I do not remember hearing of James B. Donovan before watching the new movie, “Bridge of Spies” with Tom Hanks. I was so impressed with the story of the movie and the facts put on the screen after the movie that I felt compelled to write about him. I highly recommended the movie for anyone that enjoys history.
James Britt Donovan was born on February 29, 1916, in the Bronx, New York, of Irish descent. His father, John J. Donovan, was a surgeon; his mother, Harriet O’Connor Donovan, was a piano teacher; his brother, John J. Donovan, Jr., was a state senator in New York. He (James) attended All Hallows Institute (Catholic) and began his studies at Fordham University in 1937. There he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English because he wanted to be a journalist; however, his father convinced him to study law. He did so at Harvard University and earned a “bachelor of laws” in 1940 and then went to work in a lawyer’s office. At some point, he was a U.S. Navy officer.
Two years later (1942) he became Associate General Counsel at the Office of Scientific Research and Development. He was only a year when he became General Counsel at the Office of Strategic Services (1943-1945). Two years later he became the assistant of Justice Robert H. Jackson at the Nuremberg trials in Germany. “While he prepared for the trials he was also working as an advisor for the documentary feature The Nazi Plan. Donovan was the presenter of visual evidence at the trial.”
Donovan became a partner in a New York firm based in New York in 1950; his firm was called Watters and Donovan. In 1957 a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel needed an attorney, and Donovan accepted the job. Donovan was almost as hated in the United States as was Abel because he took his work seriously. Even though he lost the trial, he was went to the judge to argue against a possible death sentence – and won. He took the appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that “the 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”; however, Donovan lost the case with a 5-4 vote.
Rudolf Abel remained in the American prison until 1962 when negotiations began for an exchange of prisoners. Pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down in 1960, and the United States wanted him back. Donovan was the lead negotiator who worked with CIA employee Milan C. Miskovsky to negotiate the exchange of Abel and Powers. The negotiations were successful, and the exchange was made. I was a teenager in 1962 and remember the excitement about Powers release and return home.
A Cuban exile Perez Cisneros contacted Donovan in June 1962 for assistance in freeing 1,113 prisoners taken in the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. Donovan offered his services pro bono to the Cuban Families Committee of prisoners’ relatives and traveled to Cuba a few months later with his son. He met with Fidel Castro and “managed to create confidence” in the “very short-spoken” Castro. His negotiations ended on December 21, 1962, when Castro and Donovan “signed an agreement to exchange all 1,113 prisoners for $53 million in food and medicine.” Donovan received the Distinguished Intelligence Medal for his work.
Donovan campaigned for U.S. Senator from New York but lost. He served as the president of the New York Board of Education during the civil rights era. He published his first book Strangers on a Bridge, The Case of Colonel Abel, in 1964. He published his second book in 1967, Challenges: Reflections of a Lawyer-at-Large.
Donovan married Mary E. McKenna in 1941, and they became the parents of a son and three daughters. He died of a heart attack on January 19, 1970, at the Methodist Hospital in New York, at the age of 53.