Robert F. Kelley was born in Somerville, Mass., on February 13, 1894. His parents moved to Jamaica Plain, a suburb of Boston, when he was very young and he was educated in the Boston public schools. He entered Harvard College in 1911 and was graduated with an A. B. (magna cum laude) in 1915. In college he specialized in modern European history and, as he contemplated doing research work on the origins of the Crimean War, he took courses in Russian language. Following graduation in June 1915, he went abroad on a Sheldon Travelling Fellowship and studied for a year at the University of Paris. Due to the war he was unable to proceed to St. Petersburg to research in the Russian archives as he had intended. He returned to Harvard as a graduate student in the Fall of 1916 and received an A. M. in 1917; however he was unable to complete a Ph. D. degree before joining the army in October that year.
Kelley was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the Fifth Provisional Officers Training Battalion at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. On completion of his training he was assigned to the 22nd Infantry serving in New York, Washington and Philadelphia. At the end of 1918, he was transferred to the 5th Infantry which was assigned overseas. Subsequently the 5th Infantry became part of the Silesian Brigade which coordinated the plebiscite in Upper Silesia. The 5th Infantry was next assigned to the American Army of Occupation in Germany where Kelley spent a year In Andernach as liaison officer between the Army of Occupation and local civil authorities.
At the beginning of 1920, Kelley was detailed as assistant military attaché to Denmark and Finland; and as military observer in the Baltic Provinces. An assignment to Copenhagen was followed by a posting to the American Military Mission to the Baltic Provinces in Riga, Latvia. During the next three years, Kelley travelled frequently from the Riga office to Finland, Estonia and Lithuania in order to observe conditions and maintain relations with military authorities. His principal duties were to report on the conflict between Communist and non-Communist forces; and to collect information on developments in Russia which included establishment of the independent Baltic States, the Kronstadt Uprising, famine and the organization of the American Relief Administration.
In 1922, Kelley successfully passed the examination for U.S. Consular Service, resigning from the army in December. His first post was to Calcutta; however, in less than a year, he was transferred to the Division of Eastern European Affairs at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. Kelley was made Assistant Chief of the Division in 1925 and Chief in 1926. From 1927 until his retirement in 1945, Kelley was counselor of the American Embassy in Ankara, Turkey.
Following retirement from the Foreign Service, Kelley spent several years travelling in the South and West of the United States. In 1953 Kelley became involved with the American Committee for the Liberation of Peoples of Russia which evolved in Radio Liberty.