Interviews with Robert Bowie: The Use of Oral Testimony in Writing the Biography of Professor Robert Richardson Bowie, Washington Policy Planner and Harvard University Professor

By McFadzean, Andrew | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Interviews with Robert Bowie: The Use of Oral Testimony in Writing the Biography of Professor Robert Richardson Bowie, Washington Policy Planner and Harvard University Professor


McFadzean, Andrew, The Oral History Review


In the latter part of the twentieth century biographers and historians increasingly use evidence from interviews with their subjects as part of the rich multimedia of sources available for presenting history.(1) Scholars use testimonies from interviews to fill gaps in the narrative and archival record as well as to provide crucial sources of information concerning new evidence and varying viewpoints. Unknown aspects of personalities, as well as the hidden color of everyday lives and events, which can often be lost or considered unimportant by the subject, can be obtained through interviewing. Extensive banks of recorded interviews, significant sums of funds and numerous professional reputations have become part of the practice of oral history.(2) The promise of actuality and immediacy created through hearing and seeing those directly involved as witnesses to historical events seems to bring historians and biographers closer to the goal of accurate historical reconstruction. The subject allows the historian to see one particular view of history from a privileged vantage point of a witness. Historians of the historically dispossessed, those without access to official histories or social narratives, appear to view oral history as a powerful instrument for the popular liberation of those without a voice and, therefore, provides another source of historical memory for a society.

Oral history has the potential to make accessible viewpoints of lives and careers which are not included in historical and collective memories, written histories, or official sources.(3) This was the case in my biography of Professor Robert Richardson Bowie which emphasized the significance of the second echelon of officials as authors and critics of America's foreign policy during the Cold War. Biographies of presidents and cabinet officers such as secretaries of state and histories of presidential administrations often appear to lose this group of officials in the narratives of political and administrative history. This second echelon of government officials included those who moved from private practice into public service when they considered their talents would be of use to, or requested by, senior members of various administrations. This group, the "in-and-outers," did not seek long-term, professional careers in government, but were motivated by notions of public service and a sense of duty to the American community.

As a Harvard Law professor, senior State Department adviser and Harvard University International Relations professor, Robert Richardson Bowie served with the Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, and Carter administrations during the Cold War years. He graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School with highest honors in 1934, turned down several offers to work as a corporate lawyer with New York's major law firms, and returned to Baltimore to work in his father's law firm, Bowie and Burke. In 1942, Bowie joined the United States Army as a commissioned officer and served in the Pentagon and Occupied Germany from 1945 until 1946 when he resigned as a lieutenant-colonel. He was the youngest professor appointed to the prestigious Law School at Harvard University in 1946 and was a trusted confidant to John J. McCloy, unofficial chairman of the American establishment. On leave from Harvard, Bowie worked for McCloy as one of his legal advisers in Germany from 1950 until 1952.

In 1953, Bowie was appointed as the Director of Policy Planning and later Assistant Secretary of State for Planning and the State Department's member of the National Security Council's Planning Board, a post in which he spent four crucial years as a close adviser to John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State to President Eisenhower during the tumultuous years of the 1950s. He resigned from the State Department in 1957 and was appointed Dillon Professor of International Relations and founding director of Harvard University's Center for International Affairs. …

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