Office of Strategic Services

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OFFICE OF STRATEGIC SERVICES. On 13 June 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to centralize the nation's fragmented and uncoordinated intelligence activities during World War II. An earlier attempt to do so, through the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI), formed 11 July 1941, had failed to achieve any real success because of unclear lines of authority and bureaucratic jealousies among the various government agencies concerned. As a part of the plan for establishing the OSS, some of the COI functions, such as domestic information activities, became the responsibility of the newly formed Office of War Information. The OSS took on others: the collection and analysis of strategic information and the planning and performance of special operations, particularly in the realms of espionage and sabotage. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were to supervise and direct OSS activities. Col. William J. Donovan became director.

Throughout its existence, the organization of the OSS constantly changed as it grew to an eventual strength of 12,000 personnel. Basically, the OSS consisted of a headquarters and various subordinate offices in and near Washington, D.C., and a series of field units, both in the United States and overseas. Two exceptions were Latin America, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation handled intelligence activities, and the South West Pacific theater, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur refused to accept the OSS.

Three branches of the OSS exemplified the breadth and scope of its operations. The secret intelligence branch dealt with sabotage, spying, demolitions, secret radio communications, and paramilitary functions. The morale operations branch handled the propaganda functions vested in the OSS. The research and analysis office gathered extensive information on all aspects of the areas in which U.S. forces operated. The OSS collected even the most trivial data and used it to further the war effort. All three branches had agents in both enemy and neutral areas.

It is the secret intelligence area from which the OSS gained much of its glamour. Many of its operations were in fact more dramatic than the fictionalized accounts found in books and films. In Burma, for example, a small OSS unit of twenty men operated behind Japanese lines with such success that it likely killed or wounded more than 15,000 of the enemy. Beginning in 1943, OSS personnel, along with British and other Allied teams, took part in the Jedburgh operation, which sent hundreds of three-man teams into France and the Low Countries to organize and aid underground forces in advance of the invasion of Europe. In 1944, another group smuggled an Italian inventor out of his German-occupied homeland to the United States, where he was able to produce an effective counter-measure to the torpedo he had designed for the Germans.

The end of World War II brought the demise of the OSS, by an executive order effective 1 October 1945. The departments of state and war split the functions, personnel, and records of the office. It was the experience gained by the OSS that laid the foundation for the Central Intelligence Agency, established in 1947.


Katz, Barry M. Foreign Intelligence: Research and Analysis in the Office of Strategic Services, 1942–1945. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Kimball, Warren F., ed. America Unbound: World War II and the Making of a Superpower. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

McIntosh, Elizabeth P. Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

Yu, Maochun. OSS in China: Prelude to Cold War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.

John E.JessupJr./a. e.

See alsoGuerilla Warfare ; Intelligence, Military and Strategic ; Psychological Warfare ; Spies .

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Office of Strategic Services

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