OSS (United States Office of Strategic Services)

OSS (United States Office of Strategic Services)


The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was the first centralized United States intelligence agency. Created in 1942, the agency spearheaded the United States intelligence community, both civilian and military, during World War II. The mission of the OSS was to collect foreign intelligence and sabotage enemy war efforts. Maintaining espionage, analysis, and research forces, the OSS acted as a clearinghouse for information gathered from human and signals intelligence sources. At its peak, the agency employed 13,000 men and women.

Before World War II and the formation of the OSS, the United States employed only small, select intelligence forces within the military. During the American Civil War, a large espionage and intelligence network flourished, but intelligence services were disbanded following the end of the conflict. The military built up its intelligence services again during the Spanish-American War and World War I. Technological advances in communications, transportation, and weapons in the early twentieth century prompted military commands to continue to operate select intelligence units even during peacetime. The Army maintained its Signals Intelligence Service, a surveillance and cryptanalysis force, and the Navy further developed its intelligence services. Despite the recognition by national leaders that peacetime intelligence was a strategic necessity, the War Department's G-2 Intelligence Division was ill equipped to process, analyze, and disseminate the intelligence information it received from military operations.

The outbreak of World War II in Europe prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to press for a more efficient, centralized, and capable national intelligence service. In 1941, with the aid of representatives from the British intelligence community, Roosevelt and his advisors drafted a plan for the creation of new United States intelligence community. William J. Donovan was appointed to act as Coordinator of Information (COI), a civilian office responsible for collating intelligence information and reporting significant discoveries to the President.

When the United States entered the war in 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Donovan seized the opportunity to promote the value of the COI and push for an expanded role for his growing intelligence service. The organization was placed under the administration of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, though it remained largely autonomous. The Office of War Information assumed some COI duties, including the government's "white," or attributable, oversees propaganda campaign. Clandestine operations remained in Donovan's control, and his agency was renamed the Office of Strategic Services.

In 1942, the OSS began operations abroad, aiding the Allied war effort in Europe and North Africa. The first major success of the OSS was Operation Torch, a network of agents and informants operating under diplomatic cover in North Africa. Torch operatives reported on German diplomatic relations in the region, as well as troop movements, and strategic battle plans. Torch then contributed key information to Allied command's plans to invade North Africa.

As OSS operations grew more extensive, the agency created specialized operational departments. Though each department conducted independent missions, they worked closely together and had to report at all times to Donovan and other OSS leaders. The most famous of these operational departments was the human intelligence network, the Secret Intelligence Branch (SI). The SI was led by Whitney H. Shepardson and maintained espionage networks in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

The mission of the SI created much of the operations doctrine and tradecraft practiced in modern espionage. In 1942, station chief Allen Dulles created one of the most successful units of the SI. Incorporating refugee members of the former French intelligence service who fled the Nazi occupation of France, Dulles established a network of agents, based in Switzerland, who infiltrated Nazi strongholds and government offices throughout Europe. The SI group provided Allied military command with warnings and information about German V-1 and V-2 missile programs, and later aided the failed attempt by leading German Abwehr agents to assassinate Hitler in 1944. In 1945, Dulles's group of agents, in an operation called Sunrise, helped to secretly broker the surrender of German forces in Italy.

The Special Operations Branch (SO) was the special action force of the OSS. Modeled after the British SOE intelligence group with which it worked, the SO trained intelligence and military officers to aid Resistance groups in France. The SO and SOE created specialized infiltration teams to help organize anti-Nazi groups and assist partisans with weapons and communications equipment. The Jedburghs, as the groups of special SO and SOE agents became known, parachuted in behind enemy lines to coordinate Resistance sabotage efforts. Their mission was to strengthen partisan groups, distract Nazi troops, break enemy supply lines, and aid the Allied invasion forces. The Jedburgh groups achieved their goals with notable success. After the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, Jedburghs helped train Resistance members with whom they worked to fight alongside the Allied forces.

Although the espionage-based departments of the OSS gained greater notoriety, the agency's Research and Analysis Department (R&A) was a wholly novel contribution to modern espionage. R&A, comprised of leading academic professors, scientists, engineers, and research specialists in various fields, composed reports using available information to aid covert and military operations. R&A's gathered information about Germany's fuel resources, refineries, and distribution structures. The information allowed Allied airplanes to bomb critical oil production and storage targets, crippling the Nazi war effort. Information about German factories, railroads, and financial networks also contributed to Allied military policy.

Despite the successes and valuable contributions of the OSS, the agency was sometimes limited in its effectiveness. Months after the agency's inception, the government denied the OSS access to enemy communications intercepts and banned it from staffing its own cryptologists to decipher enemy radio and telegraph messages. Fleet commanders in the Pacific rarely utilized OSS forces, and the agency's role in the war against Japan was minimal. The FBI and Naval Intelligence blocked the OSS from extensive domestic counterintelligence work, despite the success of the OSS X-2 strategic counterintelligence network that operated oversees. As a result of its limited participation in routine, domestic defense operations, the OSS came to be seen as a wartime office, a significant factor in its ultimate demise.

Following the end of World War II in 1945, the United States government conducted a wide-scale audit of wartime agencies. The review process was followed by a massive government restructuring effort, phasing out wartime offices, and incorporating their duties into new agencies. The OSS was disbanded in 1945. Within two years, amid escalating Cold War tensions, the need for a centralized peacetime intelligence service became apparent. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assumed many of the duties of the former OSS.



Aldrich, Richard J. Intelligence and the War Against Japan: Britain, America and the Politics of Secret Service. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Bank, Aaron. From OSS to Green Berets: The Birth of Special Forces. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1986.

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


Central Intelligence Agency. The Office of Strategic Services: America's First Intelligence Agency. < http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/oss/ > (1 March 2003).


CIA (United States Central Intelligence Agency)
CIA, Formation and History
Cold War (1945–1950), The start of the atomic age
KGB ( Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, USSR Committee of State Security)
World War II

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