W. Averell Harriman

W. Averell Harriman (1891-1986), American industrialist and financier, had a distinguished second career as a top-level diplomatic negotiator for five Democratic presidents. He was Governor of New York for one term.

Harriman was born in 1891 during the administration of President Benjamin Harrison and died in 1986 during Ronald Reagan's first term; he first visited Siberia under the reign of Czar Nicholas II at age 7, and at age 91 made his last visit to Moscow to meet the new Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov. As a 35 year-old investment banker and industrialist, Harriman conducted mining negotiations with Leon Trotsky, and subsequently dealt directly as a diplomat with every Soviet leader from Stalin to Andropov. He worked on New Deal projects for President Franklin Roosevelt, and in 1943 was appointed Ambassador to the Soviet Union by FDR. After the war, he was President Harry Truman's ambassador to Great Britain and later, secretary of commerce, chief negotiator in Europe for the Marshall Plan, and special assistant to the president. In the Kennedy administration, Harriman served as ambassador at large, reporting directly to the president; as assistant secretary for Far Eastern affairs, he negotiated the Laos neutrality accords; and, at 71 years of age, as undersecretary of state for political affairs, he conducted successful negotiations with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for the historic limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Under Lyndon Johnson, Harriman was again named Ambassador at Large, and then, more vaguely, "Ambassador for Peace;" in both capacities, he met with heads of state around the globe, and in 1968 spent the last seven months of his negotiating career as Johnson's emissary to the Paris Peace talks on Viet Nam. Finally, at age 84 and in Moscow once again, Harriman gave Leonid Brezhnev assurances that candidate Jimmy Carter was seriously interested in nuclear arms reduction. At a celebration of Harriman's 90th birthday, Senator Edward Kennedy saluted the honoree by saying, "We couldn't have held the twentieth century without him."

Son of E.H. Harriman, the last and perhaps greatest of the 19th century "railroad barons, " William Averell Harriman was born in 1891 to a world of riches and power. His father taught his that "great wealth is an obligation", and he always followed his father's admonition to "be something and somebody." Traveling with his parents, Harriman had toured Europe in some depth before he went to prep school, and he was in Tokyo in 1905 when riots broke out over Japanese opposition to the terms of the treaty ending the Russo-Japanese war. His worldly experience led him to see the United States as part of a global community. He thought of the oceans as avenues of commerce instead of shields isolating America from foreign enemies.

Harriman graduated from Yale University in 1913, having already been elected to the board of the Union Pacific Railroad. Although vice president of the Union Pacific Railroad from 1915-1917, the young Harriman was wealthy enough to afford other business interests. During the next decade, with the perception that the United States had no significant merchant marine fleet, he bought a shipyard and began producing "prefabricated" freighters. He ventured into mining operations in Soviet Georgia, copper in Silesia (eastern Europe), oil in Iran, a power plant in Poland, gold in South America. In 1927, Harriman and his younger brother Roland went into banking; at the end of two years, they were handling accounts for hundreds of importers and exporters; at the end of another year, and not too long after the great Wall Street crash, they merged with their biggest competitor to become Brown Brothers Harriman and Company. Harriman became involved in aviation, as an original investor in a forerunner of Pan American Airways, and in publishing, with a national magazine called Today, "an independent journal of public affairs" whose first subscriber was FDR; Today eventually merged with News Week

In his earlier years, Harriman was something of a sportsman, vigorously involved with polo, racehorses, and bird dogs. After the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY, Harriman began to think about developing a destination ski resort somewhere in the western United States, accessible of course by Union Pacific passenger trains. He hired a young Austrian count and skier to scout the entire American west for the spot that met all of Harriman's requirements. The count was about to give up when he heard about Ketchum, "a backwater sheep town" in south central Idaho. It met all the requirements, and with the help of a (non-skiing) publicist who came up with a name and sold Harriman on the idea of making it a destination resort for the famous and glamorous, Sun Valley was born. In a short time, it was a big success, and while not a big profit-maker for the railroad, for Harriman Sun Valley "was the most satisfying venture of his business career."

The elder Harriman had been a Republican, but the son had never taken an active interest in politics, becoming a Democrat partly because of his sister Mary Harriman's friendships in the White House (the president was "Franklin") and her enthusiasm for the New Deal. He spent a good deal of time in Washington in the administration's first two years, looking after his own business interests rather than for a job; nevertheless, Harriman understood that real power in America has shifted from New York's financial district to Washington, and he "found joy in the exercise of power." Harriman's public career began in January, 1934, administering the National Recovery Administration's codes for heavy industry.

As Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Harriman performed services of the first importance. He attended the international conferences at Teheran and Yalta and provided excellent information regarding Soviet affairs. Optimistic at first about the possibility of good relations with Moscow, by 1945 Harriman changed his mind and began advocating a firm attitude toward the Soviets. Still, he never became an ideologue about the Soviets and always believed in treating them with firmness and patience.

Interspersed with Harriman's life as a globe-trotting diplomatic, there was Harriman the politician. He sought the Democratic party nomination for president in 1952 and 1956 and had considered running for the U.S. senate. In 1954, he won the New York Democratic nomination for governor, beating FDR, Jr., and managed to turn what had looked like a landslide victory in the general election into a "squeaker" victory of 11, 000 votes. Harriman's oratorical skills have been described as "wooden" and "paralytically boring." He was said to be "incapable of humor or repartee, " and people thought him aloof and reserved. Harriman tried for a second term but lost to Nelson Rockefeller; nevertheless, for years after, he was called "Governor."

Harriman's 14-year marriage to his first wife, Kitty, ended in divorce; his second wife, Marie, died after 41 years of marriage; his third wife, Pamela Churchill Harriman, was with him for the last 15 years of his life (she later served as ambassador to France in the Clinton administration until her death in 1997).

The last half or more of Harriman's life was spent as a public figure in the company of almost all the world leaders who defined and drove the twentieth century. The British political scientist Isaiah Berlin said Harriman "was an irreplaceable asset to the U.S. government and to the entire West because of an uncanny sense of what, as negotiator, could work, and what could not. In the most essential aspects of international relations, he seemed to be virtually infallible." Harriman's longevity at the top levels of government was said to be "because power and access to power, influence, and knowledge were his mother's milk." Of Averell Harriman's passing Pamela Churchill Harriman said, "He just decided that enough was enough."


Further Reading on W. Averell Harriman

Various aspects of Harriman's work are discussed in Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (1948; rev. ed. 1950); Harry S. Truman, Memoirs (2 vols., 1955-1956); Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt, vol. 2 (1959); Clarence B. Randall, Adventures in Friendships (1965); Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (1967); George F. Kennan, Memoirs, 1925-1950 (1967); and Robert H. Jones, The Roads to Russia: United States Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union (1969); for an excellent and complete biography, see Rudy Abramson, Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman, 1891-1986 (1992)