James Britt Donovan (February 29, 1916 – January 19, 1970) was
an American lawyer,
United States Navy officer in the Office of
Scientific Research and Development and the Office of Strategic
Services, ultimately becoming general counsel of the OSS (the
predecessor of the CIA), and international diplomatic negotiator.
Donovan is widely known for negotiating the 1960–1962 exchange of
captured American U-2 pilot
Francis Gary Powers
Francis Gary Powers for Soviet spy Rudolf
Abel, and for negotiating the 1962 release and return of 9,703
prisoners held by Cuba after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Donovan was portrayed by
Tom Hanks in the 2015 Oscar-winning film
Bridge of Spies.
1 Early life and early career
2 Release of Gary Powers
3 Involvement in Cuba
4 Later life and death
5 Personal life
6 In popular culture
10 Further reading
11 External links
Early life and early career
James Britt Donovan was born on February 29, 1916, in the Bronx. He
was the son of Harriet (née O'Connor), a piano teacher, and John J.
Donovan, a surgeon. His brother was New York state senator John J.
Donovan Jr. Both sides of the family were of Irish descent. He
attended the Catholic All Hallows Institute. In 1933, he began his
studies at Fordham University, where he completed a Bachelor of Arts
degree in English in 1937. He wanted to become a journalist but his
father convinced him to study law at Harvard Law School, beginning in
autumn of 1937, where he completed his
Bachelor of Laws
Bachelor of Laws degree in
After graduating from law school, Donovan started work at a private
lawyer's office. He was a commander in the Navy during World War II.
In 1942, he became associate general counsel at the Office of
Scientific Research and Development. From 1943 to 1945, he was general
counsel at the Office of Strategic Services. In 1945, he became
assistant to Justice
Robert H. Jackson
Robert H. Jackson at the
Nuremberg trials in
Donovan was the presenter of visual evidence at the trial. While he
prepared for the trials he also worked as an advisor for the
documentary feature The Nazi Plan. In 1950, Donovan became a partner
in the New York-based law office of Watters and Donovan, specializing
in insurance law.
Release of Gary Powers
In 1957, Donovan defended the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, after many other
lawyers refused. He later brought
Thomas M. Debevoise to assist
him. Abel was convicted at trial, but Donovan was successful in
persuading the court not to impose a death sentence. He appealed
Abel's case to the Supreme Court, which in Abel v. United States
rejected by a 5–4 vote Donovan's argument that evidence used against
his client had been seized by the
FBI in violation of the Fourth
Amendment. Chief Justice of the
Earl Warren praised
him and publicly expressed the "gratitude of the entire court" for his
taking the case.
In 1962, Donovan, who was lead negotiator, and CIA lawyer Milan C.
Miskovsky negotiated with Soviet mediators to free captured
American pilot Francis Gary Powers. Donovan successfully negotiated
for the exchange of Powers, along with American student Frederic
Pryor, for the still-imprisoned Rudolf Abel, whom Donovan had defended
five years earlier.
This negotiation and preceding events were dramatized by the 2015
historical thriller Bridge of Spies, by Steven Spielberg.
Involvement in Cuba
In June 1962, Donovan was contacted by Cuban exile Pérez Cisneros,
who asked him to support the negotiations to free the 1,113
prisoners of the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. Donovan offered
pro bono legal service for the Cuban Families Committee of prisoners'
relatives. A few months later, he traveled to Cuba for the first
time. Donovan managed to create confidence with Castro, who was
pleased Donovan brought his (Donovan’s) teen-age son with him to
On December 21, 1962, Castro and Donovan signed an agreement to
exchange all 1,113 prisoners for $53 million in food and medicine,
sourced from private donations and from companies expecting tax
concessions. Donovan had the idea to exchange the prisoners for
medicine after he had found out that the Cuban medicine didn't help
him with his own bursitis. By the end of the negotiations, July 3,
1963, Donovan had secured the release of 9,703 men, women and children
from Cuban detention. Donovan was once again teamed up with CIA
Milan C. Miskovsky
Milan C. Miskovsky on these negotiations. For his work,
Donovan received the Distinguished Intelligence Medal.
Later life and death
From 1961 to 1963, Donovan was vice president of the New York Board of
Education, and from 1963 until 1965, he was the president of the
board. In June 1962, his alma mater Fordham presented Donovan with an
honorary degree. In 1962, he was the Democratic nominee for U.S.
Senate in New York but lost in November 1962 to Republican incumbent
Jacob K. Javits. In 1968, Donovan was appointed president of Pratt
Institute. He died of a heart attack on January 19, 1970, in
Brooklyn's Methodist Hospital in New York, after being treated for
In 1941, Donovan married Mary E. McKenna. The couple had a son and
three daughters, and lived in Brooklyn, New York while also
maintaining seasonal residences in Spring Lake, New Jersey and Lake
Placid, NY, where Donovan is buried alongside his wife and daughter.
He was a rare book collector, golfer, tennis player and gin rummy
player. A collection of his papers is held at Stanford University's
Hoover Library & Archives.
In popular culture
The story of the Abel trial and defense, followed by the negotiation
and prisoner exchange, was the basis for the book Strangers on a
Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers, written by
Donovan and ghost writer Bard Lindeman, which was published in
1964. Several similar works would come later, but Strangers was the
definitive work and was widely critically acclaimed. The book
was re-released by Simon & Schuster in August 2015. In
1967, Donovan published his second book, Challenges: Reflections of a
James Gregory played Donovan in the 1976 TV movie Francis Gary Powers:
The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident, based on Powers' biography
(written with Curt Gentry).
Lee Majors played Powers. In 2006,
Philip J. Bigger published a biography of Donovan, Negotiator: The
Life and Career of James B. Donovan., which was re-released in
paperback in January 2017.
Though not officially the basis for the movie Bridge of Spies,
Strangers on a Bridge is the closest, and a first-hand narrative, to
the dramatic events in the Oscar-winning movie. The 1964 New York
Times Best Seller repeated itself in 2015, becoming #1 on the New York
Times Best Seller list for espionage books. The book has been widely
acclaimed, including by
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The re-issue
coincided with the pre-release promotion for the movie Bridge of
Spies, directed by
Steven Spielberg and written by
Matt Charman and
the Coen Brothers, which was released on October 16, 2015. Tom Hanks
plays the role of Donovan, with
Amy Ryan as his wife, Mary.
In October 2016, Fordham inducted Donovan into its Hall of Honor in
conjunction with its Dodransbicentennial, the 175th anniversary of the
school, in a mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral with Cardinal Timothy
Dolan, who was also named a founder of the school. Fordham was founded
by Archbishop Hughes, who is an ancestor of Donovan.
Also in October 2016, Donovan was inducted into the All Hallows School
Hall of Fame.
Donovan, James B. (1964). Strangers on a Bridge, The Case of Colonel
Abel. Atheneum. ISBN 978-1-299-06377-8.
Donovan, James B. (1967). Challenges: Reflections of a
Lawyer-at-Large. Atheneum. (with a preface by Erwin Griswold)
^ Donovan, James B. Archived 2014-06-17 at Archive.is,
socialarchive.iath.virginia.edu, access date 5 June 2015
^ Dr. James B. Donovan, 53, Dies, nytimes.com, access date 5 June 2015
^ Stellabotte, Ryan (16 October 2015). "Metadiplomat: The Real-Life
Story of Bridge of Spies Hero James B. Donovan". Fordham News.
^ a b c d Bigger, Philip J. (2006). Negotiator: The Life and Career of
James B. Donovan.
^ a b c Kornbluh, Peter. "US-Cuban Diplomacy, 'Nation' Style". The
Nation. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
^ Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 1 : Prosecution Counsel,
avalon.law.yale.edu, accessed June 5, 2015.
^ a b The Man Who 'Sprung' Powers in: The Milwaukee Journal, 16
February 1962, page 8
^ "Thomas Debevoise, Prosecutor, 65, Dies". New York Times. New York,
NY. February 9, 1995.
^ "Abel v.
United States (1960)". FindLaw. Thompson Reuters. Retrieved
11 October 2015.
^ The People of the CIA … Milan Miskovsky: Fighting for Justice,
cia.gov, access date 5 June 2015
^ a b Donovan, James Britt in: Encyclopedia of the Kennedys: The
People and Events That Shaped America., page 193, ABC-CLIO, 2012,
^ a b Miami, Richard Luscombe in. "Bay of Pigs survivors on US-Cuba
thaw: 'Two American presidents betrayed us'". the Guardian. Retrieved
^ a b FBK-Dokumentation Nr. 9 – Seite 4 Archived 2015-12-22 at the
Wayback Machine., fg-berlin-kuba.de, access date 23 June 2015
^ James Britt Donovan in:
Der Spiegel 23/1963, pahe 82
^ Siracusa, Joseph M. (2012-09-07). Encyclopedia of the Kennedys: The
People and Events That Shaped America. ABC-CLIO.
^ The People of the CIA … Milan Miskovsky: Fighting for Justice,
cia.gov, access date 9 March 2016
^ NY US Senate – November 06, 1962, ourcampaigns.com, access date 5.
^ "Dr. James B. Donovan, 53, Dies;
Lawyer Arranged Spy Exchange"
(PDF). The New York Times. 20 January 1970. Archived from the original
on 9 December 2015. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
^ a b "Strangers on a Bridge". Simon & Schuster. August 2015.
Retrieved 9 December 2015.
^ Miskovsky, M. C. (22 September 1993). "Strangers on a Bridge by
James B. Donovan. Book review by M. C. Miskovsky". Central
Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
^ "The New York Times: Best Sellers: Espionage". The New York Times.
December 2015. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
^ Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident--IMDB
^ Tom Hanks-
Steven Spielberg Cold War Thriller Set for Oct. 16, 2015,
variety.com, access date 5 June 2014
Bigger, Philip J. (2006). Negotiator: The Life And Career of James B.
Donovan. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press.
James B. Donovan
James B. Donovan – A Legacy of Ideals and Action
Register of the
James B. Donovan
James B. Donovan Papers and selected documents online
at the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University
Party political offices
Robert F. Wagner, Jr.
Democratic Nominee for
U.S. Senator from New York
U.S. Senator from New York (Class 3)
ISNI: 0000 0000 8281 2379
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