In Theory and In Practice: Harvard's Center for International Affairs, 1958–1983

Image of 1958–1959 CFIA class photo

In the fall of 1958, Harvard University inaugurated a new research institution devoted to the study of international relations. The Center for International Affairs (CFIA) has endured for over half a century and ultimately has grown into the largest international affairs research center in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). Although the issues facing those who study international affairs have changed significantly in the past sixty years, the core tenets of the Center’s mission have largely remained the same: developing and disseminating fundamental research on long-range problems of international relations. The significance of the research conducted under the auspices of the Center over the last fifty years is remarkable, and the contributions of Center associates remain among the keystones of international relations theory.

Ford Foundation Asks Harvard to be Part of Study

The stimulus to establish the Center derived from the work of two faculty committees that were convened in 1954 and 1956, respectively. The establishment of the first committee was motivated by an invitation from the Ford Foundation, which approached Harvard in 1953 with a proposal to fund a study on the behavioral sciences at the University. Consequently, in early 1956 the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, McGeorge Bundy, assembled a small group of faculty members in an effort to implement the recommendations of the 1954 Faculty Committee, which resulted in yet another faculty report, this time devoted exclusively to the creation of a new research center.

Complex US Foreign Policy Contributes to Need for International Affairs Center

The CFIA also emerged as a response to the increasingly complex US foreign policy, which by the middle of the 1950s had become fraught with potential danger. During the Cold War, American foreign policy imperatives vis-à-vis the Soviet Union facilitated—and arguably necessitated—an unprecedented bond between American academics and their government. In addition, America’s foremost philanthropic foundations played a pivotal role in facilitating the relationship between power and intellect.

The Center’s Founders and Mission

Image of Robert BowieIn 1957 Dean Bundy turned to Robert Richardson Bowie, a graduate of Harvard Law School and the director of the Policy Planning Staff at the US Department of State, to lead the new Center. Bowie already had an impressive government service record, having been involved in several seminal moments of postwar international relations. In addition to recruiting Bowie, Bundy also hired Henry A. Kissinger to serve as the associate director of the Center. Kissinger had earned his BA (1950), MA (1952), and PhD (1954) from Harvard, and subsequently directed a study on nuclear weapons and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Bowie’s founding charter for the CFIA articulated an expansive, penetrating, and sophisticated conception of what constituted international affairs in the late 1950s. In his view, fledgling nations that were emerging from the archaic and degenerating European empires posed significant challenges to the once unrivalled dominance of these great powers; communism was only one of many perpetrators that were enervating the old international system. In essence, Bowie contended that Harvard’s new research center would be a catalyst for innovative thinking and enterprising scholarship.

“Once a Fellow, Always a Fellow”

One of Bowie’s most innovative and important contributions was the “Fellows Program,” comprised of practitioners and scholars from around the world. The goal was to integrate the Fellows into the academic life of the Center and the University, and in turn the Fellows would enrich and enliven scholars’ understanding of contemporary international affairs. These practitioners would consequently benefit from having both access to the Center’s academic resources and free time to reflect more deeply on their own professional responsibilities and intellectual development.

In all, Bowie outlined five areas of research: European relations; economic and political development; the role of force and arms control; international organization; and the Far East. The first three fields were by far the most intellectually lucrative enterprises of the Center in the years to come, led as they were by some of the generation’s most able scholars. The four permanent faculty members—Bowie, Kissinger, Edward Mason, and Thomas Schelling— directed each area of research at the Center and conducted seminars in their particular fields, forming the nucleus of the Center’s personnel.

Image of 1960-61 Fellows


The role of Europe in the post-1945 international system was a central part of the CFIA’s core research agenda and the source of some of its most intellectually productive and valuable research. The research program on Europe was conducted for the most part under Bowie’s leadership during the early years. Bowie conceived of the role of Europe in the same expansive and integrated way in which he perceived the scope of international affairs as a whole. The erosion of Europe’s position of primacy in the international state system in the aftermath of World War II, coupled with the resulting Cold War schisms, had raised a number of critical and unresolved issues regarding Europe’s continuing role in the world. In 1963 this research effort produced one of the most important, influential, and enduring studies produced by the Center, In Search of France, which assessed the scope, causes, and consequences of the myriad transformations manifest in almost every aspect of contemporary French society.

Military Policy and Arms Control

The Center’s research program in military policy and arms control constituted an intellectual cornerstone of the CFIA in its first decade. The jewel in the crown of the Center’s efforts in this regard was a body of arms control theory that would resonate far beyond Cambridge. The resulting critical mass of scholarship generated some of the most significant theory and analysis ever produced on nuclear arms control and military strategy. In the fall of 1960 the CFIA, in conjunction with the Center for International Studies (CIS) at MIT, commenced the important and durable Harvard-MIT Joint Seminar on Arms Control. The seminar ran in its original form until 1972, and the research it facilitated significantly raised the CFIA’s national and international profile. In addition, the seminal, and in many ways unprecedented, research that was produced by the seminar helped to create the basic premises that would guide thoughtful arms control negotiations for the next fifteen years.

Development and Modernization

The Center’s multifaceted research program on development and modernization was one of the most prolific, far-reaching, and intellectually influential aspects of the CFIA’s activities during its early history. At the outset, the Center pursued three theoretical facets of the development process under the leadership of Edward S. Mason. First, CFIA associates pursued a wide-ranging study of the economic dimensions of the development and modernization process. Second, the Center leadership recognized that economic development, whether intentionally or unintentionally, wrought social and cultural changes that would also require attention and analysis. Third, the return of Samuel Huntington to Harvard in 1963 afforded the opportunity to delve more deeply into processes of political development. Furthermore, the establishment of the Development Advisory Service (DAS) in 1962 propelled the Center into the arena of international government consultancy on an unprecedented scale, with unparalleled scope and access, and ultimately mixed results. The goal was to provide economic advice to the fledgling agencies charged with implementing development and modernization projects in countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, Ghana, Liberia, Ethiopia, Greece, Argentina, and Colombia. In 1974 the DAS was dissolved and the University-wide Harvard Institute for International Development was created in its place.

The Era of Student Protests

Image of WCFIA LibraryThe Center’s second decade was both transitional and turbulent. While in its first decade the Center was by no means an outpost of cloistered intellectual contemplation, the changing domestic and international political context—coupled with the shifting composition and scholarship of the Center’s research staff—ensured that the second decade at the Center would be far more dynamic (for better and for worse) than the previous one. Sometimes change was directed peacefully from the inside, and at times it was forced violently from the outside, but whatever the stimulus, the CFIA’s research agenda and relationships shifted significantly over the next fifteen years.

Locally, nowhere was change more palpable than among the student body itself. Certainly, by 1968 the University was not immune from the increasingly radicalized student population, a fact that had become a feature of university life throughout the United States and around the world. In addition to the increasingly vocal student demands for a greater voice in the decision-making processes of their institutions, the more radical student movements from within Harvard and beyond targeted the Center with insinuations and even violence. During this period the CFIA suffered from physical attacks on Center members, rampages through the Center’s offices, and even a bombing in the early hours of the morning.

Intellectually, although the three original core research programs had proven supple enough to assimilate a broad range of inquiries and perspectives, their primacy began to wane in the late 1960s, and new programs were initiated that impelled the CFIA forward into the 1970s. New approaches to familiar subjects also contributed to the advancement of knowledge and augmented the insights of the more traditional research programs. The growth of the Center’s research portfolio during the 1970s was nothing short of prolific, and despite shortages in funding the CFIA remained a vigorous and productive institution. The infusion of new ideas and new scholars injected the Center with a sense of intellectual dynamism, even as it sustained its core of established research programs that continued to yield new findings.

By 1983 the Center’s operating budget was slightly over two million dollars. Expenditures had increased from $129,527 in 1958–1959 to $2,016,222 in 1982–1983. From an original core faculty of four—the nucleus of what would become the Center’s executive committee—by 1984 the Center boasted a sixteen-member executive committee, six faculty associates, twelve research fellows, eighteen Fellows, nineteen visiting scholars, forty-five research associates and affiliated researchers, six postdoctoral fellows, sixteen graduate student associates, twenty-three undergraduate associates, and thirty-nine staff members. After twenty-five years there can be no doubt that the CFIA had made an exceptional contribution to the development of international affairs as an academic discipline. The prodigious output of research papers, scholarly articles, and monographs had in many cases defined the contours of the field, and in some cases forged wholly new areas of inquiry, none more so than in the areas of arms control theory and development theory.

Image of 2016–2017 WCFIA Class Photo

—By David Atkinson, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Purdue University and author of In Theory and In Practice: Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, 1958–1983 (Harvard University Press, 2008)

Photo Captions

  1. Members of the Center for International Affairs, 1958–1959. Photo credit: Center for International Affairs
  2. Robert R. Bowie, in April 1958, soon after he was named as the founding Center Director. Photo credit: Harvard University Archives, call # UAV 605, Professor in Action Series, F2440 frame 8
  3. From left to right—Bunroku Yoshino of Japan, Counselor for General Affairs in the Economic Affairs Bureau of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Soemarman of Indonesia, Secretary General of the Ministry of Home Affairs; Il Kwon Chung of the Republic of Korea, Ambassador to the United States, General in the Korean Army, and former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and A.D. Pandit of India, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Works, Housing and Supply in theGovernment of India—were Fellows of the Center in 1960–61. Photo credit: Harvard University Archives, call # UAV 605Box 97 frame #25 GP 78
  4. Damage to the CFIA library following the detonation of a bomb planted by unidentified assailants in the early hours of October 14, 1970. Photo credit: Harvard University Archives, call # UAV 605.295.7p Box 7
  5. Affiliates of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, 2016–2017. Photo credit: Martha Stewart

About the Book

Book Cover of In Theory and In PracticeHarvard University inaugurated a new research center devoted to international relations in 1958. The Center for International Affairs (CFIA) was founded by State Department Director of Policy Planning Staff, Robert R. Bowie, at the invitation of McGeorge Bundy, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Joined by Henry A. Kissinger, Edward S. Mason, and Thomas C. Schelling, Bowie quickly established the CFIA as a hub for studying international affairs in the United States. CFIA affiliates produced seminal work on arms control theory, development and modernization theory, and transatlantic relations.

Digging deep into unpublished material in the Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Kennedy Library archives, this book is punctuated with personal interviews with influential CFIA affiliates. David Atkinson describes the relationship between foreign policy and scholarship during the Cold War and documents the maturation of a remarkable academic institution. Atkinson’s history of the Center’s first twenty-five years traces the institutional and intellectual development of a research center that, fifty years later, continues to facilitate innovative scholarship. He explores the connection between knowledge and politics, beginning with the Center’s confident first decade and concluding with the second decade, which found the CFIA embroiled in Vietnam-era student protests. Buy the book from Harvard University Press.