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A moment in time

Which Legion founder is considered a grandfather of the CIA?

William "Wild Bill" Donovan. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., to a working-class Irish family in 1883, Donovan got a law degree from Columbia University before the outbreak of World War I. As part of the famous "Fighting 69th" infantry regiment, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Germany; he was played by George Brent in the 1940 movie"The Fighting 69th." He would later receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and the National Security Medal – the only American to earn all four.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Donovan served as assistant attorney general under President Calvin Coolidge and oversaw the FBI. He was also engaged in intelligence-gathering operations around the world, building a reputation as a master of the game. In June 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a classmate of Donovan’s at Columbia, though they were not close) sent him to Britain to analyze the country’s intelligence system and chances against Germany. He came back with both information and an idea for an organization in charge of intelligence gathering for the United States that would be under civilian power, not military bureaucracy.

Roosevelt asked Donovan to set up a civilian intelligence agency in June 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, but exigencies forced the president to combine it with military functions. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was founded on June 13, 1942 – about six months after Pearl Harbor. Donovan was placed back on active duty and made a brigadier general. The OSS engaged in everything from maintaining moles at the highest levels of Axis governments, to parachuting behind enemy lines to distract Axis forces, to engaging in psychological warfare, to maintaining a section of the office for gadgets such as plastic explosives that could be cooked into pancakes – a la James Bond.

After the war, President Harry Truman dissolved the OSS, concerned that it could gain too much power in a democratic country. But associates and supporters believed in Donovan’s vision of a civilian intelligence-gathering power, and in 1947, Congress created the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency – under civilian power of the president. Donovan was not tapped to head the CIA, but he stayed busy. He served as the assistant to the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, and as ambassador to Thailand in 1953. Donovan died in February 1959, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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