May 25: Chester Bowles: Connecticut’s Civil Rights-Era Governor

 

Chester Bliss Bowles was one of Connecticut’s most accomplished and ambitious politicians of the 20th century.  Born in Massachusetts in 1901, he attended private school in Connecticut and graduated from Yale in 1924.  After college, he worked as a copywriter at an advertising agency in New York City before co-founding his own ad firm which, after years of success, allowed him to comfortably retire from the business at age 40 and turn his attention towards politics.

Chester Bowles with President John F. Kennedy, 1961.

Bowles devoted over three decades of his life to public service.  Having been rejected from military service due to an ear injury, he instead served as Connecticut’s rationing administrator, quickly working his way up the ranks to State Director of Price Administration.  In 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt selected Bowles to direct the federal Office of Price Administration — the first of several high-ranking executive appointments that Bowles would hold under the consecutive presidencies of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson.

In 1948, Bowles returned to Connecticut to campaign for governor and eked out an unlikely victory in what was then a heavily moderate Republican state.  Even though he only served one term as governor, Bowles worked to implement an ambitious economic and social agenda, using FDR’s New Deal programs as a model, with mixed success. By executive fiat, he established Connecticut’s first Civil Rights Commission, officially desegregated the Connecticut National Guard, and was the first governor in state history to appoint a woman and an African-American to his personal military staff.  However, Bowles’ New Deal-style legislative proposals concerning housing, welfare, and education reform were soundly rejected by a solidly Republican state legislature, and Bowles lost his re-election campaign to a rival who effectively painted him as an extreme left-wing liberal.

Bowles serving as U.S. Ambassador to India in 1951.

Having lost his reelection bid for governor in 1951, the indefatigable Bowles once again returned to Washington to serve in a number of administrative, legislative, and diplomatic posts over the next two decades.  Bowles served for a short time as President John F. Kennedy’s Under Secretary of State, as a one-time congressional representative from Connecticut’s 2nd district, and as the U.S. Ambassador to India (twice).

On May 25, 1986, Chester Bowles died in his Essex home after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.  Today, several government buildings, parks, and roads throughout Connecticut — including the majority of Route 9, one of the state’s main thoroughfares — are named in his honor.

Further Reading

Chester Bowles,” connecticuthistory.org

Albin Krebs, “Chester Bowles… Served in 4 Administrations,” New York Times

Douglas P. Cooper, “Interview with Chester Bowles,” WNYC Radio