"He is essentially very conservative but he is a personal friend of FDR's ... A young man with brains ... He is not yet a liberal but if exposed sufficiently long to the Roosevelt influence, he may become a pretty enlightened conservative ... He has a taste for experiment and adventure unusual in a business man."
-- "The New Dealers" by Jay Franklin in
The Washington Post, Feb. 15, 1934
HIS NAME was William Averell Harriman and he then was 42. A week from today he will turn 90. And this Wednesday accolades will be heaped upon him at a Democratic unity dinner, largely the work of his wife Pamela and designed to raise funds for, and the morale of, the Democratic Party in which he so long has been a major figure.
Jay Franklin's prescience caught Harriman in midpassage from the world of business to that of good works and good government. In that first New Deal year he has joined Franklin Roosevelt's NRA (National Recovery Administration), initially as a member of an industry advisory board and later in administrative posts. His sense of relative importance at the time may be deduced from his 1933-34 "Who's Who" entry. There he listed first his partnership in the international investment firm of Brown Brothers Harriman, his Union Pacific railroad chairmanship, his Illinois Central executive committee chairmanship and several directorships. Only then came the NRA, Skull and Bones at Yale and, finally, "well known polo player."
Harriman's transformation from a man whose father was forever tagged by Matthew Josephson as one of the "robber barons" to a liberal Democratic internationalist is one of those extraordinary tales of American life. Edward H. Harriman had been a major paticipant in the titanic railroad battles in that era of unrestrained capitalism before and just after the turn of the century. But he wisely told his son that if men of wealth did not use their money for the public welfare they surely would have it taken away. And he admonished young Averell to become "something and somebody." It was Averell's elder sister, Mary Harriman Rumsey, who encouraged his political interests -- he had voted for Al Smith for president in 1928 -- and urged him to plunge into the New Deal.
"The climax came with the Blue Eagle parade in New York early in September ... the greatest march in the city's history ... On the reviewing stand were Gen. (NRA director Hugh) Johnson and Gov. (of New York Herbert) Lehman with W. Averell Harriman, the NRA state chairman."
-- "The Coming of the New Deal"
by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., 1959
When the Supreme Court struck down the NRA as unconstitutional Harriman returned to his business pursuits while retaining a Business Advisory Council role. New Deal Washington broadened his knowledge of American industry, sharpened his social conscience and made him many new friends, among them Harry Hopkins. In the period between Hitler's invasion of Poland and Pearl Harbor, Harriman was a convinced internationalist. He returned to Washington in mid-1940 to join in industrial mobilization and when FDR dispatched Hopkins to London to gauge Winston Churchill and Britain's chances for survival, Harriman pleaded: "Let me carry your bags, Harry." Hopkins went alone but when he returned it was he who proposed stationing Harriman in London in order, as Roosevelt told him, to "recommend everything that we can do, short of war, to keep the British Isles afloat."
And so began the great international adventures of Averell Harriman, so vitally important for the development of American relationships with the allies and with that wary wartime collaborator, Josef Stalin, who turned postwar antagonist.
"Churchill, who loved to gamble for modest stakes, used to say that while it might be undignified for His Majesty's first minister to play cards with subordinates, it was entirely appropriate for him to play with 'the president's personal envoy,' as he liked to describe Harriman. They most frequently played bezique, a two-handed game calling for the use of six packs, each of 32 cards, all shuffled together. As Churchill's stubby fingers made the task of shuffling all those cards a slow business, he and Harriman had some of their most interesting conversations ..."
-- "Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin" by W. Averell Harriman and Elie Abel, 1975
In an interview when he was 74 and had just finished a 12-nation dash around the globe in pursuit of an elusive Vietnam peace for Lyndon Johnson, Harriman remarked that "if you haven't been to a country, no matter how much information you have, you can't get the feel of it."
Initially, it had been economic interests which took him across the Atlantic twice a year. Britain and the continent became familiar territory. As to the Soviet Union, he explained the other day that "I believe that the Russian revolution would be the most important event in my life" and that one way to find out about it would be to do business there. And so in 1924 he became involved in a manganese concession, a Lenin device to tap foreign help. Harriman likes to boast that he got out in time "with a modest profit."
He also likes to recall that he used this interest in Russia as a device "to meet interesting people," Churchill and Mussolini among them. Lenin wouldn't see him, though Trotsky did. Harriman has never varied from this technique of going right to the top. At home in New York, Florida or Washington and up the Hudson at the family great house at Arden, the Harrimans saw a stream of American and foreign movers and shakers, a process that continues to this day in his Georgetown home and Middleburg country house.
If Harriman easily became Churchill's confidant and Roosevelt's trusted man in Britain -- he was with the prime minister at Chequers when the word arrived on Dec. 7, 1941 -- Stalin was another matter. Beginning in the fall of 1941, Harriman saw Stalin alone and with others, including Churchill and Roosevelt, more often than any other Westerner. His task was to help keep Russia in the war and to allay Stalin's suspicions of American and British intentions. Early on, Harriman had concluded that to rivet the attention of presidents and prime ministers his reports had "to be reasonably entertaining. Sometimes exact reporting is not as important as being descriptive." Thus, this "personal for the president only" cable reporting Stalin's pressure on Churchill to open a second front across the English Channel:
"Stalin took issue at every point with bluntness, almost to the point of insult, with such remarks as 'You can't win wars if you aren't willing to take risks' ... The prime minister then described the bombing activity over Germany and his hopes for substantial increase with American participation ... The tension began to ease and a certain understanding of common purpose began to grow. Between the two of them, they soon had destroyed most of the important industrial cities of Germany "
-- "Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin."
If Harriman's time seemed devoured by problems of winning the war, the shaping of the postwar world was never far from mind. He began as "a confirmed optimist" about Stalin's intentions, became more of a realist and then settled on the rubric that while "on ideology there is no prospect of compromise between the Kremlin and ourselves," America "must find ways to settle as many areas of conflict as possible in order to live together on this small planet without war."
So it was that he flung himself into the wartime job of ambassador to the Soviet Union. George Kennan, whom he had chosen to be his deputy, caught the man:
"the traditional niceties of our diplomatic training left him cold ... He had that curious contempt for elegance that only the wealthy can normally afford ... Personal life did not exist for him ... Accustomed to doing things in a big way and endowed with a keen appreciation for great personal power, always enjoying, in fact, the mere proximity of the very great, he dealt only with people at the top ...
"None -- be it said to his eternal credit -- was ever less inclined to distort the record, however imperceptibly, in order to show himself and his performance off to good advantage ... His integrity in the performance of his duties was monumental and unchallengeable."
-- "Memoirs 1925-1950"
by George F. Kennan, 1967
By the time the Red Army had driven the Nazis back into Poland, Harriman was cabling FDR that the Russians "are bloated with power ... they expect they can force acceptance of their decisions without question upon us and all countries."
Still, looking back from the vantage point of the Cold War era, Harriman felt that:
"The one great thing accomplished by our constant efforts during and since the war to reach a settlement with the Soviet Union is that we have firmly established our moral position before the world. Had these efforts not been made, many people of the free world would still be wondering whether we and not the Kremlin were to blame for the tensions that have developed. "
-- Testimony to the Senate Armed Ser vices and Foreign Relations committees, 1951
Harriman's blunt talk around Washington has long been legendary. But it wasn't just to those of equal or lesser rank. To Stalin he once thundered: "You're impugning the loyalty of the American high command and I won't allow it." He argued with Roosevelt over postwar Russian-Polish boundaries: "I carried it as far as I could until he became annoyed that I was unwilling to dream with him." When Harry Truman succeeded FDR, Harriman gave it to him straight: "Frankly, one of the reasons that made me rush back to Washington was the fear that you did not understand, as I had seen Roosevelt understand, that Stalin is breaking his agreements ... But I must say that I am greatly relieved to discover that you have read them all (Harriman's cables) and that we see eye to eye ..."
At the United Nations founding conference in San Francisco Harriman told American delegates that "we must recognize that our objectives and the Kremlin's objectives are irreconcilable." When he spun that out to an American press group, two shocked listeners walked out: Raymond Gram Swing and Walter Lippmann. Swing later apologized. Harriman frequently found reporters better informed than diplomats; often he inspired a story or a column reflecting his views. Journalists loved the sound of Harriman breaking diplomatic crockery:
"A sit-tight in Berlin is ridiculous. We've got to wake up to the fact that Khruschchev is on a long climb and we've got to help him get off it. It's about time we stopped letting Adenauer pull us by the nose and Chiang pull us by the ear. I see nothing wrong at all in exchanging recognition of the GDR [East Germany] for new guarantees on our own right of access [to West Berlin]." Background press meeting, 1961
Harriman had come home from Moscow in January 1946 by way of China and Japan to talk with Chiang Kai-shek, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and a host of others. He then left government but was back in the fall, first briefly as ambassador to Britain and then as secretary of commerce. In that latter post he developed the breathtaking $12-to-17 billion Marshall Plan program, moving to Paris to get it under way and then to begin spadework for the western military alliance, NATO.
In the Eisenhower years he held no job but continued to work to keep Soviet-American antagonisms from escalating into war. He flew to meet Nikita Khrushchev, once for a 10-hour session. When Ike invited Khrushchev to America it was Harriman who arranged for him to meet, in his New York townhouse, with 35 leading bankers and businessmen. To them Khrushchev said: "You rule America. You are the ruling circle." Some of Harriman's guests, he later said in ershis memoirs, "looked like typical capitalists, right out of the posters painted during our civil war -- only they didn't have the pig snouts our artists always gave them."
John F. Kennedy would say Harriman had held "as many important jobs as any American in our history, with the possible exception of John Quincy Adams." But at first the young president saw the older man chiefly as a link to the FDR and Truman eras. Harriman called it starting again "as a private" and having to "work to the top." When Kennedy stopped in Paris en route to Vienna to see Khrushchev, Harriman managed to see him at lunch, seated next to JFK's sister Eunice, who was next to the president. Eunice to JFK: "Averell wants to talk to you." JFK: "What do you want to talk to me about?" Harriman: "About dealing with the Russians." JFK: "What do you want to tell me?" Harriman, realizing he'd have to capsulize it in a single sentence then and there: "Go to Vienna with a view of trying to work something out with Khrushchev."
But Kennedy plunged into a hopeless ideological discussion and emerged badly browbeaten. Two years later, after the sobering Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy called on Harriman to nail down the nuclear test ban treaty, which he did in Moscow:
"Khrushchev got right down to business and said: 'Since we have decided to have a test ban, let us sign now and fill in the details later.' I agreed and handed him a blank sheet of paper, saying: 'Fine, you sign first.' "
-- "America and Russia in a Changing
World" by W. Averell Harriman, 1971
Lyndon Johnson "called ... from the ranch at noon one day during Christmas week of 1965. He said, 'Averell, have you got your bag packed?' I replied, 'It's always packed, sir. Where do you want me to go?' He said, 'There's a bombing halt, and I want you to talk with some of your Eastern European friends and see what they'll do.'"
Harriman ended up circling the globe, touching down in 12 familiar capitals where he knew 11 of the 12 leaders; only Egypt's Nasser was new to him. Harriman had warned Kennedy in 1961 that the United States should not "stake its prestige in Vietnam," but he was not deeply involved again until the Christmas week call. In 1968 LBJ made him ambassador-at-large "in charge of peace" and then envoy to the Paris peace talks. He stayed until Richard Nixon entered the White House. Out of office again, Harriman continued to advocate compromise because "this war cannot be won." Henry Kissinger, who solicited his views, later reflected:
"Harriman's patrician style was allied to a powerful determination to prevail in pursuit of strong beliefs. He affected a crotchety manner, and he used his relative deafness to great advantage. He would sit through meetings, pretending to hear nothing unless some remark caught his interest, in which case he could be devastating or inspiring ... The drowsy manner that could give way to a sudden snap of the jaws earned Harriman, not for nothing, the nickname of 'the crocodile' "
-- "The White House Years"
by Henry A. Kissinger, 1979
For Jimmy Carter, Harriman was an unofficial adviser. At 87 he was back again in the Kremlin, talking to Leonid Brezhnev, afterward declaring that "those who say he's planning a first strike are paranoid." He strongly backed SALT II and calls its abandonment by the Senate and Ronald Reagan "disastrous." He is not reticent about saying that Reagan has it all backward by "thinking of it (the Russian problem) in military terms." America has to be "strong enough in strategic nuclear weapons so they won't blot us out," but "they're in trouble" and the United States should emphasize use of its political and economic strengths.
A natural question about Averell Harriman is why, as Kissinger put it, "he failed to achieve the highest offices to which his talents unquestionably entitled him." The job of secretary of state eluded him but, worst of all, his presidential ambitions were unfulfilled. In 1952, when Adlai Stevenson began playing Hamlet, retiring President Truman encouraged Harriman's ambitions although, he would later write, "I felt that with his limited experience in elective politics and no experience in campaigning ... he would be somewhat handicapped . . . "
Two years later he ran for governor of New York and won. But in 1958 Nelson Rockefeller easily ousted him. Harriman contends that "I was a hell of a good governor," but others have judged otherwise. David Halberstam wrote that "he was a singularly poor politician, stiff and proud and unbending to the public, and totally uncompromising in private." Theodore White concluded that "brought face to face with the domestic system of American power, no man proved more incapable of understanding it ... "
Harriman's political skills turned out to be in almost inverse ratio to his diplomatic abilities. This iconoclastic man of rich experience who had become a sort of national treasure swallowed his hurt and returned to the diplomatic wars as no more than a Kennedy assistant secretary of state.
Today, about to be 90, Harriman finally is moving his legal residence from New York to Washington where he is beginning, with a historian's help, a book of his Truman era experiences. His tall frame is a bit more stooped, he has had to give up reading, his legendary deafness is more of a reality now. But he still swims, he can nimbly move from the dining room chair to close a draft-provoking Dutch door, he thrives as ever on company and conversation about important matters. A comment he does not like still brings a snap of the crocodile's jaws.
And then there is the remarkable calm about Averell Harriman today. Simply put, it rests on a love affair, a love affair with his wife. They met four decades ago in wartime Britain, each then wed to another, and they did not marry until 10 years ago. But what an aura of love floods the room when he speaks, softly, of Pearl Harbor Day with Churchill: "I went down to Chequers and Pamela was there.