe at the behest of various relief organizations. Donovan resumed his law practice in Buffalo after the war, later moving to New York City. In 1922 he became U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York; When Harlan Fiske Stone, who had been Donovan’s Dean at the Columbia Law School, became Attorney General in 1924, he immediately asked Donovan to become Assistant Attorney General of the United States and from January 1925 to 1929 Donovan served in that capacity and as assistant to the Attorney General. In 1929 he opened a private practice in New York City.  In 1932 he ran for the governorship of New York on the Republican ticket, but was defeated by Herbert Lehman. Since then he built up his law firm in New York City. In 1932 Donovan visited Germany on private business, and upon returning home argued for armed preparedness to counter European militarism. In 1935, Donovan met Mussolini in Rome and toured Italian military camps in Libya and Abyssinia, later reporting to Roosevelt that Italy would win its war there. And in 1936, Donovan visited a Spain embroiled in civil war and returned home with a report on Germany’s technical advances for the US Army Chief of Staff. [2]

Since Donovan was then in Washington, appearing before the Military Affairs Committee of the Senate on behalf of the Selective Service Bill, he was immediately called to the White House where he conferred with the President and the Secretaries of State, War and Navy. He was asked if he would go to England to study the methods and effects of Germany’s fifth column activities in Europe. In addition, the President wished him to observe how the British were standing up at a time when their fortunes were at their lowest ebb and they faced Germany alone. Donovan agreed to undertake the mission, and other departments of the Government asked him to obtain specific information on various other subjects. [3]

Donovan left for England via Lisbon on a Flying Clipper, on July 14, armed with letters of introduction from Knox, Hull and others with important British contacts. He arrived in England on July 17 and wasted little time. He met the King, was briefed by Stewart Menzies, chief of MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) on the overseas organization of SIS, and others including naval and military leaders, the War Cabinet, and then Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He was introduced to the British organizations dealing with secret intelligence and the various aspects of unorthodox warfare. Although he was there for only a few weeks, the relationships which he established with British leaders were to be of great significance. He became convinced that the British would hold out; that the United States must help, at least in the matters of supplies, and that Fifth Column activity had become a factor of major importance in modern warfare. These convictions served to strengthen British confidence in him.[4]

Donovan returned to America on August 4 or 5, 1940, and immediately reported to his friend, Secretary Knox. He met with senior members of the military and Administration, including the Chief of Naval Operations and the Secretary of War, and briefed Roosevelt on August 9. He also met with members of both houses of Congress.[5]  

One major result of his trip was that the British sent to America, in response to Donovan’s requests, a series of reports on various phases of British experience in the new war. [6]

The results of his investigations on the subject of fifth column activities were turned over to Edgar A. Mowrer, veteran Chicago Daily News correspondent, who wrote a series of articles on the subject which appeared under the joint signatures of Donovan and Mowrer. Secretary Knox wrote an introduction for these articles and they were disseminated throughout the world by the three leading American news agencies and widely distributed in pamphlet form. It was at the insistence of the President that Donovan’s name was associated with these articles.[7]

Donovan also gave a celebrated nationwide radio interview.The theme of his reports was the British had a will to resist Nazi aggression, accompanied by a capacity to do so provided the equipment could be made available to supplement what was being produced by their own efforts. Donovan recommended transfer of war material at once, starting with fifty old destroyers. [8] 

In November 1940, President Roosevelt called Donovan to Washington once more, and asked him if he would undertake a mission to make a strategic appreciation from an economic, political and military standpoint of the Mediterranean area. He immediately accepted, for one of the concrete ideas which had developed in his mind was the importance of the Mediterranean in World War II. In August 1940 he had stressed particularly the necessity of some kind of agreement with the French in order to secure American interests in Northwest Africa. In discussing the mission, the President suggested that Donovan find occasion en route to see General Maxime Weygand, governor of French North Africa, and to discuss the question. However, Donovan proposed that it would be better for him to proceed to southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean first; he felt that he would be in a better position to confer with Weygand after such an opportunity to study the situation. He therefore suggested that Mr. Robert D. Murphy, State Department career diplomat, initiate the discussions. [9]

Donovan departed on December 6, 1940 for England. To enhance his standing, Donovan was also appointed as an official US Navy representative.  He immediately launched into a whirlwind series of meetings, including meeting Churchill who requested that Donovan also visit the Balkan front as a guest of the British. Donovan also had meetings with the chiefs of the armed services and other officials including the heads of the Ministry of Economic Warfare, the Special Operations Executive, and the Political Warfare Executive. He also met with Stewart Menzies of MI6. During December Donovan, after visiting London, made a tour of Gibraltar, Malta, and the Western Desert and beginning in January 1941, he visited Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Cyprus, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. In March he visited Spain, Portugal, and then back to the United Kingdom, where he met with various intelligence services, including Menzies again.[10]

Matson Photo Service, photographer. (1941) Col. Donovan U.S. President’s envoy with Mr. George Wadsworth at U.S. consulate, Jerusalem, 1941. [February 6] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2019711726/.

Churchill was most appreciative of Donovan’s visit. He wrote President Roosevelt on March 10:

“…I must thank you for the magnificent work done by Donovan in his prolonged tour of the Balkans and the Middle East. He has carried with him throughout an animating, heart-warming flame.” [11]

On March 18, 1941, Donovan returned to the United States. On the following day, again accompanied by Secretary Knox, he made the first of a series of calls at the White House to report to the President. He stressed three major points: First, the gravity of the Shipping problem; second, the dangers and opportunities which the situation in French Northwest Africa represented for the United States; and third, the extraordinary importance of psychological and political elements in the war and the necessity of making the most of these elements in planning and executing national policies.[12]

Both on this mission and his earlier mission in 1940, Donovan had studied the manner in which the Germans were exploiting the psychological and political elements. They were making the fullest use of threats and promises, of subversion and sabotage, and of special intelligence. They sowed dissension, confusion and despair among their victims and aggravated any lack of faith and hope. Yet, Donovan reported, neither America nor Britain was fighting this new and important type of war on more than the smallest scale. Their defenses against political and psychological warfare were feeble, and even such gestures as were made toward carrying the fight to the enemy were pitifully inadequate.[13] Preparation in the field of irregular and unorthodox warfare was as important as orthodox military preparedness-Donovan urged upon the President the necessity for action. [14]

There was another situation which had impressed itself upon Donovan. On each of his two missions he had been asked on all sides to secure information. Information was pouring into Washington from many sources in that critical period. But it was fragmentary, and it was not humanly possible for the men who were responsible for formulating policy to assimilate the growing mass of material. In London he had found that there existed a central committee where much information was analyzed and available. However, the procedure was cumbersome and ineffective, and there was no central depot where all the information on a given subject was collected, analyzed and available in digestible form. [15]

The greatest victim of the situation in Washington was the President himself. In the late spring or early summer of 1941 he appointed a committee of Cabinet members, consisting of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Knox and Attorney General Robert H. Jackson, to consider the intelligence problem generally and recommend a plan of action. The committee consulted with Donovan and he expounded to it his concept of an over-all intelligence agency with propaganda and subversive attributes. The committee’s report to the President recommended the establishment of such an organization.[16]  

In early June, therefore, the President asked Donovan to make specific proposals for the implementation of his ideas for psychological warfare and the development of an intelligence program. Donovan prepared and submitted to the White House on June 10, 1941 a paper entitled “Memorandum of Establishment of Service of Strategic Information.”[17]

In this memorandum Donovan set forth the relation of information to strategic planning in total warfare. He pointed out the inadequacy of the intelligence set-up then existing and stated: “It is essential that we set up a central enemy intelligence organization which would itself collect either directly or through existing departments of the government, at home and abroad, pertinent information.” Such information and data should be analyzed and interpreted by applying to it the experience of “specialized trained research officials in the relative scientific fields (including technological, economic, financial and psychological scholars).” “But there is another element in modern warfare,” he continued, “and that is the psychological attack against the moral and spiritual defenses of a nation. In this attack the most powerful weapon is radio.” In this type of warfare, “perfection can be realized only by planning, and planning is dependent upon accurate information.” The elements of physical subversion which had been included in the recommendations to the Cabinet committee, were not specifically set forth. [18]

The President accepted these proposals as a basis for action and directed that an appropriate order be drafted. The order, however, was not to be specific as to the functions proposed for the new agency; both the President and Donovan agreed that, in the delicate situation then existing, it would be preferable to have no precise definition appear. [19]

On June 25, 1941, an order was drafted which would establish the agency as the Office of Coordinator of Strategic Information. This order was designed to be issued by the President in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and its entire tone was military in nature. The June 25 draft was circulated among State, War, and Navy Departments at Donovan’s request. It met particularly vigorous opposition from the Army and Navy on the ground that the new agency might usurp some of their functions.  Therefore, it was decided to establish COI as a part of the Executive Office of the President. [20]

The new order (was not designated as either a military or an executive order; it referred to Roosevelt’s position as President, as well as Commander-in-Chief, and expressly reserved the duties of his military and naval advisers. It deleted the previous reference to the Army in appointing Donovan as Coordinator. Aside from the general authorization to collect and analyze information and data, the order of July 11, 1941 merely stated that the Coordinator should “carry out, when requested by the President, such supplementary activities as may facilitate the securing of information.” Donovan asked for three guarantees: That he should report directly to the President; that the President’s secret funds would be made available for some of the work of COI; and that all departments of the Government be instructed to give him such materials as he might need. To all of these conditions the President agreed. [21]

The order of July 11 read as follows:

“By virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States and as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, it is ordered as follows:

1. There is hereby established the position of Coordinator of Information, with authority to collect and analyze all information and data, which may bear upon national security; to correlate such information and data, and to 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.

2. The several departments and agencies of the government shall make available to the Coordinator of Information all and any such information and data relating to national security as the Coordinator, with the approval of the President, may from time to time request.

3. The Coordinator of Information may appoint such committees, consisting of appropriate representatives of the various departments and agencies of the Government, as he may deem necessary to assist him in the performance of his functions.

4. Nothing in the duties and responsibilities of the Coordinator of Information shall in any way interfere with or impair the duties and responsibilities of the regular military and naval advisers of the President as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy.

5. Within the limits of such funds as may be allocated to the Coordinator of Information by the President, the Coordinator may employ necessary personnel and make provision for the necessary supplies, facilities, and services.

6. William J. Donovan is hereby designated as Coordinator of Information. (Signed) Franklin D. Roosevelt. The White House July 11, 1941.” [22]  

The order of July 11 was not a definitive charter for COI. Both Donovan and the President had agreed that it was “advisable to have no directive in writing” for specific functions. Words like “military,” “strategic,” “intelligence,” “enemy,” “warfare,” and “psychological,” which had figured basically in Donovan’s memorandum of June 10, were carefully avoided both in the order and in the White House announcement which accompanied it. On July 11, therefore, Donovan received executive authorization to proceed with the implementation of his ideas, subject to the approval of the President and the exigencies of the general situation.[23]

When the Office of Coordinator of Information (COI) was established on July 11, 1941, it was announced to the public as an agency for the collection and analysis of information and data. Actually, through COI and its successor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the United States was beginning its first organized venture into the fields of espionage, propaganda, subversion and related activities under the aegis of a centralized intelligence agency. [24]

Coming Soon:  The Creation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)


[1] History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt (New York: Walker and Company, 1976), p. 5.

[2] William J. Donovan, Director, OSS, File: OSS Prominent People, OSS History office, Entry 99, Box 129, folder 3, RG 226; Anthony Cave Brown, The Last Hero: Wild Bill Donovan (New York: Times Books, 1982), pp. 19, 87; Winks, Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War 1939-1961, 2nd ed., . (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996) pp. 64, 65; Joseph F. Jakub, Spies and Saboteurs: Anglo-American Collaboration and Rivalry in Human Intelligence Collection and Special Operations, 1940-45 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1999), p. 198, n. 13.

[3] History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt (New York: Walker and Company, 1976), p. 5.

[4] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 17, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 5; Jakub, Spies and Saboteurs, p. 5.

[5] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 17, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 5; Jakub, Spies and Saboteurs, pp. 7-8.

[6] History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, pp. 5-6.

[7] History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 6.

[8] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 17, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; Jakub, Spies and Saboteurs, pp. 7-8.

[9] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, pp. 17-18, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 6. As a result of Donovan’s attempts to stiffen resistance in the Balkans, the French, under German pressure, refused to permit him to enter French territory and he was therefore unable to see General Weygand. Ibid., p. 6 note.

[10] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, pp. 17-18, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 6; Jakub, Spies and Saboteurs, pp. 13, 14, 18, 246.

[11] Francis L. Lowenheim, Harold D. Langley. Manfred Jonas, eds., Roosevelt and Churchill: Their Secret Wartime Correspondence (New York: Saturday Review Press-E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1975), p. 133.

[12] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 18, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 6.

[13] History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 6.

[14] History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, pp. 6-7.

[15] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 18, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 7.

[16] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 19, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 7.

[17] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 19, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 7.

[18] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 19, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 7.

[19] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 19, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 7.

[20] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, pp. 19-20, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, pp. 7-8.

[21] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 20, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 8.

[22] Franklin D. Roosevelt, Presidential Order, Designating a Coordinator of Information, July 11, 1941, File: ETO X-2 War Diary Basic Documents Vol. 7, War Diary, X-2 Branch, History of OSS in London, Entry 91, Box 32, Folder 82, RG 226, NARA Microfilm Publication M-1623, roll 10; [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, pp. 20-21, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226; History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 8.

[23] History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 9.

[24] History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, Washington, D.C., War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 5.

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