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Wild Bill's Secret Agents: The Birth of the OSS

Evening Program

Wednesday, January 22, 2020 - 6:45 p.m.
Code: 1H0473

OSS Detachment 101 helped to liberate Rangoon in 1945 (Central Intelligence Agency)

Before the CIA there was the OSS—the Office of Strategic Services—and its formation in the early years of World War II led to some of the war’s boldest and most daring covert operations, as well as some of its unlikeliest agents.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's concerns about the capabilities of American intelligence should the country enter the European war led him to authorize the office of the Coordinator of Information in July 1941, the nation’s first peacetime, non-departmental intelligence organization. His handpicked choice to lead it was charismatic lawyer William "Wild Bill" Donovan, who offered a record of distinguished military service and an interest in foreign policy, and who would later mold the OSS largely in his own image.

The new organization’s recruits ranged from historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to baseball catcher Moe Berg, Shanghai police legend “Dangerous” Dan Fairbairn to film director John Ford, and Harvard scholar Ralph Bunche to future Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. Four future CIA directors were among the ranks.

OSS members also included forgers, counterfeiters, safecrackers, parachutists, divers, linguists, and mountain climbers—all bringing practical skills to a wide array of secret operations. Women had a significant presence in almost every branch, and by 1944 they represented one of every three people in the OSS.

Beyond directing a wide-ranging intelligence and counterintelligence operation, OSS members were on the ground in all areas of the global conflict. They supported French Resistance forces, parachuted into war zones to blow up bridges, linked with a group who tried to assassinate Hitler, and ran a guerrilla army in Burma to fight Japan—to name just a few of the secret projects undertaken before the OSS was disbanded by President Truman in late 1945.

Randy Burkett, a career officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, traces the fascinating history of the OSS, its strategies and missions, the players it relied on, and the agency’s eventual transition into the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947.

Other Connections

The first OSS training class was held at Camp X in Ontario, but soon OSS recruits were learning their covert craft at locations in Northern Virginia and Maryland. Learn what happened when the fairways of Congressional Country Club became spy territory.

S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)