BEFORE THE SENATE confirmed the first appointment of Chester Bowles as ambassador to India in 1951, Sen. Robert A. Taft said, "He is not a diplomatic man. I've had a lot of experience with him." Even close associates of Mr. Bowles smiled knowingly, well aware of his stubborn resistance to ideological challenge. But this kind of criticism, even when it came from political allies, never deflected the sense of mission that marked his career in business, politics and diplomatic service: a self-made millionaire in advertising, governor of Connecticut, congressman, undersecretary of state, adviser to four presidents and best-selling author. Gov. Bowles, who died Sunday at the age of 85, was also an articulate champion of civil rights, foreign aid and international understanding. He labored with great effect to make Americans aware of the potentialities of the developing world.

To his critics, Gov. Bowles was an incorrigible international do-gooder. But there was nothing fuzzy about his tough stands in the politically unattractive job of national price administrator during World War II. Nor was he sentimental about the Soviet Union, a subject regarding which he always retained a lively suspicion.

After the election of President Kennedy, Gov. Bowles served briefly as undersecretary of state. But because of policy disagreements there he stepped down to become a special presidential assistant for Asian, African and Latin American affairs, a job he held until returning to India as ambassador in 1963. There Gov. Bowles earned great good will for himself and his country at a difficult time.

He was the classic liberal of the postwar years -- a man of great hope and optimism, an internationalist, a firm believer in the force of good will to prevent the repetition of the wars and tragedy through which his generation had passed. He was one of the people who, by their own lives and convictions, defined American liberalism as that generation knew and used the word.