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Duncan Chaplin Lee and John Lee Papers

Call Number: MS 2062

Scope and Contents

The collection documents the life of Duncan Chaplin Lee. Chronological correspondence and biographical materials in Series I represent the more substantive parts of the collection. The chronological correspondence documents Chaplin Lee’s high school and college years. Particularly of note is correspondence between Duncan Chaplin Lee and his mother, Lucy Lee, between 1935 and 1937, which convey his evolving interest in Marxism and his affiliation with the Communist Party. The alphabetical correspondence involves mostly routine personal and work-related matters. There is little mention of the investigation and accusations levied against Chaplin Lee during the 1940s. Most of the clippings date from 1948 and involve Lee’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Lee’s writings on family, religion, and his career are included, as are his unfinished memoirs. Of specific interest is Chaplin Lee’s extended essay entitled, “The Elizabeth Bentley Matter,” where he repeatedly emphasizes his innocence. Photographs of Lee’s childhood in China, his trips to Southeast Asia and Bermuda, and family portraits are among the photographs.

Series II consists of correspondence and research materials gathered by John Lee and his relatives to clear Lee’s name of charges that he was a Soviet spy. Much of Series II documents John Lee’s efforts (and his family’s) to grapple with scholarship that utilized newly released documentation from the Soviet archives and declassified government documents to argue that Chaplin Lee committed espionage. Folders in Series II contain FBI files received by requests submitted by John Lee, Mark Bradley, or Bruce Craig—a researcher hired by the Lee family—under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). There is also an abundance of published materials that John Lee collected in conducting his own research into his father, Chaplin Lee. Series II also includes correspondence between members of the Lee family and scholars and historians who argued that Chaplin Lee was either guilty or innocent of espionage.

Users will find some duplications of materials in Series I and Series II. Some of the documents also appear in the Mark A. Bradley Collection on Duncan Chaplin Lee (MS 2063). After Duncan Chaplin Lee’s death, the entire collection was obtained by John Lee, who loaned the collection to Mark A. Bradley for an extended period after 1999. Bradley organized and added to the materials during the process of conducting research for his book on Duncan Chaplin Lee. Bradley’s influence on the collection is therefore evident in both series. Researchers will find Bradley’s typed notes, transcriptions, and comments on Chaplin Lee’s correspondence. At times, Bradley transcribed entire letters and attached them to the original. Bradley also made copies of Chaplin Lee’s letters, FBI files on Chaplin Lee, and published materials and sent them to John Lee.


  • 1896 - 2013


Language of Materials

The material is in English.

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright for unpublished materials authored or otherwise produced by Duncan Chaplin Lee and John Lee was transferred to Yale University in 2016. 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 John L. Lee, 2016 and 2018.


The papers are arranged in two series and two additions: I. Duncan Chaplin Lee Papers, 1927-2010 II. John Lee Papers, 1998-2011.

Related Materials

Related Material: Mark A. Bradley Collection on Duncan Chaplin Lee (MS 2063).


10.19 Linear Feet (25 boxes)

Catalog Record

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

Persistent URL


The collection consists of the personal papers of Duncan Chaplin Lee and his son, John Lee. Materials include Duncan Chaplin Lee’s correspondence, writings, photographs, and biographical material regarding his personal and work life. Key within these materials are documents that chronicle Lee’s evolving interest in Marxism-Leninism in the 1930s, his military service, and the events that surfaced after he was accused of espionage in 1948. This material was then used by historian Mark A. Bradley in his book, A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior. The papers of John Lee contain correspondence and research materials related to Duncan Chaplin Lee and the controversy surrounding his life and legacy. Materials range from 1896 to 2011.

Biographical / Historical

Duncan Chaplin Lee

Duncan Chaplin Lee was born on December 19, 1913 in Anqing, China. His parents, United States citizens, served as missionaries in China. The family, which included a brother, Armistead, and a sister, Priscilla, moved back to the United States in 1927 and settled in Chatham, Virginia, near Lee's father's family. He attended Yale University and graduated in 1935. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and finished his education at Christ Church, Oxford University. He received a Bachelor of Arts in jurisprudence in 1937 and a Bachelor of Civil Law degree in 1938. He also was a Sterling Fellow at Yale Law School from 1938 to 1939.

Lee worked as a lawyer at Donovan, Leisure, Newton, and Irvine from 1939 to 1942. From there, he joined the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was subsequently commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Army. Lee worked as an aid to the director, General William "Wild Bill" Donovan and over time became the chief of the Secret Intelligence Branch. The OSS was disbanded in 1945 and Lee returned to practicing law. Immeditately after working for OSS, he served as counsel for the formation of the Civil Air Transport, a CIA backed project that airlifted supplies and troops to China, Taiwan, and Korea.

As a student at Oxford, he became interested in the ideas of the Communist Party. He saw it as a party that could stop the spread of fascism and joined the party as a secret member in 1939. It is believed that the Soviet Union recruited him as a spy shortly after joining the OSS. Over a period of three years he passed on political secrets to the Soviet government. When the war was concluded, former Soviet courier and operations assistant Elizabeth Bentley defected to the United States and implicated a number of Americans who served as sources. One of the sources she named when she testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on July 31, 1948 was Lee. Lee testified before HUAC denying the charges on August 10, 1948. He was believed due to a lack of written evidence to back up the charges, as well as his education and family background. When it was discovered in 1951 by the U.S. Army's Signal Intelligence Service's Venona Project that Lee was indeed a spy, the FBI was unable to press charges since the project materials were classified. Although he never faced any legal consequences, mounting questions about his trustworthiness from the accusations caused Lee to live outside of the United States after 1953. Lee died on April 15, 1988 in Toronto, Canada.

John Lee

John Lightfoot Lee was born on November 15, 1943 in Washington, D.C. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of North Carolina in 1966 and a juris doctor degree from Harvard Law School in 1969. He practiced law in New York state for decades.

Custodial History

The papers were inherited by John Lee who took custody of them upon his father's death. John Lee loaned the collection to historian Mark A. Bradley for an extended period sometime after 1998 to enable Bradley to conduct research for his book on Duncan Chaplin Lee. Bradley then returned the collection to John Lee who donated the papers to Yale University Library in 2016.

Guide to the Duncan Chaplin Lee and John Lee papers
compiled by Michael Brenes and Christy Tomecek
August 2017
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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