Showing Moral Courage: James B. Donovan

By | February 22, 2017

[February 22, 2017]  Adversity, uncertainty, confusion … all play a part in how we see great leaders who demonstrate the moral courage overcome such obstacles.  The greater the adversity, the greater the leader who can prevail.  In the civilian world, attorney James B. Donovan showed moral courage when he helped release prisoners from several communist countries.

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” – Mark Twain, American writer, humorist, entrepreneur

Donovan negotiated the exchange of captured American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel and later for the release and return of nearly 10,000 prisoners held by Cuba.  He seemed to make the impossible happen and yet had neither political connections nor high positions in his employment.  He was an insurance attorney in a Brooklyn, New York law firm.

Representing Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in 1957 after many lawyers refused to do so, Donovan did so despite bad publicity and a bad name it would make for him.  Although Abel was convicted and the case appealed up to the Supreme Court1, Donovan was able to convince the court not to impose a death sentence.  This would later become a fortuitous decision when Powers was captured.

An interesting side event to this affair was the Soviet trial of Powers for espionage that occurred before the military division of the Supreme Court of the USSR.  Powers was convicted of the criminal charge, which is considered a grave crime in violation of Soviet law and subsequently sentenced to prison and a labor camp.   An important take-away was the lack of fairness in the Soviet judicial system.

Donovan makes it clear in his 1964 book, Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers,2 that the trial of Abel was a demonstration of the fairness of the American justice system and that everyone is entitled to the same rights under the U.S. Constitution despite calls for such principles to be suspended.  This is an important point with many parallels today.

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  1. 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 Donovan and publicly expressed the “gratitude of the entire court” for his taking the case:
  2. An historical drama-legal thriller called Bridge of Spies (2015 film) starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg brought much of this to our attention 50 years later.


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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.