Goodbye OSS and Hello CIA: National Security Act of 1947

Posted on July 26, 2011
By Callie Oettinger

July 26, 1947 the National Security Act was approved:

To promote the national security by providing for a Secretary of Defense; for a National Military Establishment; for a Department of the Army, a Department of the Navy, and a Department of the Air Force; and for the coordination of activities of the National Military Establishment with other departments and agencies of the Government concerned with the national security.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s establishment within the Act is rooted in the Office of Strategic Services’ earlier work and political fall-out.

First up: Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI)

From the CIA’s article “COI Came First“:

As another European war loomed in the late 1930s, fears of fascist and Communist “Fifth Columns” in America prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ask for greater coordination by the departmental intelligence arms. When little seemed to happen in response to his wish, he tried again in the spring of 1941, expressing his desire to make the traditional intelligence services take a strategic approach to the nation’s challenges—and to cooperate so that he did not have to arbitrate their squabbles. A few weeks later, Roosevelt in frustration resorted to a characteristic stratagem. With some subtle prompting from a pair of British officials—Admiral John H. Godfrey and William Stephenson (later Sir William)—FDR created a new organization to duplicate some of the functions of the existing agencies. The President on 11 July 1941 appointed William J. Donovan of New York to sort the mess as the Coordinator of Information (COI), the head of a new, civilian office attached to the White House.

The office of the Coordinator of Information constituted the nation’s first peacetime, nondepartmental intelligence organization. President Roosevelt authorized it to collect and analyze all information and data, which may bear upon national security: to correlate such information and data, and to make such information and data available to the President and to such departments and officials of the Government as the President may determine; and to carry out, when requested by the President, such supplementary activities as may facilitate the securing of information important for national security not now available to the Government.

COI was in its early stages when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Office of Strategic Services (OSS)

In his book The CIA At War, Ronald Kessler wrote about William J. Donovan, who was at the helm of the OSS:

William J. Donovan called it an “unusual experiment.” The best and the brightest—graduates of Harvard and Yale and partners from J.P. Morgan—would be recruited to embark on a dangerous mission: to penetrate the enemy, learn its secrets, and disrupt its operations through covert means, including sabotage and assassination. . . .

The OSS is best known for supplying officers to so-called Jedburgh teams, consisting of guerrillas who parachuted into France to support the resistance against the German occupiers. The teams coordinates airdrops of arms and supplies, engaged in hit-and-run attacks and sabotage, and assisted the advancing allied armies…

On June 6, 1944, 176,000 allied troops landed on Normandy beaches, beginning a systematic defeat of the Germans. Looking ahead, Donovan proposed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt an “intelligence service for the post-war period.” In contrast to the OSS, which reported to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Donovan envisioned a “central authority reporting directly to you.”

The CIA’s mission would be simply defined: to prevent another Pearl Harbor. In the weeks before December 7, 1941, U.S. military agencies had picked up alarming signs of a possible attack. Intercepted messages showed that Japan had been putting its diplomats on alert for war. The Japanese ordered their consulates in the U.S. to destroy all but the most crucial codes, ciphers, and classifies documents. The high command was padding its radio messages with old or garbled messages to make decoding more difficult.

If they had been considered together, such indications of imminent war would have been enough for President Roosevelt to place the U.S. military on immediate alert…

In the parlance adopted after September 11, there was a failure to connect dots.

In his book Secret Wars, Gordon Thomas noted how Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 “changed the future path the U.S. intelligence community would take” and quoted intelligence analyst Christopher Andrew:

“Had he lived, FDR would almost certainly not have closed down America’s wartime intelligence agency, OSS, before there had been firmly established a peacetime replacement.”

As with the plans for the nuclear bomb, Truman had “never been included in OSS business. For all intents and purposes, he had been an outsider,” wrote Agostino von Hassell and Sigrid MacRae in their book Alliance of Enemies:

As president, Truman was under tremendous pressure, and he was quick to assert himself in reshaping the Roosevelt administration. He was swayed by J. Edgar Hoover, whose interest at the FBI was in having OSS disappear, and he was far less inclined to accept Donovan’s prominent role. Donovan and Truman had only one brief face-to-face meeting regarding the OSS, on May 14, 1945, and those fifteen minutes were marked by mutual dislike. Truman’s appointment book notes curtly that “General Donovan came in to tell me how important the Secret Service [sic] is and how much he could dot to run the country on an even basis.”

In his work “OSS Training in the National Parks and Service Abroad in World War II” John Whiteclay Chambers II introduces the “Park Report”:

Truman’s hostility toward Donovan and his organization may have come from a variety of sources. Some of them may have been matters of policy, such as the concerns of Truman and Smith about the costs and dangers of a permanent central intelligence agency. Donovan later blamed Truman and the Army and Navy for blocking his plan.

Other reasons for the new President’s hostility may have been more personal, including Truman’s attitudes toward Donovan himself. From Truman’s alleged remarks to Donovan at their first meeting in May 1945, it appears that he may also have been influenced by the articles in the McCormick-Patterson newspaper chain and a key, anti-OSS source Trohan had used.  Shortly after taking office, President Truman had been informed of a secret, scathing internal report on the OSS authored by Colonel Richard Park, Jr. of Army Intelligence (G-2). Park, who had served briefly as a military aide to President Roosevelt, may have mentioned his report when he met with Truman on April 1945, the day after Roosevelt’s death. Certainly, he soon sent the new President a copy of his hostile report.

Classified “Top Secret,” the Park Report on the OSS ran 56 doubled-spaced pages. According to Park, President Roosevelt had asked him to make an informal investigation of the OSS and report on his findings and conclusions. His report, Park said, was gathered “in an informal manner and from personal impressions gained on a tour of the Italian and Western Fronts.” It was almost entirely a compilation of denunciations of the OSS, most of the accusations being based on second-hand information, suspicions or rumors, and most were from unnamed sources. The report’s overriding theme was that the OSS was a body of amateurs in contrast to established intelligence professionals and consequently had made major mistakes in recruitment, training, and security procedures as well as in the handling of its funds. All of these alleged errors, Park concluded, had embarrassed the United States, especially its professional agencies, wasted enormous sums of money, and resulted in “badly conceived, overlapping, and unauthorized  activities,” including the capture and execution of its agents. Park cited accusations from  unnamed sources in Army and Navy Intelligence, the State Department, and the FBI, and he declared as further evidence of OSS’s unworthiness that General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz had banned it from their theaters. Finally, Park concluded, drawing on accusations from a number of unnamed critics that “many improper persons have penetrated into the O.S.S” As he put it, “the Communist element in the O.S.S. is believed to be of dangerously large proportions,” and at the same time, “the O.S.S. is hopelessly compromised to foreign governments, particularly the British, rendering it useless as a prospective independent, postwar espionage agency.”

Park’s accusations obviously reflected the views of OSS’s critics, particularly its rivals in the old line intelligence services. Donovan apparently never saw Park’s report, although he knew many of its assertions through the Trohan article, which had drawn upon it. While the OSS certainly did make mistakes, Park’s “report” was hardly an independent assessment; instead, it was filled with rumor, half-truths, innuendo, and other distortions.

In a September 20, 1945, letter to General Donovan, President Truman wrote:

My dear General Donovan:

I appreciate very much the work which you and your staff undertook, beginning prior to the Japanese surrender, w to liquidate those wartime activities of the Office of Strategic Services which will not be needed in time of peace.

Timely steps should also be taken to conserve those resources and skills developed within your organization which are vital to our peacetime purposes.

Accordingly, I have today directed, by Executive order, that the activities of the Research and Analysis Branch and the Presentation Branch of the Office of Strategic Services be transferred to the State Department. This transfer, which is effective as of October 1, 1945, represents the beginning of the development of a coordinated system of foreign intelligence within the permanent framework of the Government.

Consistent with the foregoing, the Executive order provides for the transfer of the remaining activities of the Office of Strategic Services to the War Department; for the abolition of the Office of Strategic Services; and for the continued orderly liquidation of some of the activities of the Office without interrupting other services of a military nature the need for which will continue for some time.

I want to take this occasion to thank you for the capable leadership you have brought to a vital wartime activity in your capacity as Director of Strategic Services. You may well find satisfaction in the achievements of the Office and take pride in your own contribution to them. These are in themselves large rewards. Great additional reward for your efforts should lie in the knowledge that the peacetime intelligence services of the Government are being erected on the foundation of the facilities and resources mobilized through the Office of Strategic Services during the war.

Sincerely yours,


Enter CIA

As conceived in the National Security Act of 1947, the CIA’s main function was to compile and analyze raw intelligence to make it useful to the president,” wrote Chalmers Johnson in his book Nemesis:

Its job was to help him see the big picture, put the latest crisis in historical and economic perspective, give early warning on the likely crises of the future, and evaluate whether political instability in one country or another was of any importance or interest to the United States. It was a civilian, nonpartisan organization, without vested interests such as those of the military-industrial complex, and staffed by seasoned, occasionally wise analysts with broad comparative knowledge of the world and our place in it.

National Security Act of 1947. Credit: National Archives.

National Security Act of 1947
Credit: National Archives.

Truman Signing National Security Act Amendments two years later, in 1949. Credit: Truman Library.

Truman Signing National Security Act Amendments two years later, in 1949. Credit: Truman Library.


CALLIE OETTINGER was Command Posts’ first managing editor. Her interest in military history, policy and fiction took root when she was a kid, traveling and living the life of an Army Brat, and continues today.


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