Old Yale

The ad man who sold the war

Chester Bowles '24S pulled Americans together in a time of crisis.

Judith Ann Schiff is chief research archivist at the Yale University Library.

As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, a look back at the war years provides an opportunity to learn and appreciate how Americans in the past met the challenges of an extended national emergency. A Yale alumnus, Chester Bowles ’24S, has been credited with sustaining enthusiastic public support of the war effort; John Kenneth Galbraith called him “the best civilian administrator of World War II.” Known throughout a long career of service as a liberal New Deal Democrat, Bowles helped President Franklin D. Roosevelt convert the United States into “the arsenal of democracy.” 

Bowles’s talent for public persuasion may have had its roots in his career in advertising. In 1929 he and William Benton ’21 formed the Benton and Bowles advertising agency, which quickly became one of the most successful in New York. Bowles exploited the new medium of radio with several innovations: the soap opera, cue cards for audience applause and laughter, sound effects, and jingles. After leaving the agency in 1941, he accepted a request by the governor of Connecticut, where he had a home, to serve as rationing administrator. 

Appointed state director of price administration in 1942, Bowles issued rules to prevent hoarding and selling of food and fuel rations. Americans received a set of monthly ration books, each containing a certain number of stamps for coveted staples like sugar and gasoline. But cheating was relatively easy, until—as noted in a July 1942 Yale Daily News article—Bowles required every buyer to detach the right number of stamps and hand them to the seller for every purchase. Henceforth there would be “no opportunity for bootlegging as torn out coupons must be presented to the distributor to obtain a fresh supply. Elis must be careful not to detach coupons from their books.” 

In 1943, Roosevelt selected Bowles to direct the federal Office of Price Administration. As a Washington Post article would explain after his death in 1986, Bowles’s job was “an enormously important, if thankless and unglamorous, one. Basically, he was in charge of price and wage controls for a country at war. He administered a bureaucracy of some 70,000 employees and convinced Capitol Hill and the nation of the need for controls and the importance of fighting inflation.” Bowles utilized his ad-man skills to show that anyone who “met a payroll was running an economic operation for President Roosevelt.”
In a 1945 journal article Bowles credited his success to his policy of involving volunteers:

Over 75 per cent of our staff consists of unpaid volunteers. I believe that OPA volunteers have shown the value and importance of bringing a government program close to the people, allowing them and their neighbors to interpret the program, listen to complaints, and make decisions. This procedure enlists public support and enthusiasm as nothing else will. Most people will always distrust a distant government. If we are to make government really effective, it must be brought close to the people and made to belong to them.

Bowles also helped FDR’s administration in other ways. He prepared the preliminary draft for Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union address. Famous for its “Second Bill of Rights,” the speech declared that Americans should have, among other things, “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health” and “the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.”

After the war, Bowles served briefly as director of the new Office of Economic Stabilization for President Truman, resigning in 1946 because Congress refused to extend the price controls that he considered essential. He returned to Connecticut, and after an unsuccessful effort to secure the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1946, he was elected in 1948, defeating incumbent Republican governor James C. Shannon ’21LLB.

As governor, Bowles worked to increase spending for housing, education, and medical care. Outspoken against racial discrimination in the North as well as the South, he was the first governor to establish a State Commission on Civil Rights. After successfully championing a law to desegregate the Connecticut National Guard, he named the first woman and the first African American to the state’s military staff. In 1950, he lost his bid for a second term to Republican John Davis Lodge, but in 1958 he was elected to represent Connecticut for one term in Congress. In 1968, Yale made Bowles an Honorary Doctor of Laws.
The report of his death in 1986, published on the front page of the New York Times, briefly summed up his lengthy career:

Chester Bowles, an adviser to four Democratic Presidents in a public career that spanned three decades and included service as an ambassador [to India, twice], Congressman, and Governor of Connecticut, died yesterday at his home in Essex, Conn. . . . Besides his statecraft, Mr. Bowles, a liberal Democrat, was known as an author and lecturer, and he championed causes ranging from European reconstruction after World War II to foreign aid and the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. He also was a critic of United States involvement in Southeast Asia.

Bowles gave his papers to the Yale University Library. Among them you’ll find one of his best-known quotations, from an interview in Forbes magazine in 1951: “Government is too big and too important to be left to the politicians.”

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