OSS, The Secret History

Title:                      OSS, The Secret History

Author:                  Richard Harris Smith

Smith, R. Harris (2005). OSS: The Secret History of America’s First Central Intelligence Agency. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press

LCCN:    2005006762

D810.S7 S555 2005



  • Originally published: Berkeley, University of California Press, 1972. New Preface by the author

Date Updated:  February 20, 2017

In the months before World War II, FDR prepared the country for conflict with Germany and Japan by reshuffling various government agencies to create the Office of Strategic Services—America’s first intelligence agency and the direct precursor to the CIA. When he charged William (“Wild Bill”) Donovan, a successful Wall Street lawyer and Wilkie Republican, to head up the office, the die was set for some of the most fantastic and fascinating operations the U.S. government has ever conducted. Author Richard Harris Smith, himself an ex-CIA hand, documents the controversial agency from its conception as a spin-off of the Office of the Coordinator for Information to its demise under Harry Truman and reconfiguration as the CIA.[1]

During his tenure, Donovan oversaw a chaotic cast of some ten thousand agents drawn from the most conservative financial scions to the country’s most idealistic New Deal true believers. Together they usurped the roles of government agencies both foreign and domestic, concocted unbelievably complicated conspiracies, and fought the good fight against the Axis powers of Germany and Japan. For example, when OSS operatives stole vital military codebooks from the Japanese embassy in Portugal, the operation was considered a success. But the success turned into a flop as the Japanese discovered what had happened, and hastily changed a code that had already been decrypted by the U.S. Navy.

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[2]

There was a mixed reception for Smith’s book when it first appeared. Those critical of it cited such things as its pretentious subtitle for a book that was written without access to the classified OSS archives, its erroneous picture of the atmosphere of OSS operations in certain parts of the world, its many errors, its omissions, its particular political slant, its superficial treatment of some of the OSS operations, its image of the OSS as uncontrolled, and its tone. The last chapter was regarded as a political appendix containing debatable opinions of CIA’s political makeup and preferences. There are grounds for these criticisms, but Smith wrote this before the classified material on OSS was released (including the OSS histories) and before other material became available. Inadequate in light of our present knowledge, it is still used as a reference because of its many merits [Now updated as of 2005 with much better information]. It was once the best single overall source on OSS. Smith improved the general quality of works on OSS and moved away from the postwar pattern of melodramatic accounts of derring-do: he read the material that was available and incorporated the results of interviews with some two hundred OSS and State Department veterans; he brought to light many matters not generally known and dealt with his subject in a broad way as well as bringing out interesting details. He tries to put events in the political and military context of the times, and the intrigues and disagreements in the political and bureaucratic arenas are strikingly drawn. With the publication of the OSS histories and works on specific aspects of OSS operations, the researcher will be in a better position .to ascertain what portions of Smith’s work can best be relied on. Predictably, too, its status as a virtually authoritative source on OSS will be diminished. The bibliography was at the time of publication one of the most complete of source material on OSS. The DIS’s Bibliography found it [see below] to be the most complete story of the OSS to that date but advised that it be read with caution because of errors and some biases of the author. Note that OSS contained one of the earliest, if brief, revelations of operations of OSS into the German Reich.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[3]

The author resigned from the CIA after a brief career to join the University of California at Berkeley where he undertook to write this “political history of the CIA’s organizational forebear, the wartime Office of Strategic Services.” Denied access to 0SS archives by his former contacts in the CIA, the author worked with the extensive memoir literature and supplemented this with more than 200 interviews with OSS veterans, named in the bibliography. The book is well written, carefully researched, with over 360 works referenced in the bibliography, and with numerous notes on each chapter. This reconstruction covers the 0SS from its origins, shortly before the entry of the United States into the war, to the transitional period when the CIA emerged in the immediate post-war period. It vividly portrays the politics and people involved, the bureaucratic in-fighting and intrigue, as well as the adventurist spirit of the men in the field. A good insight is provided into the organization of the OSS although this aspect is not emphasized. This work is an indispensable guide through the labyrinthine diplomatic complications which arose from the use of competing covert operational agencies during World War II.

This is a review by the Defense Intelligence School.[4]

This book is the most comprehensive story of OSS to date [1980] but must be read with some caution. With access to virtually no classified files, the author has had to rely on the fading memories of many of the participants, as well as the rather inadequate published literature on the subject. This results in some errors of fact, which, taken with some biased views of the author, make for uneven reading.

[1] The CIA published a review of the 1972 version of this book. It is located at https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol16no4/html/v17i1a09p_0001.htm

[2] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 418-419

[3] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p.

[4] Defense Intelligence School (1981). Bibliography of Intelligence Literature: A Critical And Annotated Bibliography of Open-Source Literature (7th ed, rev.). Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence School, p. 57


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