Birthday: February 29, 1916
Died At Age: 53
Sun Sign: Pisces
Also Known As: James Britt Donovan
Born Country: United States
Born in: The Bronx, New York, United States
Famous as: Negotiator
Spouse/Ex-: Mary E. McKenna (m. 1941)
father: John J. Donovan
mother: Harriet O'Connor Donovan
Died on: January 19, 1970
place of death: NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, New York, United States
Notable Alumni: Harvard Law School
Cause of Death: Heart Attack
U.S. State: New Yorkers
education: Fordham University, All Hallows High School, Harvard Law School
James Britt Donovan was a noted international negotiator, insurance lawyer and United States Navy officer, best known for securing the release of captured US pilot Francis Gary Powers from Soviet custody. Born into a family of Irish-American, he began his career in New York City as a lawyer. But when the United States joined the Second World War, he moved to Washington, where he served first as general counsel first at OSRD and then at OSS. At the end of the war, he served as an assistant to Justice Robert H. Jackson at the Nuremberg trials, presenting visual evidence of Nazi atrocities. Thereafter, he returned to his legal career, defending Russian spy, Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, as part of his public duty. Later, he negotiated the release of Powers in exchange of Abel. Later in the same year, he negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of a total of 9,700 Americans and Cubans from Cuban jails in exchange for food and medicine.
Childhood & Early Life
James Britt Donovan was born on February 29, 1916, in the Bronx, New York City. His father, John J. Donovan, was a successful surgeon while his mother, Harriet née O'Connor, was a piano teacher. His elder brother, John J. Donovan Jr., grew up to be a well-known politician.
Donovan had his schooling at All Hallows Institute. On graduating from there in 1933, he entered Fordham University, where he served as editor-in-chief of the university journal, ‘The Ram’. From his parents, he inherited a lifelong commitment to education, faith and public service and became a vociferous reader.
In 1937, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Fordham. At the graduation, he won his classmates’ vote as “Best All Around Man” and the student who had “Done Most for Fordham.”
After completing his BA degree, he wanted to pursue journalism. But at his father’s insistence, he entered the Harvard Law School, and completed his Bachelor of Laws degree in 1940. Thereafter, he began his career at a private lawyer’s office, handling insurance and libel cases.
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During Second World War
In 1942, as the United States joined the Second World War, he moved to Washington DC. Here he became an Associate General Counsel at the Office of Scientific Research and Development.
In 1943, he received a commission as an U.S. Naval Reserve officer and was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, which was the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1944, he became a General Counsel.
Possibly in 1945, he was sent to Europe, where he led the agency’s war crimes division. After the war, he assisted Robert H. Jackson in establishing the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany. Concurrently, he started gathering evidence against Nazi officers.
As the German concentration camps were being liberated, Donovan arranged to have them filmed. Entitled ‘Nazi Concentration Camps’, it documented the atrocities suffered by the victims. The film was as disturbing as it was damning.
To produce further evidence, he had another documentary film called ‘The Nazi Plan’ made under his supervision. It was compiled solely from footages of captured Nazi propaganda materials, newsreel images and sound recordings.
As the Nuremberg Trials began, he was appointed assistant prosecutor under Justice Robert H. Jackson, working in this capacity until 1949. As evidence, he placed the documentaries he created, which helped to nail down 21 Nazi leaders including Hermann Göring.
Abel & Powers
In 1950, Donovan rejoined his profession, becoming a partner of Watters & Donovan, a legal firm that specialized in insurance law. Very soon, his practice began to flourish and he became one of the busiest insurance lawyers in the country. However, very soon, history took a new turn.
In 1957, he was approached by the Bar Association to handle the case of Russian spy, Rudolf Ivanovich Abel. Although many people, including his wife, advised him against it, he nonetheless went ahead, citing it as his ‘public duty’ and also pledging to donate his entire earning from this case.
Although Abel was convicted of spying Donovan was eventually able to save him from gallows. One of his arguments was that if someday “an American of equivalent rank” was caught by the Russians, Abel might come useful. Three years later he was proved right.
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On May 1, 1960, a US pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured after his U-2 surveillance plane was shot down in the USSR. Very soon, at the initiative of Powers’ father and approval of CIA and State Department, Donovan set out for East Berlin, where he would meet Soviet officials.
Before he left, James B. Donovan was told that while his main task was to have Powers released, he must also try to free two students imprisoned in the USSR. He was also told that if anything went wrong in East Berlin he would not get any help from US government.
In late January 1962, he traveled to London ostensibly on personal business. On February 2, 1962, he sent home a cablegram saying he was going to Scotland; but actually left for East Berlin, where he met several KGB officials, purporting to be Abel’s family, at the Soviet embassy.
A nerve breaking negotiation followed in which he was aided by CIA lawyer Milan C. Miskovsky. Eventually it was decided Powers, along with one of the students, Frederic Pryor, would be handed over in exchange for Abel.
The swap took place at 8:20 a.m. on February 10, 1962 on the disused Glienicke Bridge, which connected West Berlin with Potsdam (East Germany). The other student was released in 1963.
In June 1962, James B. Donovan was approached by the ‘Cuban Families Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners of War’ to secure the release of those imprisoned after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Eventually he met Fidel Castro several times, persuading him to release 9703 prisoners for $53 million in food and medicine by 1963.
From 1961 to 1965, James B. Donovan was Vice President and later the President of the New York Board of Education. Meanwhile in 1962, he unsuccessfully contested U.S. Senate election as a Democratic candidate.
In 1968, James B. Donovan was appointed President of Pratt Institute.
James B. Donovan had written three books. Among them, ‘Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers’, published in 1964, became a New York Times best seller and was later translated into nine languages.
Awards & Achievements
James B. Donovan received numerous awards, most important among them being the CIA Distinguished Intelligence Medal. He also received an honorary degree from his alma mater, Fordham University.
Family & Personal Life
In June 1941, James B. Donovan married Mary E. McKenna from Brooklyn. They had four children, a son named John Donovan and three daughters, namely, Mrs. Edward L. Amorosi, Mary Ellen Donovan and Clare Donovan.
His hobbies included collection of rare books, golf, tennis and gin rummy.
On January 19, 1970, he died of a heart attack while being treated for influenza at the Methodist Hospital in New York. He was then fifty-three years old.
Steven Spielberg's 2015 film, 'Bridge of Spies' is based on his life and tells the story of his negotiations for the release of Francis Gary Powers.