Office of Strategic Services

Office of Strategic Services
Office of Strategic Services
OSS Shoulder Insignia
Agency overview
Formed June 13, 1942
Dissolved September 20, 1945
Superseding agency Central Intelligence Agency
Employees 13,000 estimated[1]
Agency executives Major General William Joseph Donovan, Co-ordinator of Information
Brigadier General John Magruder, Director for Intelligence

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was a United States intelligence agency formed during World War II. It was the wartime intelligence agency, and it was a predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The OSS was formed in order to coordinate espionage activities behind enemy lines for the branches of the United States Armed Forces.


Origins and activities

Prior to the formation of the OSS (the American version of the British Secret Intelligence Service and Special Operations Executive), American intelligence had been conducted on an ad-hoc basis by the various departments of the executive branch, including the State, Treasury, Navy, and War Departments. They had no overall direction, coordination, or control. The U.S. Army and U.S. Navy had separate code-breaking departments (Signals Intelligence Service and OP-20-G). Also, the original code-breaking operation of the State Department, MI-8, run by Herbert Yardley, had been shut down in 1929 by Secretary of State Henry Stimson, deeming it an inappropriate function for the diplomatic arm, because "gentlemen don't read each other's mail".[2]

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was concerned about American intelligence deficiencies. On the suggestion of Canadian/British spymaster William Stephenson, the senior British intelligence officer in the western hemisphere, Roosevelt requested that William J. Donovan draft a plan for an intelligence service. Colonel Donovan was employed to evaluate the global military position in order to offer suggestions concerning American intelligence requirements because the U.S. did not have a central intelligence agency. After submitting his work, "Memorandum of Establishment of Service of Strategic Information," Colonel Donovan was appointed as the "Co-ordinator of Information" in July 1941.

General William J. Donovan reviews Operational Group members in Bethesda, Maryland prior to their departure for China in 1945

The Office of Strategic Services was established by a Presidential military order issued by President Roosevelt on June 13, 1942, to collect and analyze strategic information required by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to conduct special operations not assigned to other agencies. During the War, the OSS supplied policy makers with facts and estimates, but the OSS never had jurisdiction over all foreign intelligence activities. The FBI was responsible for intelligence work in Latin America, and the Army and Navy guarded their areas of responsibility.

From 1943–1945, the OSS played a major role in training Kuomintang troops in China and Burma, and recruited Kachin, and other indigenous irregular forces for sabotage as well as guides for Allied forces in Burma fighting the Japanese Army. Among other activities, the OSS helped arm, train and supply resistance movements, including Mao Zedong's Red Army in China and the Viet Minh in French Indochina, in areas occupied by the Axis powers during World War II. The OSS also recruited and ran one of the war's most important spies, the German diplomat Fritz Kolbe. Other functions of the OSS included the use of propaganda, espionage, subversion, and post-war planning.

The OSS purchased Soviet code and cipher material (or Finnish information on them) from émigré Finnish army officers in late 1944. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Jr., protested that this violated an agreement President Roosevelt made with the Soviet Union not to interfere with Soviet cipher traffic from the United States. General Donovan might have copied the papers before returning them the following January, but there is no record of Arlington Hall's receiving them, and CIA and NSA archives have no surviving copies. This codebook was in fact used as part of the Venona decryption effort, which helped uncover large-scale Soviet espionage in North America.[3]

One of the greatest accomplishments of the OSS during World War II was its penetration of Nazi Germany by OSS operatives. The OSS was responsible for training German and Austrian individuals for missions inside Germany. Some of these agents included exiled communists and Socialist party members, labor activists, anti-Nazi prisoners-of-war, and German and Jewish refugees. At the height of its influence during World War II, the OSS employed almost 24,000 people.[4]

OSS 1st Lieutenant George Musulin behind enemy lines in German-occupied Serbia, as Chetnik, during his first mission on November 1943. His second misson was Halyard

In 1943, the Office of Strategic Services set up operations in Istanbul.[5] Turkey, as a neutral country during the Second World War, was a place where both the Axis and Allied powers sought to set up networks of spies. The railroads connecting central Asia with Europe as well as Turkey's close proximity to the Balkan states placed it at a crossroads of intelligence gathering. The goal of the OSS Istanbul operation called Project Net-1 was to infiltrate and extenuate subversive action in the old Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires.[5]

Head of operations at OSS Istanbul was a banker from Chicago named Lanning "Packy" Macfarland who maintained the cover story as a banker for the American lend-lease program.[6] Macfarland hired Alfred Schwarz, a Czechoslovakian engineer and businessman who came to be known as "Dogwood" and ended up establishing the notorious Dogwood information chain.[7] Dogwood in turn hired a personal assistant named Walter Arndt and established himself as an employee of the Istanbul Western Electrik Kompani.[7] Through Schwartz and Arndt the OSS was able to infiltrate anti-fascist groups in Austria, Hungary and Germany. Schwartz was able to convince Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian and Swiss diplomatic couriers to smuggle American intelligence information into these territories and establish contact with elements antagonistic to the Nazis and their collaborators.[8] Couriers and agents memorized information and produced analytical reports; when they were not able to memorize effectively they recorded information on microfilm and hid it in their shoes or hollowed pencils.[9] Through this process information about the Nazi regime made its way to Macfarland and the OSS in Istanbul and eventually to Washington.

While the OSS "Dogwood-chain" produced a lot of information, its reliability was increasingly questioned by British intelligence. Eventually by May 1944 through collaboration between the OSS, British intelligence, Cairo and Washington the entire "Dogwood-chain" was found to be unreliable and dangerous.[9] Planting phony information into the OSS was intended to misdirect the resources of the Allies. Schwartz's "Dogwood – chain" which was the largest American intelligence gathering tool in occupied territory, was shortly thereafter shut down.[10]

In 1942, a young physician named Christian J. Lambertsen invented the first Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) and demonstrated it to OSS – after already being rejected by the U.S. Navy – in a pool at a hotel in Washington D.C.[11] The OSS not only bought into the concept, they hired Lambertsen to lead the program and build up the dive element of their maritime unit.[11]

Transformation into the CIA

One month after the war was won in the Pacific Theater of Operations, on September 20, 1945, the 33rd U.S. President Harry S Truman signed an Executive Order which came into effect as of October 1, 1945. Thus in the following days from September 20, 1945 the functions of the OSS were split between the Department of State and the Department of War. The State Department received the Research and Analysis Branch of OSS which was renamed the Interim Research and Intelligence Service or (IRIS) and headed by U.S. Army Colonel Alfred McCormack. This was later renamed the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

The War Department took over the Secret Intelligence (SI) and Counter-Espionage (X-2) Branches, which were then housed in a new office created for just this purpose—the Strategic Services Unit (SSU). The Secretary of War appointed Brigadier General John Magruder (formerly Donovan's Deputy Director for Intelligence in OSS) as the director to oversee the liquidation of the OSS, and more importantly, the preservation of the clandestine intelligence capability of the OSS.

In January 1946, President Truman created the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) which was the direct precursor to the CIA. The assets of the SSU, which now constituted a streamlined "nucleus" of clandestine intelligence was transferred to the CIG in mid-1946 and reconstituted as the Office of Special Operations (OSO). Next, the National Security Act of 1947 established the United States's first permanent peacetime intelligence agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, which then took up the functions of the OSS. The direct descendant of the paramilitary component of the OSS is the Special Activities Division of the CIA.[12]


Prince William Forest Park (then known as Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area) was the site of an OSS training camp that operated from 1942 to 1945. Area "C", consisting of approximately 6,000 acres (24 km2), was used extensively for communications training, whereas Area "A" was use for training some of the OGs. Catoctin Mountain Park, now the location of Camp David, was the site of OSS training Area "B." Congressional Country Club (Area F) in Bethesda, MD was the primary OSS training facility.

The London branch of the OSS, its first overseas facility, was at 70, Grosvenor Street, W1.

The Facilities of the Catalina Island Marine Institute at Toyon Bay on Santa Catalina Island, Calif., are composed (in part) of a former OSS survival training camp.

The National Park Service commissioned a study of OSS National Park training facilities by Professor John Chambers of Rutgers University.

Camp X, near Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, where an "assassination and elimination" training program was operated by the OSS. It was dubbed "the school of mayhem and murder" by George Hunter White who trained at the facility in the 1950s.[13]


The names of all OSS personnel and documents of their OSS service, previously a closely guarded secret, were released by the US National Archives on August 14, 2008. Among the 24,000 names were those of Julia Child, Arthur Goldberg, Saul K. Padover, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Bruce Sundlun, and John Ford.[4][14] The 750,000 pages in the 35,000 personnel files include applications of people who were not recruited or hired, as well as the service records of those who were.[15]

Moe Berg

Major league baseball player Moe Berg of the Boston Red Sox was an OSS agent

Major League Baseball player Moe Berg, a graduate of Princeton University and Columbia Law School, was recruited by Nelson Rockefeller (the coordinator of the U.S. Office of Inter-American Affairs) and then by the OSS in 1943 because of his language skills.[16][17][18][19][20] He spoke unaccented German, as well as Italian, French, Spanish, Japanese, Greek, Russian, Hebrew, and Latin, in addition to English.[21] He was given the code name "Remus",[22] was assigned to the Secret Intelligence branch, and took part in missions in the Caribbean, South America, France, and England.[23] He was also involved in the Balkans Campaign, parachuting into Yugoslavia to evaluate the various resistance groups operating against the Nazis, and determining after meeting with him that Tito's were the most effective.[24][25] He next dropped behind German lines in occupied Norway, where he met with Free Norwegian guerrillas and gathered information leading to the destruction of a German plant being used to develop atomic weapons.[17]

Later, he was briefed in nuclear physics, provided a Beretta revolver and a cyanide pill (to kill himself if necessary), and sent to Zurich, Switzerland posing as a Swiss physics student.[26] His instructions were to attend a December 1944 lecture at the Technische Hochschule there by Germany's top nuclear scientist who was heading their atomic bomb project, Werner Heisenberg, to an audience filled with Nazi agents.[27][28] His orders were to kill the scientist if he determined that the Germans were far along in their efforts to build an atomic weapon.[18][20][21][29][30] He determined the scientist was not a threat.[29][31] President Roosevelt was pleased with the conclusions of his report.[25]

On another mission, he disguised himself as a Nazi German officer in order to enter a munitions plant in Italy, to determine if new weapons were being developed there.[20][21][32] He also parachuted behind German lines a number of times, in order to gain intelligence.[33]

Berg was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but declined to accept it as he was told that upon accepting it he would be forbidden from saying what he had done to deserve the award.[34] He is also the only former Major League Baseball player whose baseball card is displayed at CIA headquarters.[35]


  • Censorship and Documents
  • X-2 (counterespionage)           
  • Research & Analysis
  • Morale Operations Branch
  • Foreign Nationalities
  • Operational Group Command
  • Field Experimental Unit
  • Special Projects
  • Maritime Unit
  • Special Operations
  • Secret Intelligence[36]


US Army units attached to the OSS

In popular culture

  • The 1946 Paramount film O.S.S., starring Alan Ladd and Geraldine Fitzgerald, showed agents training and on a dangerous mission. Commander John Shaheen acted as technical advisor.
  • The 1946 film 13 Rue Madeleine stars James Cagney as an OSS agent who must find a mole in French partisan operations. Peter Ortiz acted as technical advisor.
  • The 1946 film Cloak and Dagger stars Gary Cooper as a scientist recruited to OSS to exfiltrate a German scientist defecting to the allies with the help of a woman guerrilla and her partisans. E. Michael Burke acted as technical advisor.
  • The 1957 book You're Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger by Roger Wolcott Hall is a witty look at Hall's experiences with the OSS.
  • Author W.E.B. Griffin's Honor Bound and Men At War series revolves around fictional OSS operations.
  • The O.S.S. was a featured organization in DC Comics, introduced in G.I. Combat #192 (July 1976). Led by the mysterious Control, they operated as an espionage unit, initially in Nazi-occupied France. The organization would later become Argent.
  • In the Wolfenstein series of video games, the main character is a member of a fictional organisation called the OSA (Office of Secret Actions),which is inspired by the OSS.
  • Most games in the Medal of Honor video game franchise feature a fictional OSS agent as the main character.
  • In the Season 6 X-Files episode "Triangle", the woman from the 1939 scenes portrayed by Gillian Anderson as Scully is a member of OSS.
  • In the 2006 film The Good Shepherd Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a Skull and Bones recruit who joins the OSS to help with a mission in London. He quickly gains rank as the head of the newly formed CIA's Counterintelligence service.
  • The OSS is referenced in the 2007 film Smokin' Aces.
  • In the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it is indicated that Indiana Jones did work for the OSS, attaining the rank of Colonel.
  • In the 2009 film Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino, the "basterds" are members of OSS, although no such OSS unit existed.
  • A French pulp fiction series OSS 117, by author Jean Bruce, follows the adventure of Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, alias OSS 117, a French operative working for the OSS. The original series (four or five books a year) lasted from 1949 to 1963, until the death of Jean Bruce, and was continued by his wife and children until 1992. Numerous movies were made in the 1960s, and in 2006 a nostalgic comedy was made, celebrating the spy movie genre, Cairo, Nest of Spies, with Jean Dujardin playing OSS 117. A sequel followed in 2009 called OSS 117: Lost in Rio (original title in French: OSS 117: Rio Ne Répond Plus).
  • The 2008 film Flash of Genius is about famed American inventor and OSS veteran, Robert Kearns.

See also

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  1. ^ Dawidoff, p. 240
  2. ^ Stimson, Henry L. On Active Service in Peace and War (1948). per Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 16th ed.
  3. ^ Andrew, Christopher and Mitrokhin, Vasili, The Mitrokhin Archive, Volume 1: The KGB in Europe and the West, 1999.
  4. ^ a b "Chef Julia Child, others part of WWII spy network", CNN, 2008-08-14
  5. ^ a b Hassell and McCrae, p.158
  6. ^ Hassell and MacRae, p.159
  7. ^ a b Hassell and MacRae, p.166
  8. ^ Hassell and MacRae, p.167
  9. ^ a b Rubin, B: Istanbul Intrigues, page 168. Pharos Books, 1992.
  10. ^ Hassell and MacRae, p.184
  11. ^ a b Shapiro, T. Rees. "Christian J. Lambertsen, OSS officer who created early scuba device, dies at 93". Washington Post (February 18, 2011)
  12. ^ Waller, Douglas "CIA's Secret Army", Time (2003)
  13. ^ Albarelli, H.A. A Terrible Mistake:The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments 2009. p.67 ISBN 0977795373
  14. ^ Blackledge, Brett J. and Herschaft, Randy , "Documents: Julia Child part of WW II-era spy ring", Associated Press
  15. ^ Office of Strategic Services Personnel Files from World War II – overview page, search links, digital excerpts; ARC Identifier 1593270: Personnel Files, compiled 1942 - 1945, documenting the period 1941 - 1945, from Record Group 226: Records of the Office of Strategic Services, 1919 - 2002; Personnel database – complete list
  16. ^ The rock, the curse, and the hub: a random history of Boston sports. Harvard University Press. 2005. Retrieved February 16, 2011. 
  17. ^ a b Encyclopedia of the Central Intelligence Agency. Infobase Publishing. 2003. Retrieved February 16, 2011. 
  18. ^ a b Hahn, Gilbert, Jr. The Notebook of an Amateur Politician. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2002. p. 86 ISBN 0-7391-0405-5
  19. ^ Redmont, Robert. The Red Sox Encyclopedia. Sports Publishing, 2002. p. 144. ISBN 1-58261-244-7
  20. ^ a b c Boxerman, Burton Alan and Boxerman, Benita W. Jews and Baseball: Entering the American mainstream, 1871–1948 Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006. p. 109 ISBN 978-0-7864-2828-1
  21. ^ a b c Elston, Gene A Stitch in Time: A Baseball Chronology. Houston, Texas: Halcyon, 2001. p.12. ISBN 1-931-823-33-2
  22. ^ From Hitler's doorstep: the wartime intelligence reports of Allen Dulles, 1942-1945. Penn State Press. Retrieved February 16, 2011. 
  23. ^ Baseball's Dead of World War II: A Roster of Professional Players Who Died in Service. McFarland. 2009. Retrieved February 16, 2011. 
  24. ^ Dawidoff, pp.153–55
  25. ^ a b Blessings of freedom: chapters in American Jewish history. 2002. Retrieved February 16, 2011. 
  26. ^ Playing for their nation: baseball and the American military during World War II. Retrieved February 16, 2011. 
  27. ^ Spying: the secret history of history. Black Dog Publishing. 2004. Retrieved February 16, 2011. 
  28. ^ Edwin Hubble: mariner of the nebulae. Retrieved February 16, 2011. 
  29. ^ a b Elias, Robert.The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad New York: The New Press, 2009. p. 152 ISBN 978-1-59558-195-2
  30. ^ Chalou, George C. The Secret War: The Office of Strategic Services in World War II. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992. p. 293 ISBN 0-091333-91-6
  31. ^ From nuclear military strategy to a world without war: a history and a proposal. Retrieved February 16, 2011. 
  32. ^ A stitch in time: a baseball chronology. Halcyon Press. Retrieved February 16, 2011. 
  33. ^ Teenager on first, geezer at bat, 4-F on deck: major league baseball in 1945. McFarland. Retrieved February 16, 2011. 
  34. ^ Bloomfield, Gary L. Duty, Honor, Victory: America's Athletes in World War II Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2003. p.65. ISBN 1-59228-067-6
  35. ^ Smith, W. Thomas.Encyclopedia of the Central Intelligence Agency New York: Facts on File, 2003. p.23. ISBN 0-8160-4-666-2
  36. ^ For all branch information: Clancey, Patrick. "Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Organization and Functions". HyperWar. Retrieved 12 July 2011. 
Select historical bibliography
  • Albarelli, H.P. A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments (2009) ISBN 0977795373
  • Aldrich, Richard J. Intelligence and the War Against Japan: Britain, America and the Politics of Secret Service (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
  • Alsop, Stewart and Braden, Thomas. Sub Rosa: The OSS and American Espionage (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946)
  • Bank, Aaron. From OSS to Green Berets: The Birth of Special Forces (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1986)
  • Bartholomew-Feis, Dixee R. The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War against Japan (Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, 2006)
  • Bernstein, Barton J. "Birth of the U.S. biological warfare program" Scientific American 256: 116 – 121, 1987.
  • Brown, Anthony Cave. The Last Hero: Wild Bill Donovan (New York: Times Books, 1982)
  • Casey, William J. The Secret War Against Hitler (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1988)
  • Chalou, George C. (ed.) The Secrets War: The Office of Strategic Services in World War II (Washington: National Archives and Records Administration, 1991)
  • Dawidoff, Nicholas. The Catcher was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg ( New York: Vintage Books, 1994)
  • Dulles, Allen. The Secret Surrender (New York: Harper & Row, 1966)
  • Dunlop, Richard. Donovan: America’s Master Spy (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1982)
  • Ford, Corey. Donovan of OSS (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970)
  • Grose, Peter. Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994)
  • Hassell, A, and MacRae, S: Alliance of Enemies: The Untold Story of the Secret American and German Collaboration to End World War II, Thomas Dunne Books, 2006
  • Hunt, E. Howard. American Spy, 2007
  • Jakub, Jay. Spies and Saboteurs: Anglo-American Collaboration and Rivalry in Human Intelligence Collection and Special Operations, 1940–45 (New York: St. Martin's, 1999)
  • Jones, Ishmael. The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture (New York: Encounter Books, 2008, rev 2010)
  • Katz, Barry M. Foreign Intelligence: Research and Analysis in the Office of Strategic Services, 1942–1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989)
  • Kent, Sherman. Strategic Intelligence for American Foreign Policy (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1965 [1949])
  • Lovell, Stanley P. Of Spies and Stratagems (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1963)
  • McIntosh, Elizabeth P. Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998)
  • Melton, H. Keith. OSS Special Weapons and Equipment: Spy Devices of World War II (New York: Sterling Publishing, 1991)
  • Moulin, Pierre. U.S. Samurais in Bruyeres (CPL Editions: Luxembourg, 1993)
  • Persico, Joseph E. Piercing the Reich: The Penetration of Nazi Germany by American Secret Agents During World War II (New York: Viking, 1979)
  • Peterson, Neal H. (ed.) From Hitler’s Doorstep: The Wartime Intelligence Reports of Allen Dulles, 1942–1945 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996)
  • Pinck, Daniel C. Journey to Peking: A Secret Agent in Wartime China (Naval Institute Press, 2003)
  • Pinck, Daniel C., Jones, Geoffrey M.T. and Pinck, Charles T. (eds.) Stalking the History of the Office of Strategic Services: An OSS Bibliography (Boston: OSS/Donovan Press, 2000)
  • Roosevelt, Kermit (ed.) War Report of the OSS, two volumes (New York: Walker, 1976)
  • Rudgers, David F. Creating the Secret State: The Origins of the Central Intelligence Agency, 1943–1947 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2000)
  • Smith, Bradley F. and Agarossi, Elena. Operation Sunrise: The Secret Surrender (New York: Basic Books, 1979)
  • Smith, Bradley F. The Shadow Warriors: OSS and the Origins of the CIA (New York: Basic, 1983)
  • Smith, Richard Harris. OSS: The Secret History of America’s First Central Intelligence Agency (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972; Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2005)
  • Steury, Donald P. The Intelligence War (New York: Metrobooks, 2000)
  • Troy, Thomas F. Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1981)
  • Troy, Thomas F. Wild Bill & Intrepid (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996)
  • Waller, John H. The Unseen War in Europe: Espionage and Conspiracy in the Second World War (New York: Random House, 1996)
  • Warner, Michael. The Office of Strategic Services : America’s First Intelligence Agency (Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 2001)
  • Yu, Maochun. OSS in China: Prelude to Cold War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996)

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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