Small Wars Journal

Is the OSS Contribution to Special Forces a Result of Disinformation?

Mon, 12/03/2018 - 9:53am

Is the OSS Contribution to Special Forces a Result of Disinformation?


David Maxwell


It pained me to read the latest issue of the USASOC Historian Office's publication Veritas and it pains me even more to have to write these words.  You might not be familiar with Veritas because it is not published on line, only in an expensive high gloss print publication.  The specific article in the recent edition is “The OSS Influence on Special Forces.”  The article can be downloaded HERE


The author's thesis is that since only 14 members of the OSS actually served in Special Forces their contribution was not as great as has been described over the years.  The author uses fashionable modern academic analysis focusing solely on data and numbers to reach this outrageous conclusion: “The result was concrete evidence of disinformation and exaggeration perpetuated by the active force and veteran associations.”  The only “concrete evidence” the author cites is the number 14.  (As an aside there were at least 15 members of the OSS who served in Special Forces from 1952 to 1954. His list fails to include Robert McDowell who served with the OSS in Yugoslavia.)


The author is trying to prove his thesis by relying on numbers.  However, he undermines his argument with this statement:

Therefore, the five former OSS instructors in the SF Department, constituting approximately one-third of the instructor cadre from 1952-1954, are the ones who provided the most influence from their OSS experiences on the developing forceBecause the five interacted with or impacted every soldier trained in the SF program at the school, they gave students undergoing instruction an exaggerated impression about the overall presence of former OSS veterans in SF.

What the author fails to recognize and appreciate is that the OSS was an organization known for two things: punching well above its weight, i.e., making outsize contributions from its small numbers; and for conducting effective influence operations. At its peak there were some 13,000 members with 7500 serving overseas which was less than one Army division while the Army fielded over 90 divisions in WWII. Its Morale Operations branch focused on “persuasion, penetration, and intimidation” to destabilize governments and mobilize indigenous resistance at the strategic and tactical level.


Rather than assess the numbers of OSS members in SF the author would do a great service by reminding readers that today’s SF assessment and selection, organization (especially the ODA), training, doctrine, and most important the foundational mission of SF, unconventional warfare, are directly related to and descended from the OSS.  For those interested I recommend perusing the USASOC web site OSS Primer and Manuals accessed HEREUSASOC’s own website says: “Special Forces traces its roots as the Army’s premier proponent of unconventional warfare from the Operational Groups and the Jedburgh teams of the Office of Strategic Services.” I personally traced the development of SF doctrine and the unconventional warfare mission from the OSS to the present (then 1995) HERE.


Yes, other U.S. Army officers made significant contributions to the development of SF such as Russell Volckman, Wendell Fertig, and Donald Blackburn. They brought back tremendous overseas experience and demonstrated a unique quality necessary in SF: when there is a lack of guidance, organization, and support, operators must be able to take the initiative and organize indigenous resistance in support of national security objectives.  Their guerrilla warfare experiences in the Philippines added important perspectives to the guerrilla warfare experiences of OSS members in Europe as well as in Burma and throughout Southeast Asia. But they did not bring back the organization, training, and doctrine that resided in the OSS and was passed on to SF.


The author could have written a very positive article and highlighted the outsize contribution the members of the OSS made to SF.  They were the conduit for assessment and selection, organization, training, doctrine, and unconventional warfare. Most important the contributions they made continue to this day with appropriate modifications based on evolving global conditions, experience, and technology.


Furthermore, I know of no Special Forces officer or NCO who does not believe with all his heart that Special Forces (and the entire joint SOF enterprise) is a direct descendent of the OSS and shares the lineage with the CIA and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.  While the numbers can justify the author’s thesis he does not account for the intangibles of history, tradition, and the influence of those larger than life figures in the OSS as well as the actual OSS documentation and doctrine that provide the foundation for modern SF. To accuse the active force and veteran organizations of disinformation to belittle the contribution of the OSS to SF is an insult beyond belief.


So, what should be done?  Normally those finding fault with an article will demand a correction.  In this case a correction and acknowledgement of the error is insufficient.  Nor is an apology demanded.  This is the second recent error filled article published in Veritas. A previous article on the Special Action Force Asia required a correction and nearly four pages of clarification.


What this article indirectly highlights is that the US Army has failed to include the OSS in the lineage of Special Forces.  This is most likely because the OSS was not an Army unit (like SOF today it was a very effective joint and interagency (civilian) organization with members from all services). Therefore, the Army chose to make the 1st Special Service Force the predecessor of US Special Forces. While original members of the 1st SSF were recruited by Colonel Aaron Bank to join SF (along with paratroopers and foreign troops through the Lodge Act) the “Force” was a hyper-conventional American and Canadian direct-action raiding unit.  While it fought valiantly and deserves recognition for its tremendous exploits it did not make formal contributions to the assessment and selection methodology, the organization of the Special Forces A Team or the unconventional warfare mission.


The best corrective that the USASOC Historian’s office could undertake would be to petition the Army to add the OSS to the lineage of Special Forces.  I strongly recommend that Army Special Operations community pursue righting this wrong by the Army and restore Special Force’s proper lineage.  This will be a fight, but it will be a fight worth having. And lastly, I would demand that Veritas be published online so that the entire national security community can read about the history of Special Operations and the entire special operations community, academia, retirees, and interested Americans can provide oversight of the research conducted.


David Maxwell is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel.


About the Author(s)

David S. Maxwell is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Previously he was the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.  He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College.  He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.