History of the U.S.: The Wizard of OSS


At FDR’s request, Major General William Joseph Donovan formed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) at the height of World War II. Prior to WWII, American intelligence work was conducted by a number of different organizations that didn’t coordinate their activities, including divisions of the State Department, Treasury, and the Navy and War departments.
Beginning in July 1941, Donovan recruited spies, analysts, and code breakers for a new dedicated intelligence gathering and covert operations outfit. Formally established by FDR on June 13, 1942, the OSS carried out a number of important missions during WWII, including recruiting a key German spy, the anti- Nazi diplomat Fritz Kolbe, who gave the OSS crucial information about German expectations for D-Day, the V-2 rocket program, new high- tech German jet fighters, and Nazi spies abroad. The OSS worked with French resistance fighters ahead of the Allied liberation of France and also carried out a massive campaign of propaganda, psychological warfare, and misinformation to mislead the Germans about American intentions. Outside Europe the OSS hunted Nazi spies in Africa and Latin America.

Meanwhile, in the Pacific theater, OSS agents trained Chinese Kuomintang and communist troops resisting the Japanese, and in Vietnam the OSS made contact with Ho Chi Minh, whose Viet Minh nationalists were also fighting the Japanese.

Overall, the OSS employed 24,000 people around the world by the end of the war, including improbable characters like Red Sox catcher Moe Berg and celebrity chef Julia Child. The OSS was disbanded in 1945 but reconstituted as a new group, the Central Intelligence Agency, by President Truman in 1947.

Looking for more fabulous content like this? You’re in luck - The Mental Floss History of the United States hits bookshelves near you on October 5th! If you pre-order, you’ll get three free issues of mental_floss magazine. Get all of the details over here.