James B. Donovan

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James Donovan
James B. Donovan.jpg
James Britt Donovan[1]

(1916-02-29)February 29, 1916
DiedJanuary 19, 1970(1970-01-19) (aged 53)
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Alma materFordham University, B.A. 1937
Harvard Law School, LL.B. 1940
OccupationMilitary officer, lawyer, educator
Known forNegotiating the 1962 exchange of Francis Gary Powers & Frederic Pryor for Rudolf Abel
Spouse(s)Mary McKenna (1941–1970; his death)
Military career
Service/branchUnited States Navy
Years of service1943-1945

James Britt Donovan (February 29, 1916 – January 19, 1970)[2][3] was an American lawyer and United States Navy officer in the Office of Scientific Research and Development and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency), ultimately becoming general counsel of the OSS, and an international diplomatic negotiator.[4]

Donovan is widely known for negotiating the 1960–1962 exchange of captured American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers and American student Frederic Pryor 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.[5][6] Donovan was portrayed by Tom Hanks in the 2015 feature film Bridge of Spies.

Early life and early career[edit]

James Britt Donovan was born into an Irish American family 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 degree in 1940.[5]

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 at the Nuremberg trials in Germany.[7]

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.[4] [8]

Release of Gary Powers[edit]

In 1957, Donovan defended the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in what was known as the Hollow Nickel Case after many other lawyers refused.[9] He later brought in Thomas M. Debevoise to assist him.[10] 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 was 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.[11] Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren praised him and publicly expressed the "gratitude of the entire court" for his taking the case.[9]

In 1962, Donovan, who was lead negotiator, and CIA lawyer Milan C. Miskovsky[12] 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.[13]

This negotiation and preceding events were dramatized by the 2015 historical thriller Bridge of Spies, by Steven Spielberg.

Involvement in Cuba[edit]

Donovan with President John F. Kennedy in 1962

In June 1962, Donovan was contacted by Cuban exile Pérez Cisneros, who asked him to support the negotiations to free the 1,113[14] prisoners of the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.[6][15] Donovan offered pro bono legal service for the Cuban Families Committee of prisoners' relatives.[15] 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) teenage son with him to Cuba.[6]

On December 21, 1962, Castro and Donovan signed an agreement to exchange all 1,113 prisoners for $53 million in food and medicine,[14] sourced from private donations and from companies expecting tax concessions.[13] 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.[16] By the end of the negotiations, July 3, 1963, Donovan had secured the release of 9,703 men, women and children from Cuban detention.[17] Donovan was once again teamed up with CIA lawyer Milan C. Miskovsky on these negotiations.[18] For his work, Donovan received the Distinguished Intelligence Medal.

Later life and death[edit]

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.[19] 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 influenza.[20]

Personal life[edit]

In 1941, Donovan married Mary E. McKenna, who was also an Irish American. The couple had a son and three daughters, and lived in Brooklyn, New York, while also maintaining seasonal residences in Spring Lake on the Jersey Shore, New Jersey, and Lake Placid, New York State, 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[edit]

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.[5] Several similar works would come later, but Strangers was the definitive work and was widely critically acclaimed.[21][22] The book was re-released by Simon & Schuster in August 2015.[21][23] In 1967, Donovan published his second book, Challenges: Reflections of a Lawyer-at-Large.

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.[24] In 2006, Philip J. Bigger published a biography of Donovan, Negotiator: The Life and Career of James B. Donovan.,[5] which was re-released in paperback in January 2017.

Though not officially the basis for the movie Bridge of Spies, Donovan's Strangers on a Bridge is the closest, and is the only 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, 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.[25]


In October 2016, Fordham University inducted Donovan into its Hall of Honor [26] 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.[4] Also in October 2016, Donovan was inducted into the All Hallows School Hall of Fame.[27]


  • Donovan, James Britt (1964). Strangers on a Bridge, The Case of Colonel Abel. Atheneum. ISBN 978-1299063778
  • Donovan, James B. (1967). Challenges: Reflections of a Lawyer-at-Large. Atheneum, with a preface by former Dean of Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold.
  • Bigger, Philip. (2005). Negotiator: The Life and Career of James B. Donovan; Lehigh University Press, 2005.


  1. ^ Philip J. Bigger (2006). Negotiator: The Life and Career of James B. Donovan. Lehigh University Press. p. 244. ISBN 978-0-934223-85-0.
  2. ^ Donovan, James B. Archived 2014-06-17 at archive.today, socialarchive.iath.virginia.edu, access date 5 June 2015
  3. ^ Dr. James B. Donovan, 53, Dies, nytimes.com, access date 5 June 2015
  4. ^ a b c Stellabotte, Ryan (16 October 2015). "Metadiplomat: The Real-Life Story of Bridge of Spies Hero James B. Donovan". Fordham News.
  5. ^ a b c d Bigger, Philip J. (2006). Negotiator: The Life and Career of James B. Donovan.
  6. ^ a b c Kornbluh, Peter. "US-Cuban Diplomacy, 'Nation' Style". The Nation. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
  7. ^ Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 1 : Prosecution Counsel, avalon.law.yale.edu, accessed June 5, 2015.
  8. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-09-14. Retrieved 2018-09-13.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^ a b The Man Who 'Sprung' Powers in: The Milwaukee Journal, 16 February 1962, page 8
  10. ^ "Thomas Debevoise, Prosecutor, 65, Dies". New York Times. New York, NY. February 9, 1995.
  11. ^ "Abel v. United States (1960)". FindLaw. Thompson Reuters. Retrieved 11 October 2015.
  12. ^ The People of the CIA … Milan Miskovsky: Fighting for Justice, cia.gov, access date 5 June 2015
  13. ^ a b Donovan, James Britt in: Encyclopedia of the Kennedys: The People and Events That Shaped America., page 193, ABC-CLIO, 2012, ISBN 978-1-59884-538-9
  14. ^ a b Miami, Richard Luscombe in. "Bay of Pigs survivors on US-Cuba thaw: 'Two American presidents betrayed us'". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-12-22.
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ James Britt Donovan in: Der Spiegel 23/1963, pahe 82
  17. ^ Siracusa, Joseph M. (2012-09-07). Encyclopedia of the Kennedys: The People and Events That Shaped America. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781598845396.
  18. ^ The People of the CIA … Milan Miskovsky: Fighting for Justice, cia.gov, access date 9 March 2016
  19. ^ NY US Senate – November 06, 1962, ourcampaigns.com, access date 5. June 2015
  20. ^ "Dr. James B. Donovan, 53, Dies; Lawyer Arranged Spy Exchange". The New York Times. 20 January 1970. Archived from the original on 24 October 2017. Retrieved 9 December 2015. Alt URL
  21. ^ a b "Strangers on a Bridge". Simon & Schuster. August 2015. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ "The New York Times: Best Sellers: Espionage". The New York Times. December 2015. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
  24. ^ Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident--IMDB
  25. ^ Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg Cold War Thriller Set for Oct. 16, 2015, variety.com, access date 5 June 2014
  26. ^ Fordham University Hall of Honor, retrieved 4 October 2019
  27. ^ All Hallows High School Hall of Fame Inductees, retrieved 4 October 2019

Further reading[edit]

  • Bigger, Philip J. (2006). Negotiator: The Life And Career of James B. Donovan. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press. ISBN 978-0-934-22385-0.

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by
Robert F. Wagner, Jr.
Democratic Nominee for U.S. Senator from New York (Class 3)
Succeeded by
Paul O'Dwyer