W. Averell Harriman was the last and one of the greatest of a vanishing breed of extraordinary American types -- an aristocrat with passionately democratic beliefs. Like the Adamses and the Roosevelts, he was totally devoted to selfless public service. Few figures in all of American history had more impact on so many great issues affecting the nation and the world for so long a span of time. Few were held in such regard by the leaders at home and abroad with whom he dealt.
Harriman knew intimately virtually ever major world leader of the 20th century -- all the Russians from Stalin to Andropov, Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, De Gaulle -- and his own role was equal to theirs in affecting the history of our times. He was arguably the greatest crisis negotiator this country has produced. Despite his long government service, in times of boom and bust, war and peace, he said he never looked upon himself as a career government official. "I looked upon myself as a volunteer to crisis periods."
That revealing remark came during a long conversation we had three years ago when I was preparing a magazine article about him. It seems fitting now, on the occasion of his death, to share some of his other observations about the great events in which he participated and the great personages with whom he served and negotiated, and also to give some of the flavor of a remarkable public figure then already in his 90s.
On dealing with Churchill:
"Roosevelt sent me to London in 1941. The British were then standing alone against the full fury of Hitler's assault and he said, 'I want to do everything I can for them short of our becoming engaged in the war with their own forces.' Going across the Atlantic was not as easy in those days. We had to go to Bermuda. Then from Bermuda to the Azores, from the Azores to Portugal, and then get a Dutch plane from Portugal up to the southwest tip of Britain. I mention these things because they are rather interesting historically. And on arrival I was taken immediately to Chequers and I met Churchill and he said, 'How do you want to get about it?' And I said, 'Well, I'll have to find out what your ministries really want. We can't give you everything because we're short in the United States.' He said, 'I'll put you in touch with all of my ministries.' Which he did. We gave them everything we could and much of what they needed at some sacrifice to our own programs. I wasn't very popular at home with some of our people who were responsible for our war programs. That led to my going to Moscow with Lord Beaverbrook to meet with Stalin for Roosevelt and Churchill . . . . "
"The Russian troops were very brave in stopping the German invasion. A detachment would go in and get blotted out and another one come on and get blotted and another one would come and get blotted out. When I saw Stalin at the Tehran Conference, I went up to him and I said, 'I want to congratulate you for the bravery of your troops in attacking the Germans that were trying to run over your country.' He looked at me and said, 'In the Red Army, it takes a braver man to turn back than to advance.' I told Khrushchev this story later and he said: 'You know, when we went to see Stalin we never knew whether we were going to see our families again.' And he said, 'You can understand people can't do their best work under that kind of atmosphere.' I allowed that I could understand that. As far as Stalin is concerned, I'm satisfied he was the man who saved Russia. His leadership was ruthless, his spirit was tough, but he did hold the country together. Without his leadership, nobody would have . . . . "
On what makes great leadership:
"Situations create great leaders. In other words, there's got to be a big crisis in order to make a great leader because in the normal course of events there's nothing spectacular for a man to do, no matter how able he is. He's got to do the humdrum things of life which he may be doing exceedingly well but nobody knows if he's doing it well or not until a crisis arises where he can step in and stand out. Of course, Churchill stands out precisely because of his convictions about not giving in to the aggressor in peacetime when there was no crisis. Roosevelt was remarkable because he did the things he thought necessary to get us out of the Depression by immediately changing the psychology of the country. He changed a sense of depression to one of confidence and hope . . . . "
On aging gracefully:
"Enjoy life as you go along, enjoy the things that you're working at as well as the things you do for pleasure. And you've got to do things with enthusiasm."
Averell Harriman did all that and more, and he left his country the better for it.