Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Office of Strategic Services (OSS)

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was a U.S. foreign intelligence agency and forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. The OSS was created in June 1942 and disbanded on 1 October 1945. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the OSS at the urging of Colonel William J. Donovan, a prominent lawyer and former U.S. assistant attorney general who served in the army during World War I, winning the Medal of Honor, and then took an interest in intelligence matters. At the beginning of World War II, Donovan, who had close connections with like-minded British intelligence operatives and with Roosevelt, persuaded the president that the United States needed a centralized civilian-run intelligence agency that would report directly to the White House. In July 1941, before the United States entered the war, Roosevelt established for this purpose the Office of Coordinator of Information, headed by Donovan. A few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, this agency metamorphosed into the Office of Strategic Services, which was to report directly to the newly created Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The OSS undertook a wide variety of activities. In the United States, Donovan recruited academics for research and analysis functions. The OSS also mounted numerous covert activities, operating in both the European and Pacific war theaters. Ultimately, the OSS employed several thousand personnel. It had particularly close links with British intelligence services, which Donovan regarded as providing a desirable model for a potential U.S. agency. OSS European operations were based in London and headed by Colonel David K. E. Bruce, who subsequently became U.S. ambassador to France, West Germany, and Britain. OSS operatives (one of the more flamboyant ones was Allen W. Dulles, who spent the war in Switzerland cultivating contacts in Germany and Italy) infiltrated Axis-occupied territory, aiding resistance groups and providing the U.S. military with firsthand intelligence. In the Asian Theater, OSS agents worked closely with nationalist forces in China and Indochina, and as the war drew to a close they reported favorably though unavailingly to Washington on both the Chinese Communist movement led by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) and its Vietnamese counterpart headed by Ho Chi Minh.

Despite its successes, the OSS attracted fierce criticism from the American military, particularly General Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.S. forces in the southwest Pacific; military espionage operatives; and other rival intelligence agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Donovan's forthright style did little to allay such tensions. The OSS recruited its operatives disproportionately from the American social elite to which Donovan belonged, winning it the nickname "Oh So Social" and enabling detractors to denigrate its accomplishments. Immediately after the war ended, in September 1945 President Harry S Truman disbanded the OSS, ignoring Donovan's forceful pleas to establish a centralized U.S. intelligence agency. Within a few months, however, rising Cold War tensions led Truman to reverse this decision. The OSS was the de facto precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency, established by presidential executive order in 1946 and, more formally, by act of Congress in 1947. Many CIA operatives, including several influential directors—among them Allen W. Dulles, Richard Helms, and William Colby—began their intelligence careers as OSS agents. The CIA's subsequent heavy reliance on covert operations was another legacy that can be traced directly to its World War II OSS heritage.

Priscilla Roberts


Further Reading
Baak, Aaron. From OSS to Green Berets: The Birth of Special Forces. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1986.; Dear, Ian. Sabotage and Subversion: The SOE and OSS at War. London: Cassell, 1999.; Hymoff, Edward. The OSS in World War II. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.; Katz, Barry M. Foreign Intelligence: Research and Analysis in the Office of Strategic Services, 1935–1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.; McIntosh, Elizabeth P. Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998.; Smith, Bradley F. The Shadow Warriors: OSS and the Origins of CIA. New York: Basic Books, 1983.; Smith, Richard Harris. OSS: The Secret History of America's First Central Intelligence Agency. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.; U.S. War Department, Strategic Services Unit, History Project. War Report of the OSS. New York: Walker, 1976.; Yu, Maochun. OSS in China: Prelude to the Cold War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
 

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