Before the Rangers stormed Omaha Beach, a scene so powerfully captured in Saving Private Ryan, American soldiers were already on the ground engaged in an operation critical to the success of the Normandy invasion. Code named Operation Penny Farthing, it was conceived by Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Major General William J. Donovan, the founder and director of the Office of Strategic Services and one of the most extraordinary figures in American history.
Penny Farthing was an OSS-run network of agents—from social anarchists to aristocrats and farmers—operating in Nazi-occupied France. The network provided crucial intelligence on the strength, location, and movement of German army divisions prior to the Normandy landing. The OSS officer in charge of Penny Farthing was Henry Baldwin Hyde, the grandson of the founder of the Equitable Life Insurance Company and later the first director of the William J. Donovan Memorial Foundation in Manhattan.
Nicknamed “Wild Bill” by his hometown newspaper for his heroism in World War I, Donovan became convinced in the late 1930s, as dictators gobbled up nations, that America needed a centralized spy agency. Donovan overcame fierce opposition from Army and Navy brass to win FDR’s approval in early 1942. Before long, the 13,000-strong OSS (predecessor of the CIA) would be collecting and analyzing intelligence and conducting clandestine military operations in virtually every theater of the war—from Europe, the Balkans, and North Africa to Burma, China, and the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Before the war Donovan had been a wealthy New York lawyer who defended dozens of oil and coal companies against federal antitrust suits. The list of his OSS recruits, wrote author Joseph Persico, “read like the Social Register: Junius and Henry Morgan of the house of Morgan, Alfred Du Pont, Lester Armour of the meat-packing fortune, the diplomat David Bruce and Paul Mellon.” But, like the melting pot of freedom the OSS defended, many more of its soldiers were ordinary citizens—mechanics, journalists, cops, carpenters, artists, electricians—all engaged in the grand struggle against totalitarianism.
Fifty-four years after the fall of Hitler’s Berlin, the William Donovan Memorial Foundation’s mission remains clear, explains foundation president Geoffrey Jones, an 82nd Airborne paratrooper and OSS operative who trained French commandos behind enemy lines. “We want to keep General Donovan’s name alive by promoting his lifelong commitment to liberty through our work.”
The foundation’s roots go back to 1947 when Donovan (who also helped form the American Legion) and his soldiers created the Veterans of the OSS (VOSS), an association dedicated to ensuring that the close friendships forged in war continued in peacetime. In 1982, the VOSS was rolled into the William J. Donovan Memorial Foundation, a brand-new 501(c)(3). Today, with a small staff, no endowment, and an annual budget of about $30,000 raised through individual donations, the foundation promotes the shared bonds of OSS veterans and their descendants and other “friends of Donovan” who believe in spreading and defending freedom across the globe.
The foundation sponsors reunions among OSS veterans as well as with their counterparts who served in foreign intelligence organizations, special forces units, and partisan groups inside occupied countries. Funded by the Ford Foundation and others, the foundation cosponsors conferences and seminars on topics such as “Revolution in National Security” and “The Missed Opportunity of 1945 in U.S.-Vietnam Relations.” The foundation also fulfills requests from archivists and historians seeking verification of OSS members and war operations and even advises producers of films and television programs, including an episode of A&E’s Biography on the life of chef Julia Child, herself an OSS alumna.
Since 1961, one of the biggest yearly events for the foundation has been the presentation of the Donovan Award to a public servant “who rendered distinguished service in the interests of the democratic process and the cause of freedom.” The list of recipients is impressive, ranging from General Dwight Eisenhower in 1965 to Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush, the onetime CIA chief and current honorary chairman of the Donovan Foundation.
But as a tumultuous century draws to a close, the Donovan Foundation has opened a new chapter in its history, “to ensure that our work continues in the decades to come,” says foundation president Jones. With a new crop of younger board members, including former ambassador and undersecretary of state Frank Wisner, whose father was one of Donovan’s first OSS recruits, and Jack Devine, a 30-year CIA veteran, the foundation is in the midst of its biggest undertaking yet—raising $1 million in private donations in the coming months to support “Donovan Fellowships in Foreign Affairs.”
The idea sprang up four years ago when Geoffrey Jones and William Colby, the late CIA director and then-chairman of the Donovan Foundation, decided it was time to “come up with something that would be a permanent memorial to General Donovan’s service to the free world,” says Jones. In the end, they decided to create a fellowship program that would send smart young Americans to emerging nations in the same way Donovan had done years earlier for the Rockefeller-funded American War Relief Commission and as an emissary for President Woodrow Wilson.
In 1916, Donovan visited France, Germany, and Poland on behalf of the Commission’s famine relief efforts. Again in 1920, President Wilson sent him back to Europe to get a bird’s eye view of how much private capital would be needed to rebuild the continent’s war-ravaged economies. There, as he traveled among the elite and the working classes, Donovan compiled area reports (similar reports are still being produced today by the CIA) addressing cultural, political, social, and economic issues. The reports were then used by U.S. officials to formulate post-war policies.
Similarly, Donovan fellows will establish ties with local peoples and their institutions and leaders to get a firsthand view of the impact the United States or organizations like the United Nations are having on the respective nation. Fellows will be expected to ask questions like “Could the local U.N.-run health facility be doing a better job?” or “Is targeted American economic aid making a difference?” Fellows will inform Americans on their findings through newspapers, magazines, television and radio, books, policy journals, and the Internet. In the process, it is hoped, Americans will gain greater insight into foreign cultures and the impact of U.S. foreign policy and U.N. activities on other nations. U.S. policymakers and business executives would also gain valuable information to make better decisions and, as a bonus, inherit a talented pool of Donovan fellows for future employment.
Columbia University’s Pulitzer Graduate School of Journalism, which graduated Donovan in 1915, has agreed to administer the program, and today the Donovan Foundation is raising funds to put its first five or six fellows into the field and to cover start-up costs. Remaining funds would be deposited into a dedicated endowment. “Once we raise the funds we can move forward,” says Jones, “but always in memory of General Dovovan.”
He was a man, remarked CIA director George Tenet at a Donovan Foundation event last fall, who “didn’t just report events or timidly accept the status quo. He stayed ahead of events, grasped the trends.” This legacy will enable the Donovan Fellows to do the same.
Daniel McKivergan is associate editor of Philanthropy.