Robert Byrnes joined the faculty at IU Bloomington in the College of Arts and Sciences as professor of history with tenure in 1956. Also during this time, he helped to found the Inter-University Committee on Travel Grants (IUCTG), an academic exchange program with the Soviet Union and East European countries for students, teachers, and scholars. He would later direct the program from 1960 to 1969. He was appointed to the faculty of the Graduate School in 1957, was chairman of the Department of History from 1958 to 1965, director of the Russian and East European Institute from 1959 to 1962 and 1971 to 1975, and director of the International Affairs Center from 1965 to 1967. He was named a distinguished professor of history in 1967, became editor of the American Historical Review in 1976, and retired as distinguished professor emeritus of history in 1988.
Byrnes received a B.A. from Amherst College in 1939. During World War II, he was a military intelligence civilian employee for two years before beginning his academic career at Swarthmore College in 1945. After receiving a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1947, he taught for a year at Rutgers University before taking a leave of absence as a senior postdoctoral fellow at the Russian Institute at Columbia University from 1948 to 1950. He taught at Rutgers for another year before serving as a consultant for the Central Intelligence Agency from 1951 to 1954, and as director of the CIA’s Mid-European Studies Center from 1954 to 1956.
A Russian history and Kremlinology specialist, Byrnes authored or co-authored 11 books, over 100 journal articles, and edited 19 books. Two examples of his work are V. O. Kliuchevsky: Historian of Russia (Indiana University Press, 1995), a monograph on Russian history, and A History of Russian and East European Studies in the United States (University Press of America, 1994) on Slavic studies in America. Throughout his career, he gave over 400 lectures, consulted for organizations and government agencies, and was active in professional associations. He was awarded grants and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Byrnes passed away in Ocean Isle, North Carolina, on June 19, 1997.