The Moment That Changed the Cold War
James B. Donovan Meets His New Client, a Soviet Master Spy
I am the daughter of James B. Donovan.
My father wrote about his role in one of the defining moments of the Cold War in his memoir, Strangers on a Bridge, a story now being told on film in Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg.
Originally published in 1964, Strangers on a Bridge tells the story of my father’s defense of captured Soviet master spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, and of his eventual exchange for American Francis Gary Powers, who’d been shot down by the Russians. That exchange took place on Berlin’s notorious “Bridge of Spies” on February 10th, 1962.
This book is more than just a study in international law and diplomacy—it is about two brilliant men, alive in dangerous times. The following excerpt describes the first meeting of Jim Donovan and Col. Abel, the beginning of a dramatic journey that would see the two develop a mutual respect, discovering in each other a shared reverence of competency and honor, and a disdain for the spotlight.
–Mary Ellen Fuller
Wednesday, August 21
I was to meet my new client, Col. Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, for the first time. When I reached the fortresslike Federal courthouse in Brooklyn at 11 am it was alive with action. As on the opening day of a big criminal trial, electricity was in the air. Court attendants, elevator operators and the blind newsdealer in the lobby—all of them felt and imparted it. Reporters, radio newsmen with their recorders, television cameras and lighting equipment were everywhere.
“Will the Colonel accept you as his lawyer? Can we get a shot of you together? Are you going to have a joint statement?”
I was introduced to Colonel Abel in the prisoners’ pen, quickly shook hands, and then we walked down the corridors, past grinding TV cameras, to a small detention room which I had asked the United States marshal to set aside for this first meeting.
A posse of deputy marshals ushered us in and then closed the door. They stood guard outside. The two of us suddenly were standing alone, face to face across a table.
“These are my credentials,” I said, handing him a copy of the detailed press release issued by the Bar Association, announcing my selection. “I’d like you to read this carefully, to see whether there is anything here which you believe should bar me from acting as your defense counsel.”
He put on rimless spectacles. As he carefully read the release, I studied him. He looked very shabby, I thought. He was dressed in rumpled work denims and I decided that for his courtroom appearances he should have some decent clothes that would aid him in assuming a dignified posture.
I thought of descriptions of him that I had seen in the newspapers and magazines: “an ordinary-looking little man . . . a sharp patrician face . . . long nose and bright eyes that suggested a curious bird.” To me, he looked like a schoolteacher. But then, I reminded myself, so had Himmler. Abel was slight, but wiry and powerful. When we had shaken hands he gripped mine powerfully.
When he finished reading he looked up and said, “None of these things influence my judgment. I am prepared to accept you as my attorney.” The words were spoken in perfect English, with the accent of an upper-class Britisher who had lived in Brooklyn for some years.
I described the life insurance case I was then handling in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, involving Soviet Russia’s domination of Poland. He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “That’s a legal matter. After all, if the insurance companies didn’t take that position and have the issues decided, they could be compelled to pay again to Polish claimants if there ever is a turnover in the Polish government.” I was fascinated. This was one of the reasons why this so-called “Iron Curtain test case” had been selected by the life insurance companies.
I told him that I would accept any fee approved by the court as reasonable, but would donate it to charity. He remarked that this was my “own affair.” He thought the $10,000 fee already mentioned was fair and explained that a lawyer who visited him in jail had asked for $14,000 to conduct the trial. He turned the man down, he added, because he “lacked professional dignity,” was “sloppy-looking” and “had dirty fingernails.” (He has the background of a gentleman, I thought.)
With such formalities out of the way, we sat down and he asked me what I thought of his situation. With a wry smile he said, “I guess they caught me with my pants down.”
I laughed. The remark was made even funnier by the fact that when the FBI had pushed into his hotel room early one June morning, Abel was sleeping in the raw. The arresting officers had found complete spy paraphernalia in his Manhattan hotel room and his artist’s studio in Brooklyn. There were short-wave radios with a schedule of message reception times; hollowed-out bolts, cuff links, tie clasps and other secret message containers; a code book, coded messages and microfilm equipment; and marked-up maps of major United States defense areas. On top of all this, the government claimed it had the full confession of at least one accomplice.
“I’m afraid, Colonel, I’m inclined to agree with you,” I said and explained that from the news stories I had seen, plus a quick look at the official files in the court clerk’s office, the evidence of his espionage mission appeared to be overwhelming. “Frankly, with the new penalty of capital punishment for espionage, and present cold-war relations between your country and mine, it will be a miracle if I can save your life.”
He lowered his head for a second and I filled the silence by saying I hoped to bring about a more favorable climate for his trial. In this respect, I said, it would be important to see the public reaction to my first press conference. He made a gloomy observation about his chances for a fair trial in what he called “an atmosphere still poisoned by the recent McCarthyism.” He also said that he thought the Department of Justice, by “propaganda” about his guilt and describing him as a “master spy,” had already prosecuted and convicted him. “Judges and jurors read all that,” he said. I told him that he should have confidence in the basic American devotion to fair play.
There was no question in my mind that Abel was exactly what the government claimed, and that he had decided it would be futile to argue otherwise. At a deportation hearing in Texas, where he was held in an alien detention center prior to his indictment, he swore under oath that he was a Russian citizen and asked to be deported to the Soviet Union. He further testified in Texas that he had lived nine years in the United States, mostly in New York, as an illegal alien using at least three aliases.
When I mentioned Texas he told me that during the time he was held there the FBI offered him freedom and a $10,000-a-year job in United States counterintelligence if he would “cooperate.”
“They must think all of us are rats who can be bought,” he said, and this led him to discuss the government’s key witness, his defected assistant Hayhanen. “He’s a rat,” he said bitterly. “I can’t understand how a man, to save his own skin, would betray his country and place his family in complete dishonor at home.”
He then told me that under no circumstances would he cooperate with the United States government, or do anything else that would embarrass his country, in order to save his own life. I said that as an American I regretted this decision. Moreover, I told him, if he were convicted I would argue that it would be in the national interest to spare his life, since after some years in jail he might change his mind.
I also said he should regard living as desirable, since political events might change and there could be an improvement in United States-Soviet relations, to his benefit; or his American equivalent might fall into Russian hands and there would be the opportunity for an exchange of prisoners; or some other eventuality could occur. I was thinking that his family might die and any compulsion to remain silent for that reason would be relieved.
“I’m not going to press you on the subject,” I said, “but, speaking as an American, I hope your feelings change about cooperation. We won’t talk about it again, unless you reopen the discussion.” I thought this was as far as I might go.
“I appreciate that,” he said, “and I understand you must have mixed emotions about me, and about undertaking my defense.”
We talked then about his background. I let the conversation drift, because he seemed eager to talk and I felt it important we establish a rapport in our first meeting. He told me he came from a proud family, prominent in Russia before the Revolution. He repeated his patriotic feelings and his loyalty to what he called “Mother Russia.” I said that I had sought in my press interview to give fair recognition to his background and to distinguish his case from “native American traitors.” He felt this was a valid distinction and thanked me for making it.
I told him that it might be important to establish his quasi-military status, since international treaties could become applicable. He said that at home he wore a uniform and that his military rank was recognized by all in Russia except the Red Army. However, unless it was necessary to his defense, he did not want to be referred to as “Colonel,” since this might embarrass his country. I asked him what he would like me to call him, in our own relationship. He grinned and said, “Why not call me Rudolf? That’s as good a name as any, Mr. Donovan.”
It was evident, just as Judge Abruzzo had told me, that Abel was a cultured man with an exceptional background—for his chosen profession or for any other. He spoke English fluently and was completely at home with American colloquialisms (“rat,” “caught with my pants down”). I also learned that he knew five other languages, was an electronics engineer, knew chemistry and nuclear physics, was an accomplished amateur musician and painter, mathematician and cryptographer.
Abel was talking openly and frankly and I had the feeling he felt at ease with me because of my OSS background. He had found someone with whom he could “talk shop” without any worry about being overheard by the couple in the next booth. At any rate, Rudolf was an intellectual and a gentleman, with a fine sense of humor. We were getting on increasingly well and I found him intriguing. As a man, you could not help but like him.
In this regard, I was not alone. He told me, with some pride, that at the Federal Detention Headquarters on New York’s lower West Side, he was kept in a maximum-security cell but the other prisoners were friendly. “They address me as Colonel,” he said. “They not only understand my situation but recognize that I have been serving my own country. Moreover, they always respect a man who doesn’t squeal.”
As for the defense, I said I’d do my best for him and see that he received due process of law each step of the way. However, I told him my conviction that it would be in the interest of justice, the bar and himself that the entire defense be conducted with the utmost decorum. “I’ll make no motions just for noise,” I said, “and will avoid personal publicity. I’ll also reject any offer of help from vocal left-wing committees or other such groups.”
Abel expressed complete acceptance of this approach. He said quietly, “I want you to do nothing that will lower the dignity of someone honorably serving a great nation.” Quite a guy, I thought to myself.
I asked him if there was anything troubling him; anything I might do for him. He mentioned that in his Fulton Street studio were all his paintings. “For sentimental reasons,” he said, “I value them as part of my life here. I’m afraid vandals may break into the studio and make off with them for publicity reasons.” I assured him I would look out for his paintings and, if need be, store them somewhere in my own home.
“Is there anything you would like now, though?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” he said, “I would like my freedom.” He smiled as he said it and then, seriously, asked to have the daily newspapers sent to him—“except for the yellow press.”
We shook hands a second time and I said goodbye, to face the reporters. We had talked our way through almost three hours.
From STRANGERS ON A BRIDGE. Used with permission of Scribner. Copyright © 1964 by Jane Amorosi, John B. Donovan, and Mary Ellen Fuller.