Office of Strategic Services

OSS shoulder insignia

Wikimedia Commons

The Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, was founded on 11 July 1941 as the Office of the Coordinator of Information. It was led by "Wild Bill" Donovan, a lawyer active in Republican politics who had been awarded a Medal of Honor as an officer in France during the First World War. Donovan had Roosevelt's confidence and had played an important role in persuading him that Britain would survive the German "Blitz". COI was responsible for coordinating intelligence from other agencies, mainly the War and Navy Departments and the State Department, and preparing analyses for the President and other departments in the Executive Branch. Donovan had hoped to be recalled to active duty when war broke out, but an accident in April 1942 rendered him physically unfit for combat duty. Nevertheless, he was called to active duty as a brigadier general in March 1943 and was promoted to major general in November 1944. He spent the entire war in charge of the COI and its successor, the OSS.

Originally COI was to be purely an analysis agency. However, in September 1941, the Army and Navy, uncomfortable with peacetime espionage, dumped their foreign intelligence offices into Donovan's lap, and COI found itself in possession of an espionage branch. Donovan also was granted use of unvouchered funds, an essential requirement for clandestine operations. Donovan proceeded to recruit agents from among educated Americans who had experience traveling abroad — which, in the 1940s, usually meant Americans from the upper strata of society. Many were professors or lawyers.

COI attracted more than its share of bureaucratic enemies. However, on 13 June 1942 COI was split into the Foreign Information Service, which joined the Office of War Information for "white" propaganda, and the Office of Strategic Services, which fell under the direct control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This gave OSS a patron while preserving much of its autonomy. However, OSS was forbidden access to ULTRA intelligence and was forbidden to carry out any operations in the Western Hemisphere, which was FBI territory. This left OSS with responsibility for covert operations in the combat theaters and for counterintelligence outside the Western Hemisphere.

The ULTRA prohibition was prompted by concerns about poor operational security within OSS in its early days. For example, the Daily Express published a story announcing to the world that Donovan had "a new hush-hush mission — to supervise the United States Secret Service and ally it with the British Secret Service ... The American 'Mr. X,' as he is known privately, will report direct to the President." This led Stewart Menzies, the head of the British Secret Service, to dryly note that "the Americans are not in any sense as security minded as one would wish" (Budiansky 2000). The lack of access to ULTRA seriously constrained OSS, and there was at least one incident where OSS engineered a break-in to an Axis consulate to steal codes that ULTRA had already broken. MacArthur refused to permit the OSS to operate in the Southwest Pacific, fearing that the agency would attempt to take over Filipino guerrilla operations, while the nature of Nimitz' Pacific command was such that there was little scope for covert operations. As a result, most OSS operations in the Pacific War took place in the China-Burma-India theater.

Operations in China were not particularly successful, since the Kuomintang's own intelligence chief, Tai Li, saw no need to support a rival organization. Efforts by OSS to contact the Communists were largely unsuccessful, and it has even been alleged that Communist collaborators murdered a number of OSS agents. However, an OSS intelligence unit did provide 14 Air Force with useful targeting information.

OSS agents in Thailand operated essentially as undercover diplomats to the Thai government, which had declared war on the Allies but hoped to minimize its involvement in the conflict. OSS agents established contacts with the titular head of state, Pridi Phanomyong. Pridi's chief concern was that Britain had designs on Thailand following the war, and he was interested in establishing a Thai guerrilla force capable of annoying the Japanese enough to earn Thailand a place on the victors' side at the peace table.

OSS agents also gave some assistance to Ho Chi-min, the Communist revolutionary in French Indochina, under Mission "Deer." The assistance was brief and not extensive, and most OSS agents found the rivalries among various French and indigenous factions bewildering. However the OSS eventually identified with the Viet Minh to the point where there was some question whether the liberation they were seeking was from the Japanese or the French. The OSS attitude reflected that of President Roosevelt, who regarded the French as little better than Axis collaborators and had no intention of letting them return to Indochina. However, Roosevelt's attitude eventually softened slightly as he lost faith in the ability of China to act as a great power in the region after the war was over.

OSS's greatest success in the Pacific Theater was in Burma, where Detachment 101 under "Buffalo Bill" Eifler was highly successful in recruiting and training Kachin tribesmen for guerrilla operations. The Kachin were ethnically distinct from and at odds with both the Burmese and the Shan, who sided with the Japanese. Japanese atrocities in northern Burma ensured that the Kachin would be enthusiastic supporters of the Allies, and Kachin tribesmen played an invaluable role as scouts during Stilwell's drive on Myitkyina. Eifler himself suffered a severe concussion during a pilot rescue, turned to alcohol to relieve the resulting headaches, and had to be relieved in December 1943.

OSS's final mission of the war was CARDINAL, a parachute drop of several teams behind Japanese lines to rescue prisoners of war following the Japanese surrender. Coordinated from the OSS base at Kunming, CARDINAL relied on surprise and bluff to cow the Japanese captors of the prisoners into releasing their charges without bloodshed. The mission was mostly successful, but failed to prevent the murder of a number of captured B-29 crewmen in Japan and encountered opposition, occasionally lethal, from Chinese Communists in north China. The OSS teams remained in north China and Manchuria to gather intelligence until expelled by the Russian and Chinese Communists.


Budiansky (2000)

Craig (1967)

Dunlop (1979)

Central Intelligence Agency (accessed 2008-2-25)

Schaller (1989)

Webster (2003)

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