The Creation of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)

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

On June 25, 1941, an order was drafted which would establish William J. Donovan’s wished-for intelligence agency as the Office of Coordinator of Strategic Information (for background see: William J. Donovan and the Establishment of the Office of the Coordinator of Information, July 1940-July 1941). 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 (Office of Coordinator of Information) as a part of the Executive Office of the President.[1]

The new order (was not designated as either a military or an executive order; it referred to Franklin D. 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. [2]

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.[3]  

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 on the need for an intelligence agency, 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.[4]

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.[5]

When COI was formed it had been estimated that it would need only 92 people to fulfill Donovan’s obligations under the President’s order. [6] COI’s first payroll on August 18 listed 13 employees. Many others were by that time donating all or part of their time.[7] By December 15, 1941, COI had 596 people on its payroll, three weeks later 670.[8]

After the U.S. entered the war, it became apparent that an agency such as COI could not operate indefinitely under the White House. It was geared more closely to the military effort. [9] 

On February 9, 1942 the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) held their first meeting. The establishment of the JCS provided a solution to COI’s problems. COI could not be assimilated into any one arm of the services; its activities had to support all branches.[10] In March, proposals were made that COI be made a supporting agency of the JCS, a move that was in accord with Donovan’s original view. On March 30, 1942 Donovan sent to the President a memorandum urging the issuance of an order which would place COI under the JCS as a supporting agency. Two weeks later Donovan again urged that the military order be issued and reiterated his belief that foreign propaganda should be closely built “with the intelligence and the physically subversive activities of the Army and Navy.” Still the President did not take action either on the proposed consolidation of information services or on the order allying COI with JCS.[11] On May 16 Donovan again took up the appeal and suggested a compromise solution.[12] 

In May 1942, COI numbered 1,630 people, half of whom worked for the Foreign Information Service (FIS), a press, radio, motion picture, and general propaganda organization formed by Donovan and then headed by the playwright Robert Sherwood under Donovan’s command.[13]

By June, in addition to the organization in Washington which was manned by some 2,000 personnel, field bases had been established in London, Chungking and Cairo; FIS had some 63 representatives throughout the world; a clandestine radio network in North Africa serviced some 15 secret intelligence and subversive agents there; Special Operations missions had been dispatched to Burma and Tibet, and others were in final stages of preparation; Secret Intelligence’s agents were established in key spots throughout the world. [14]

Finally, in June, the FIS would be separated from COI and a new Office of Strategic Services created. By Executive Order of June 13, 1942 the Office of War Information (OWI) was established. To the new agency was assigned the FIS Branch of the COI. Simultaneously with the Executive Order, there was issued a Military Order which established the Office of Strategic Services, comprising all of COI except FIS, under the jurisdiction of JCS — “The OSS shall perform the following duties: collect and analyze such strategic information as may be required by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and plan and operate such special services as may be directed by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the head of OSS shall be a Director of Strategic Services who shall be appointed by the President and who shall perform his duties under the direction and supervision of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. William J. Donovan is hereby appointed as Director of Strategic Services.”[15] 

Presidential order on the OSS, retreived from: https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/Presidential_order_on_the_OSS_13_Jun_1942.pdf

The Joint Chiefs of Staff on December 23, 1942 issued JCS 155/4/D, which constituted the first definitive charter of OSS. For the first time, OSS had a definite mandate and from this time forward it was established as an integral part of the JCS structure. By this directive OSS was designated as the agency of the JCS charged (outside the Western Hemisphere), in general, with “the planning, development, coordination and execution of the military program for psychological warfare,” and with “the compilation of such political, psychological, sociological and economic information as may be required by military operations.” The propaganda aspects of such plans were limited to recommendations to the JCS which was responsible for securing the cooperation of OWI. OSS was given authority to operate in the fields of sabotage, espionage and counter-espionage in enemy occupied or controlled territory, guerrilla warfare, underground groups in enemy-occupied or controlled territory and foreign nationality groups in the United States. It provided for a Planning Group to be set up in the Office of Strategic Services consisting of one member from State, two appointed by the Chief of Staff, two by the Commander-in-Chief U. S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, and four members, including the Chairman, appointed by the OSS Director. It stipulated that OSS psychological warfare plans be submitted to the JCS through the Joint Planning Staff. In the field of intelligence it placed OSS on a par with the Army’s Military Intelligence Service and the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence.[16] 

The reorganization of OSS, directed by JCS 155/4/D, was accomplished by General Order No.9 dated January 3, 1943 (The Order was approved by the JCS on 15 January 1943). It carried still further a trend toward a more military set-up which had begun on October 17, 1942. [17]

Under the Director and Assistant Director there were established certain independent branches and administrative functions, such as Security, Technical Assistants, Secretariat, General Counsel, Special Relations, Research and Development, etc. A Deputy Director, Intelligence Service, supervised and directed the activities of the Secret Intelligence, Research and Analysis and Foreign Nationalities Branches. Under a Deputy Director, Psychological Warfare Operations, were the Special Operations Branch, which was responsible for sabotage and physical subversion, and the Morale Operations Branch (MO) — responsible for morale subversion to be carried out by methods which included the organization and conduct of secret (“black”) propaganda disseminated by radio, rumors, pamphlets, leaflets, photographs, etc., and the manipulation of individuals or groups. A Deputy Director, Services, was responsible for such functions as Procurement and Supply, Budget and Finance, Personnel, Communications, Medical Services and Special Funds. [18]

The JCS directive and the new General Order marked a distinct step forward for OSS. Its functions were much more precisely defined than those of the original COI; its operations were to be planned and supervised by a single authority — the Planning Group. The agency was more efficiently organized, furthermore, in that much authority was delegated to the Deputy Directors. They relieved William Donovan of a volume of immediate matters requiring his personal decision and which had begun to outgrow the capacities of any single human being. For the first time, therefore, OSS had a definite mandate and from this time forward it was established as an integral part of the JCS structure. [19]


[1] [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, (New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 1976), pp. 7-8.

[2] [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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] Anthony Cave Brown, The Last Hero: Wild Bill Donovan (New York: Times Books, 1982), pp. 173-174.

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

[8] Brown, The Last Hero: Wild Bill Donovan, p. 174.

[9] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 28, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226.

[10] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, pp. 28-29, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226.

[11] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 29, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226.

[12] [Draft] History of United States Counterintelligence, , n.d., vol. 1, p. 29, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226.

[13] Brown, The Last Hero, p. 235.

[14] History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 26.

[15] Franklin D. Roosevelt, Military Order, Office of Strategic Services, June 13, 1942, 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, p. 29, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226.

[16] Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive, JCS 155/4/D, Functions of the Office of Strategic Services, December 23, 1942, 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, p. 32, File: History of United States Counterintelligence, vol. 1 (text), Entry 176, Washington X-2 Records, Box 2, Folder 10, RG 226.

[17] History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 106.

[18] History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 106.

[19] History Project, Strategic Services Unit, Office of the Assistant Secretary of War, War Department, War Report of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), with a new introduction by Kermit Roosevelt, p. 106.

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