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Bowles, Chester Bliss ("Chet")

BOWLES, Chester Bliss ("Chet")

(b. 5 April 1901 in Springfield, Massachusetts; d. 25 May 1986 in Essex, Connecticut), liberal Democratic politician who served as under-secretary of state, Kennedy's special representative and adviser for Asian, African, and Latin-American affairs, and U.S. ambassador to India during the 1960s.

Bowles was born into a prominent New England family in Springfield, Massachusetts, the third child and second son of Charles Allen Bowles, a paper manufacturer, and Nellie Harris Bowles, a homemaker. He was educated at two Connecticut private schools, Choate and Roxbury, and graduated from Yale University's Sheffield Scientific School with a B.S. in 1924. In 1925 he married a Springfield debutante, Julia Fisk, with whom he had two children, Chester, Jr., and Barbara. From 1925 Bowles worked in New York City in advertising, and in 1929 with William Benton he established the agency of Benton and Bowles, serving as its chief executive from 1936 to 1941. Bowles's first marriage ended in 1932, and in 1934 he remarried, to Dorothy ("Steb") Stebbins, a Smith College graduate in social work who was often credited with awakening his social conscience, and with whom he had three children, Cynthia, Sally, and Sam. During World War II Bowles joined the government, heading the federal Office of Price Administration (1943–1946); he later became a Democratic governor of Connecticut (1949–1951), ambassador to India and Nepal (1951–1953), and a congressional representative (1959–1961).

In 1960 Bowles supported John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, hoping in return to become secretary of state. Kennedy shared Bowles's interest in gaining third world loyalties but not his New Dealer's preference for economic aid over military coercion, nor the low priority Bowles accorded relations with the Soviet Union and Europe and his lack of interest in nuclear policy. Six feet four, lanky in youth, hulking in middle age, Bowles lacked the sense of humor and social sophistication needed to survive in the highly polished, intellectually rarefied, and sometimes cruelly competitive Kennedy administration circles—the milieu Jacqueline Kennedy, the president's widow, subsequently termed "Camelot." He accepted the lesser position of undersecretary of state but lacked rapport with Secretary Dean Rusk and swiftly became known as a poor administrator—in one colleague's words, "a pleasant idealistic fellow, naive and wordy." Bowles's opposition to the bungled March 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and, worse still, widely circulated press reports of his dissent soon alienated the influential attorney general, the president's brother Robert.

A staunchly anticolonial Wilsonian, Bowles urged American support for emerging nations in Africa, even when such states adopted cold war nonalignment. In 1961 he deplored European backing for the secessionist regime of Moise Tshombe in the Katanga province in the former Belgian Congo, and he welcomed its collapse when assailed by United Nations forces. From the early 1950s Bowles urged that the United States move toward improving relations with China, with the ultimate objective of recognizing both China and Taiwan. As undersecretary he unsuccessfully suggested the relaxation of trade and travel controls against China and the extension of food aid, ideas Kennedy and Rusk quickly squelched. Bowles opposed the growing U.S. troop commitment to Laos and Vietnam, arguing that this might provoke Chinese intervention—almost certainly exaggerating, as he had since the 1950s, the potential Chinese military threat. He recommended instead that all Indochina be neutralized under international guarantees, a suggestion probably unworkable given North Vietnamese determination to destabilize the South.

Fired in November 1961, Bowles took the vague, essentially honorific post of special presidential representative to Latin America, Africa, and Asia. He continued to advocate a "Peace Charter for Southeast Asia," effectively his earlier neutralization scheme, and massive economic aid for that region. He resigned in January 1963, but later that year Kennedy, recognizing Bowles's genuine talent for handling third world countries, appointed him ambassador to India, a post he held until 1969.

Bowles hoped to repeat the triumphs of his first ambassadorial assignment, when his efforts eventually facilitated substantial long-run increases in American economic aid to India, but found his second mission more difficult. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, with whom his relationship had been close, was ill when Bowles arrived, and he died in 1964. Nehru's successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, served less than two years, a period dominated by the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War, before dying in office. Nehru's daughter and Shastri's successor, Indira Gandhi, was cool toward Bowles, greatly resenting his unsolicited avuncular advice. Bowles strongly admired President Lyndon Johnson's domestic civil rights stance and War on Poverty programs, but unlike Kennedy, who appreciated Bowles's empathy with developing countries, Johnson and many of his officials found his identification with India irritating and often ignored him. Even so, Bowles's rejection of the ambassadorial mansion in favor of a modest bungalow, his obvious distaste for diplomatic socializing, and the warm respect he and his wife, who frequently wore saris, showed ordinary Indians were long remembered in his host country.

Bowles always deplored the 1954 U.S. military alliance with India's neighbor Pakistan, and before Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 submitted to him a scheme whereby the United States would give both nations limited military assistance, provided they observed ceilings on defense spending and sought no additional weaponry from other countries. When India and Pakistan went to war in 1965, both employing American weapons, the United States initially halted all further military aid to both nations and later drastically cut all military programs. More fruitfully, Bowles backed major agricultural reforms that brought about the "Green Revolution," which ultimately made India self-sufficient in food grains. Johnson's policy of deliberately doling out food aid in small installments, which appalled Bowles, may well have been one incentive impelling India to implement such measures.

Bowles had only limited success in winning Indian support for American policies in Vietnam, one major reason for Johnson's disenchantment with Indira Gandhi. Privately Bowles continued to advocate a major economic aid program for Southeast Asia and to support a halt to bombing and the opening of peace negotiations; publicly he remained silent as the Johnson administration ignored his dissenting advice. In January 1968 Bowles represented the United States in talks with Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, his objectives being to reach an understanding with Cambodia over American pursuit of Viet Cong forces, limit U.S. military incursions into Cambodia, and so preserve the country's neutrality and integrity. Though initially successful, these talks failed to prevent a subsequent full-scale American invasion of Cambodia. Bowles also helped orchestrate the 1967 defection from India to the United States of Svetlana Alliluyeva, daughter of the Russian dictator Josef Stalin.

Retiring in 1969, Bowles published somewhat anodyne memoirs. In 1971, the year they were published, he welcomed the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. In 1986 Bowles died of Parkinson's disease, which had been diagnosed in 1965, and was buried in Essex, Connecticut. His considerable abilities notwithstanding, Bowles's liberal, noninterventionist, and non-Europeanist outlook, decidedly at odds with the prevailing post-1945 foreign policy consensus, and his fondness for lofty, idealistic, and rhetorical generalities precluded his wielding greater influence within the administrations he served.

Bowles left his personal papers to Yale University Library. Many of his official papers are among the records of the Department of State in the National Archives II, College Park, Maryland; the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston, Massachusetts; and the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Boston, Massachusetts. Some documents from his official career have been published in the series Foreign Relations of the United States. In retirement Bowles published his rather unrevealing memoirs, Promises to Keep: My Years in Public Life 1941–1969 (1971). Although written by a diplomatic protégé and associate, his only biography, Howard B. Schaffer's Chester Bowles: New Dealer in the Cold War (1993), is a balanced and fair assessment of his public career. Brief accounts of Bowles's service under Kennedy and Johnson are given in Nelson Lichtenstein, ed., Political Profiles: The Kennedy Years (1976), and Political Profiles: The Johnson Years (1976). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 26 May 1986). Bowles recorded oral histories for Columbia University, the Kennedy Presidential Library, the Johnson Presidential Library, and the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Library, New Delhi, India.

Priscilla Roberts

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