He succeeded G. Frederick Reinhardt as head of the United States Mission to the Republic of Vietnam. John F. Kennedy replaced Durbrow in an attempt to improve U.S.-Vietnamese relations, as South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem disliked his personality, described by the New York Times as too "aloof" for Diem, an adjective frequently applied to Diem himself.
He was an undergraduate philosophy graduate of Yale University, with additional education at Stanford University, the University of Dijon in France, the Academie de Droit International de la Haye in the Netherlands, the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris and the University of Chicago. Joining the Foreign Service in 1930, he served in a variety of European assignments, and was a delegate to the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference that chartered the World Bank.
As his experience rose, he became a Soviet specialist, first as the head of the Eastern European division of the Department of State (U.S.), then in Counselor of Embassy and Deputy Chief of Mission in Moscow from 1946 to 1948 under Ambassador and former general Walter Bedell Smith, succeeding George F. Kennan.
He was dubious about the stability of negotiations with Communists. "We have had literally scores of agreements in black and white that read one way to us and another way to them. Like all their agreements; like Vietnam's today. It's the same thing; [Henry] Kissinger's last January." 
After the legislative assembly elections in 1959, while he had recommended Diem accept Phan Quang Dan as an opposition minister, "We should be prepared to acknowledge to ourselves that even over the longer term, democracy in the Western sense of the term may never come to exist in Vietnam. We should look with tolerance at [the government's] attempts to establish a political system that it considers in conformance with local traditions and needs. We should not try to make over Vietnam in our own image."  In 1960, he recommended to the Secretary of State, that "psychological shock effect" was necessary to focus the Diem government. He recommended:
- Transfer Vice President Nguyen Ngoc Tho to a role where his knowledge of Communist guerrilla infiltration is increasing so rapidly would suggest that he be shifted from ministry national economy to ministry interior. (Diem has already made this suggestion but Vice President most reluctant take job.)
- Create a full-time Minister of Defense to improve the chain of command and to reduce favoritism and political loyaltyas the source promotions and assignments. Foreign Minister Nguyen Dinh Thuan indicated Diem has considered naming him Minister of Defense
- The Nhus are causing much damage to the government's position Nhu to ambassadorship abroad Tran Kim Tuyen, Nhu's henchman and head of secret intelligence service also should be sent abroad
- Appoint 1 or 2 cabinet members from the opposition, as he had previously recommended with Phan Quang Dan
He also served as a delegate to the NATO Council in Paris from 1961 to 1965, and as State Department adviser to the National War College. His last assignment, from which he retired in 1968, was State Department advisor to the United States Air Force Air University. In 1948, he had been an advisor to the National War College and disliked the job.
- Saxon, Wolfgang (May 23, 1997), "Elbridge Durbrow, U.S. Diplomat, Dies at 93", New York Times
- McKinzie, Richard D. (May 31, 1973), Oral History Interview with Elbridge Durbrow, Harry S. Truman Library
- Moyar, Mark (2006), Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, Cambridge University Press, p. 76
- , Cablegram from Elbridge Durbrow, United States Ambassador in Saigon, t Secretary of State Christian A. Herter on Threats to Saigon Regime, Sept. 16, 1960, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 2