Chayes’s path to the State Department began at the 1956 Democratic National Convention. According to an oral history recorded by Abe, “there wasn't very much for Toni to do [at the convention]. So I sent her off to see if she could find Kennedy. There was talk about his being a potential vice presidential candidate. We were new in Massachusetts. We had been residents in Massachusetts for about a year at the time, and I said she might get some fun out of the Convention by trying to find him and attach herself to his organization.” Little did Chayes know that in four years he would become the Legal Advisor for Kennedy’s State Department.
Though Abe claimed to never being in the inner circle, he did “lay claim to having seen this man early and seen that he really had something and being with him enough to verify that over time. “It was this sentiment that led to the Chayes’ endorsement of Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential run the day after the 1956 elections. They were “very lonely souls” in this aspect on Harvard’s campus, and spent many dinner parties arguing and talking for Kennedy. Chayes claimed that the academic community who lived and voted in the Boston area were very suspicious of Catholic, Irish political leadership. Kennedy was able to win them over with a series of personal appearances, many of which Chayes arranged. He met with small groups of faculty, answering questions freely and openly.
In 1958 Chayes helped form an advisory group of Harvard academics for JFK, half of which were avowed Republicans, such as W. Barton Leach, Arthur Sutherland, and Henry Kissinger. The group was set up “as a bunch of people with whom Kennedy could communicate, or people on Kennedy’s staff could communicate, to tap expert knowledge on whatever they wanted to tap, who would feel free to make whatever comments they wanted, who would feel free to make whatever comments they wanted, who would feel free, if they chose, to send him ideas and suggestions in their field of study.” Three or four times a year Kennedy would come to lunch to discuss ideas and issues within their respective fields. Kennedy’s understanding and respect for the relationship between the academic and governmental worlds created a growing approval amongst the Harvard faculty.
Senator Kennedy went on to win the 1960 Presidential Election, and soon went about appointing his staff. Chayes remembered the President-Elect running through a long list of positions, and asking him “Well, what do you want?” It wasn’t until the time had come that Chayes realized that he wanted to be appointed. He had convinced himself during the campaign that he “was just doing this for the ride and for the fun of it, and [he] expected to stay at Harvard…unless something came along or something I couldn’t possibly turn down.” It was there and then that Abe suggested the position of Legal Advisor in the State Department. This suggestion was based off the actions of former Legal Advisor Adrian Fisher. In law school Fisher was a “hero” to the law students, conducting hearings in the McArthur firing and working against McCarthy. Interestingly enough, Felix Frankfurter, who Abe clerked for, was opposed to Abe becoming Legal Advisor, for Frankfurter thought that he should have remained at the Law School. Regardless of the opposition he faced, and after months of tirelessly campaigning, Abe was appointed Legal Advisor in January 1961. The early days of the Administration were long and intense. They worked long hours, and “none of [them] knew what [their] jobs were. [They] had to learn the job, and then we had to learn the people.”
Chayes quickly learned to navigate the world of federal government. As Legal Advisor he helped shape foreign policy in Africa and Asia, and became heavily involved in the area of satellite communications. He traveled the globe with the Kennedy Administration, and was invited to countless State and international dinners and events. He was also an influential force when it came to negotiating with the Soviet Union over the status of Berlin.
But perhaps the most notable event to happen while Chayes was Legal Advisor was the Cuban Missile Crisis. He led a team of lawyers from the State Department in the development of the legal foundation for President’s decision to have the Navy turn Soviet ships away from Cuba. Instead of being called a blockade, the policy was called a quarantine. Under international law, a blockade can be interpreted as an act of war. In an interview with CBS Correspondent David Schoenbrun, Chayes explained that the term quarantine was drawn from President Teddy Roosevelt’s call for a quarantine of aggressor nations in 1938.
While at a conference twenty five later, Chayes recalled where he was when the news about Cuba broke. Chayes was across the Atlantic in Paris, “cooling [his] heels” after a tough autumn being the President’s point man on the Trade Bill of 1962. He was at the NATO barber shop, when George Springsteen called and told him to pack a bag and come back to D.C. right away. Though most of the decisions had been made at that point, George had called Abe back anyways. His reasoning? Springsteen “knew if someone had asked [Chayes] where [he] was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, [he] wouldn’t want to have to say [he] was in Paris!” There are many documents within the collection pertaining to the Cuban Missile Crisis, such as some of the ones seen above. Chayes later wrote a book about the Cuban Missile Crisis and has a substantial amount of research material on the topic.
After the assassination of President Kennedy, Chayes remained Legal Advisor and worked on negotiations for Soviet participation in an international satellite system. He resigned from his position and returned to Harvard Law in 1965. Though he returned to academia, he continued to be involved in the federal government through special committees and panels, such as the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, and the RFK ABM Report Task Force.