Donald Elmer Lawson was born on May 20, 1917, in Chicago, Illinois, to Elmer and Christina (Grass) Lawson. He displayed an interest in writing early in life and published stories in his high school and college magazines. Lawson received a B.A. degree from Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, in 1939 and attended the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1939-1940. He served in a counterintelligence unit of the U.S. Army Air Corps in Europe during World War II. Lawson married Beatrice Yates in 1945 and went to work for Compton's Encyclopedia the following year. He stayed with the company for the next twenty-seven years, eventually rising to a vice presidential position.
The challenge of writing clear and dramatic encyclopedia articles drew Lawson toward writing non-fiction books for children. He published his first children's book, Young People in the White House, in 1961, the same year that he sold his first and only adult novel. A natural interest in history, his wartime experiences, and his "personal belief that to achieve peace we must first understand war," all motivated Lawson to write mainly on subjects from American military history. Consequently, he produced The Young People's History of America's Wars, an eleven-volume series covering American military history from colonial wars to Vietnam; two anthologies of pacifist writings; and several other books on military themes. Lawson also wrote and edited works on European and Asian history, modern North Africa, current events, and civics. He produced over forty non-fiction books during his career.
In 1970, Lawson received an honorary Litt.D. from Cornell College in recognition of his accomplishments as a writer and editor. He left Compton's in 1973 to become executive editor for United Educators, Inc. He remained with that organization until his death in 1990.