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Frank J. Donner papers

Call Number: MS 1706

Scope and Contents

The Frank Donner papers document the history and use of political surveillance in the United States, primarily from the late 1940s through the early 1990s. The collection also generally serves as a resource for researchers studying the history of the twentieth century American left, civil liberties struggles and the lawyers who fought them, and the American political intelligence establishment. The papers reflect Donner's political and intellectual work and interests in civil liberties, progressive political movements, and the government's use of surveillance and informers. The collection includes extensive documentation on every major political informer from the anti-Communist wave of the 1950s to the social protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The informer files include biographical information, court documents and testimonies, and interview transcripts with and about individual informers. The collection also holds files on a significant cross-section of the social and political protest groups of the 1960s through the 1980s. Finally, the collection includes manuscripts of Donner's writings, including many unpublished articles and two unpublished books. The papers hold relatively little biographical or personal information about Frank Donner.


  • 1897-1992


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Original audio tapes in Series III, boxes 42-46 may not be used.

Audiotapes and computer media in Accession 2003-M-016 are closed until processed.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright for unpublished materials authored or otherwise produced by Frank J. Donner has been transferred to Yale University. These materials may be used for non-commercial purposes without seeking permission from Yale University as the copyright holder. For other uses of these materials, please contact

Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Helen Donner, 1996 and 1998. Gift of A. B. Chitty, 2002.


Arranged in four series and one addition: I. Correspondence and Personal Papers, 1953-1992. II. Informers and Surveillance Files, 1897-1983. III. Subject Files, 1941-1992. IV. Writings, 1950-1992.


38.5 Linear Feet

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers consist of clippings, court documents, correspondence, publications, interview transcripts, writings, and other materials documenting the research, writing, and activism of Frank Donner. The collection includes a small amount of Donner's correspondence, multiple files documenting the activities of individuals who served as political informers, and subject files covering a range of political and social protest groups from the 1950s to the 1990s. The papers also hold a series of Donner's writings, including manuscripts from two unpublished books on the use of informers in the 1950s and of government malfeasance during the 1980s, as well as several unpublished articles.

Biographical / Historical

Frank J. Donner was a lawyer, journalist, historian and civil libertarian who remained active in the American left for the better part of five decades. From the first investigations of Communists by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to the Reagan-Bush years, Donner was a leading expert on the use of political surveillance in the United States. Donner's belief in the ideals of democracy and civil liberties led to a lifelong commitment to the social movements of the left. Over the years, Donner came to work with members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), numerous unions, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), the Socialist Workers Party, Students for a Democratic Society, Weathermen Underground, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the Black Panther Party, and the Nuclear Freeze and Sanctuary movements. During these many years of activism, Donner collected his own set of files to rival those of J. Edgar Hoover, documenting and cataloguing the abuses of American political power. "The files and each item in them," wrote Donner "became for me a form of remonstrance, a private protest against betrayal by the government of its democratic premises."

Donner's personal life history is difficult to trace. Born in 1911 in Brooklyn, New York, Donner was the child of poor, working-class parents. Donner received his college education at the University of Wisconsin, where he also received a master's degree in history in 1934. He graduated from Columbia Law School in 1937, and began working as a research fellow in legal history.

Donner began his legal career as a staff attorney with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) where he worked from 1940 to 1943. Upon leaving government service, Donner worked as an assistant general counsel, first for the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and later for the United Steelworkers of America. In 1947, Donner went into private practice, specializing in constitutional law, labor law, and civil liberties.

On several occasions Donner served as counsel for defendants brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, as well as various deportation and loyalty boards. So powerfully did Donner challenge these actions, that he was frequently named as a Communist by government informants and committee members. In 1956, Donner was himself forced to testify before HUAC about his activities while working for the NLRB. Throughout the questioning, Donner steadfastly refused to answer the question "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Instead, he challenged the committee's constitutional right to exist and the legal parameters of their questioning (a "typical Communist line" according to the Committee). Donner later dismissed the attacks as "a stupid smear."

The political practices of the McCarthy era compelled Donner to become an author. In 1954, he began a long and fruitful relationship with The Nation when he published a long article entitled "The Informer." This article marked the beginning of Donner's research into the careers of individual informants, especially the 1950s generation of former Communists turned celebrity informants and professional anti-Communists (particularly Louis Budenz, Paul Crouch, Manning Johnson, Harvey "False Witness" Matusow, Matthew "I Was A Communist for the FBI" Cvetic, Herbert "I Led Three Lives" Philbrick, Elizabeth "Anti-Communist Queen" Bentley and others). Donner began working on a book-length study of the informant system, but legal problems and various threats of prosecution for libel prevented the book from ever being published.

In 1961 Donner completed his first book, The Un-Americans, a study of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the political resistance that the Committee provoked. By focusing upon the student opposition to HUAC, The Un-Americans marks a transition point in Donner's political evolution. With this book, Donner recognized the birth of a New Left that would be led by young people, students, minorities and women instead of traditional party structures such as the CPUSA. Donner enthusiastically dedicated himself to the New Left and reaffirmed his fierce opposition to the mechanisms of political surveillance and right-wing reaction that would soon be used to combat this youthful opposition.

Through the 1960s, Donner served as general counsel for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), while working privately as a civil liberties lawyer. During this time, Donner published a number of his most important articles and reviews for The Nation, Playboy, and Harper's, gradually turning his political attention away from HUAC and towards "Spies on Campus," to cite the title of his 1968 article for Playboy Magazine.

In 1971, Donner became the director of the American Civil Liberties Union Project on Political Surveillance, housed at the Yale Law School. There, Donner fully indulged his already well-established personal obsession with collecting information on "official attacks on non-conformity." He also began a program of interviewing political informants, especially the new generation of young infiltrators and provocateurs within the New Left. These investigations furthered Donner's desire to simultaneously catalogue the history of government abuses of civil liberties while placing such events within the broader context of American political theory and practice. The results proved to be very influential: in 1971 Donner published "Theory and Practice of American Political Intelligence" in the New York Review of Books, and by 1980 he completed his magnum opus, The Age of Surveillance: The Aims and Methods of America's Political Intelligence System.

The Age of Surveillance propelled Donner to the forefront of the national debate over congressional oversight for the FBI and, as Donner put it, "the use of intelligence as a mode of governance." Donner's attacks on the intelligence abuses of the past occurred just when he perceived a rebirth of government malfeasance under the Reagan administration. During the 1980s and early 1990s, having retired from legal practice, Donner was principally involved in two major writing projects: a companion book to Age of Surveillance on the history of police repression (published in 1990 as Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America), and a book on the Reagan administration, which was entitled "Exploring the Wreckage" but never published.

Until his death in 1993, Donner continued to publish articles in The Nation, while receiving numerous awards for his lifetime of service to the cause of civil liberties. Over four decades, Donner received the Tom Paine Award (1961), the Page One Award from the Newspaper Guild in 1972 for an article on Nixon's abuse of the grand jury system, the Sidney Hillman Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Playboy Foundation for the First Amendment, and the highest honor bestowed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1985.

Frank Donner died on June 10, 1993 at the age of 83. Donner was survived by his second wife Helen Brammal (his first wife Madeline died in 1985), his daughter Eleanor and son Peter, and five grandchildren.

Guide to the Frank J. Donner Papers
Under Revision
compiled by Tom Hyry and Michael Cohen
May 2001
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

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