William Joseph Donovan was born in Buffalo, New York to an Irish family in 1883; his paternal grandparents were from County Cork and his maternal grandparents from Ulster. He was classmates with Franklin D. Roosevelt at Columbia Law School, and he served in the US National Guard; in 1916, his unit was mobilized and sent to serve with the US Army during World War I. He served as a major and was wounded in the leg by shrapnel and was nearly blinded by German gas. Donovan, a lifelong friend to the Jews, turned down the Croix de Guerre because a Jewish comrade who had assisted him in the rescue of other soldiers had not been given the award as well. During the fighting at Landres-et-Saint Georges on 14-15 October 1918, he was wounded in the leg by a German sniper while wearing his officer's medals (typically not encouraged on the front lines), but he refused to leave his men, even as American tanks were turned back by German fire. He was awarded Oak Leaf Clusters for his bravery.
Donovan worked for J.P. Morgan during the Intewar period, owned a private law practice, and also worked with army intelligence, gathering information on international communism. From 1922 to 1924, he served as US Attorney for the Western District of New York. He energetically enforced Prohibition and fought against crime, but he was fired when President Calvin Coolidge cleaned house in the Department of Justice. President Herbert Hoover wanted Donovan to become Attorney General in 1928, but Hoover instead nominated him for Governor of the Philippines due to opposition to Donovan's candidacy by anti-Catholic southerners; Donovan turned this post down. In 1932, he ran for Governor of New York as a Republican Party candidate, seeking to succeed Franklin D. Roosevelt.
While collecting intelligence in Europe during the 1930s, Donovan assailed the fascist dictatorships for their treatment of Jews and predicted World War II, and President Roosevelt decided to make Donovan his intelligence chief in 1941. Donovan struggled to coordinate operations with the British as OSS chief, but he succeeded in organizing a successful intelligence agency that would morph into the CIA after the war's end. In 1946, Donovan returned to his law career, and he died in Washington DC in 1959 at the age of 76.