James B. Donovan: American diplomat and politician (1916 - 1970) | Biography, Facts, Information, Career, Wiki, Life
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James B. Donovan
American diplomat and politician

James B. Donovan

James B. Donovan
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American diplomat and politician
A.K.A. James Britt Donovan
Was Author Writer Lawyer
From United States of America
Field Law Literature
Gender male
Birth 26 February 1916, The Bronx, New York City, New York, U.S.A.
Death 19 January 1970, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, U.S.A. (aged 53 years)
Star sign Pisces
The details (from wikipedia)


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, and international diplomatic negotiator.
Donovan is widely known for negotiating the 1960–1962 exchange of captured American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, and for negotiating the 1962 release and return of nearly 10,000 (totally 9,703) prisoners held by Cuba after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. Donovan was portrayed by Tom Hanks in the 2015 Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning film Bridge of Spies directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen.

Life and career

James Britt Donovan was born on February 29, 1916, in the Bronx. He was the son of Harriet (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.

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. 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, he defended the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, after many other lawyers refused. He later brought in Thomas M. Debevoise to assist him; at trial, Abel was convicted, but Donovan was successful in persuading the court not to impose a death sentence. He then appealed Abel's case all the way 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 United States 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.

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. Cuba–United States relations were extremely tense after the invasion attempt. When Fidel Castro met Donovan for the first time, he was very short-spoken. Donovan managed to create confidence. Castro also praised Donovan for bringing his son to Cuba.

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 lawyer 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 influenza.

Personal life

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, 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, originally published in 1964, 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 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. In 2006, Philip J. Bigger published a biography of Donovan, Negotiator: The Life and Career of James B. Donovan., which will be 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 first-hand narrative to the dramatic events in the Oscar-nominated and winning movie. The 1964 New York Times Best Seller repeated itself in 2015, becoming #1 on the NYT Best Seller list for espionage books. The book has been widely acclaimed, including by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks themselves. 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 James Donovan's. 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)

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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