James B. Donovan

Lawyer James B. Donovan defended Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in a 1957 espionage trial, and later negotiated the exchange of Abel for American Francis Gary Powers.


Born in 1916 in New York City, lawyer James B. Donovan worked for the International Military Tribunal at the end of World War II. He defended Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in a 1957 espionage trial, and in 1962 he brokered the exchange of Abel for U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers. Donovan later convinced Cuban Premier Fidel Castro to release nearly 10,000 prisoners. He died in 1970 in Brooklyn, New York.

Early Years and Career

James Britt Donovan was born on February 29, 1916, in the Bronx, New York. The younger son of parents John Sr., a prominent surgeon, and Harriet, a concert pianist and teacher, he went on to academic success at the Catholic All Hallows Institute and Fordham University. Originally intending to be a journalist, he instead enrolled at Harvard Law School, earning his LL.B. in 1940.

Donovan worked for the Office of Scientific Research and Development and the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, attaining the rank of Navy commander. Afterward, he was named associate prosecutor of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, where he assembled photographic evidence for use against Nazi officers charged with war crimes.

Returning to private practice, Donovan served as chief counsel in major trials across the United States. In 1950, he was a founding partner of the Watters & Donovan Law Firm in New York City's financial district.

Spy Trial and Exchange

In 1957, Donovan accepted a request from the Brooklyn Bar Association to represent Rudolf Abel, a high-ranking Soviet spy who had immersed himself in an artistic community before his arrest for espionage. Despite overwhelming evidence against his client, Donovan managed to avoid the death penalty in part by arguing that Abel could prove useful for a prisoner swap should an American of similar rank be captured by the Soviets.

That foresight proved keen when American jet pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down in the Soviet Union and imprisoned for espionage in 1960. Due to his relationship with Abel, Donovan became the conduit between the U.S. government and Soviet intelligence, and in early 1962 he was sent to Europe to "explore the situation." Following a week of negotiations at the Soviet embassy in East Berlin, Powers and Abel were simultaneously released from custody on the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Germany on February 10, 1962. Donovan subsequently received the Distinguished Intelligence Medal from the Central Intelligence Agency for his work.

Cuban Negotiations

Having earned a reputation for his high-stakes negotiating skills, Donovan was tapped by the Cuban Families Committee to obtain freedom for detained Cubans and Americans imprisoned during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. Over the course of several trips to the island, one of which included his 18-year-old son, Donovan gained the confidence of Cuban Premier Fidel Castro. He eventually secured the release of more than 1,100 survivors of the invasion, as well as another 8,500 political prisoners.

Late Career, Death and Legacy

Named vice president of the New York City Board of Education in 1961, Donovan unsuccessfully ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1962. He was elected president of the Board of Education in 1963, and oversaw the program during a two-year period marked by strife over the desegregation of city schools. Around this time, Donovan wrote two memoirs: Strangers on a Bridge (1964) and Challenges (1967).

In 1968, Donovan was appointed president of Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, where he faced more conflict from both students and faculty over civil rights and antiwar demonstrations. He died of heart failure at Brooklyn's Methodist Hospital on January 19, 1970.

A collection of Donovan's papers survives at the Hoover Library & Archives in Stanford, California, and he was the subject of the 2006 biography Negotiator by Philip J. Bigger. The story of his success in arranging the Powers-Abel exchange has been brought to the big screen in Bridge of Spies (2015), with film icon Tom Hanks starring as the New York lawyer thrust into delicate Cold War terrain.    

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