Harriman, W. Averell

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W. Averell Harriman

Born November 15, 1891
New York, New York
Died July 26, 1986
Yorktown Heights, New York

U.S. secretary of commerce, statesman, industrialist

W . Averell Harriman played a key role in many important political events of the twentieth century, including events during the Cold War. Born to privilege, Harriman believed passionately in public service; he believed in his ability—and obligation—to make the world better. He exercised his influence in major negotiations of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

Harriman is often considered the architect of the Cold War policy of containment, the strategy of keeping communist influence within the borders of existent communist nations. Communism is a political and economic system in which the Communist Party controls nearly all aspects of citizens' lives and private ownership of property is banned. It is not compatible with American political and economic values. Harriman had a strong, long-term relationship with the Soviet Union, but he came to believe that communism, the Soviet form of government, was a threat to the United States and to democracies around the world. Harriman advised U.S. presidents accordingly; he also negotiated with dictators. Putting his beliefs into action, he helped craft the Cold War.

"To whom much is given, much is expected"

William Averell Harriman was born on November 15, 1891, the son of wealthy railroad baron E. H. Harriman, who built and owned the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railways. He imparted his ideals of hard work and obligation to his children. Harriman's father cautioned his children that possessing wealth creates a personal obligation to give back something meaningful to the nation and world. The Harriman children took this to heart, believing in their obligation to contribute to the world around them.

Harriman, who went by his middle name, Averell, was not a talkative child, but he was candid and thoughtful. Throughout his life he was often described as methodical. In 1899, his father was instructed by doctors to take time off to relax. So E. H. Harriman organized a ship of scientists to travel along the Alaskan coast, studying the animals and plants. The ship ventured as far as Siberia in eastern Russia. Young Averell went along on this journey, the first of his many trips to Russia.

Harriman attended Groton, a strict New England boarding school modeled after an English public school. He was not an excellent student, but he was well respected by his classmates. Just as Harriman was entering Yale University, his father died. Harriman's mother received the family fortune, and Harriman was set to assume a key role in the family's railroad business. By his senior year at Yale, he had been elected to the board of directors of the Union Pacific Railroad, appearing at his first board meeting with a textbook in hand.

At the beginning of World War I (1914–18), Harriman was a new husband and father and was playing an increasingly influential role in the family business. Harriman determined that the best way he could serve the country during the war was by building much-needed ships. So he built a shipyard, and after the war he increased production and expanded the business into a shipping empire. At the same time, he founded an investment-banking firm to fund marine securities (stocks and bonds).

Early negotiator with the Soviets

The Harriman family had traditionally voted Republican, but Averell Harriman was drawn to the Democrats. The Republican Party generally advocated isolationism, a policy of national isolation that would have the United States withdraw from the rest of the world in order to avoid war and economic entanglements. However, Harriman began to see isolationism as a disastrous foreign policy. In addition, Harriman felt the influence of his sister, Mary Harriman, who had developed a close relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). Harriman's sister had announced that she was supporting Eleanor's husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45), in his bid for the presidency in 1932. Harriman joined his sister in supporting Roosevelt, and Roosevelt won the election. Thus began Harriman's lifelong relationship with Democratic administrations.

In the late 1930s, as World War II (1939–45) loomed over Europe, President Roosevelt appointed Harriman to a unique position, the Lend-Lease administrator in England. The Lend-Lease program was established to provide England, which by now was broke, with supplies to fight the war against Germany, in exchange for leases to military bases throughout the remaining British empire around the world. Roosevelt directed Harriman while in London to determine everything that the United States could do to aid Britain, short of going to war. It was a position perfectly suited to Harriman, and he served effectively in the post, using his best facilitating and negotiating skills. Later, as the United States was beginning to form an alliance with the Soviet Union, Harriman approached Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry) about what equipment would help the Soviets. What the Soviet Union really wanted was for the United States to fight Germany from Western Europe, drawing some German forces away from the battle with Soviet troops in the east. Stalin was initially less than gracious regarding the U.S. offer of equipment and weapons, but the United States soon became a major supplier to the Soviet Union.

In 1943, Roosevelt appointed Harriman to the position of ambassador to the Soviet Union. Though Harriman was initially optimistic that the United States and the Soviet Union could have a good relationship after the war, he came to believe that this was not possible. Harriman began to fear that the Soviet Union would try to dominate Europe after the war. From his post in the Soviet Union, he sent memos communicating these thoughts to President Roosevelt. However, Roosevelt was not open to hearing Harriman's predictions about the possible disintegration of the Western alliance. He did not want to play hard-ball with Stalin at this early time; he wanted to give prospects of a postwar alliance every chance to succeed.

One of the first clear signs that the Western alliance would not survive the war was the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1944. Initially invaded by Germany in 1939, Poland was then liberated by Soviet troops. The United States demanded that Poland be allowed to hold free and fair elections to form a new government. However, it quickly became clear that this was not the Soviet Union's intention. The Soviet Union claimed that Poland was crucial to its security. Stalin wanted a sphere, or ring, of friendly countries (communist or, at least, strong socialist) surrounding him.

The Cold War begins

After the Soviets invaded Poland, Harriman began to believe that the United States must be increasingly firm with the Soviet Union. Harriman thought that the Soviets' goal of building a sphere of friendly states in Eastern Europe was an excuse for continuing communist expansion; he thought it was up to the United States to prevent such expansion. Furthermore, Harriman believed that the best protection for the United States was not the development of new weapons, but the establishment of democracies all around the world.

When President Roosevelt died suddenly in April 1945, Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry) took over as president. Truman was much more responsive to Harriman's concerns about the Soviets. Harriman recommended an increasingly hard-line approach in dealing with the Soviet Union; Truman agreed. For example, Harriman encouraged Truman to terminate the Lend-Lease program. As World War II ended and the Soviet Union began to expand its control over much of Eastern Europe, Truman announced what became known as the Truman Doctrine. The Truman Doctrine promised that the United States would provide aid to any nation in the world where free peoples were threatened by the spread of communism, especially in areas where poverty was threatening to undermine capitalist institutions. With that warning to the Soviets, the Cold War essentially began.

In 1946, President Truman appointed Harriman as the secretary of commerce. At the time, there was considerable debate regarding what to do about the postwar devastation of the European economies. The Soviet Union wanted to take Germany's industrial equipment and raw materials to rebuild the Soviet economy. However, Harriman believed that a rebuilt Germany would be an important buffer against potential Soviet communist expansion. As secretary of commerce, Harriman helped pass the Marshall Plan, a U.S. financial aid program designed to help rebuild postwar Europe. The plan would strengthen all the Western European countries and undermine any Soviet attempt to dominate the continent.

The Soviet Union continued to press for expansion. It refused to withdraw from the parts of Iran it had occupied during the war. It also pressured Turkey, demanding access to the shipping straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Many of President Truman's advisors became increasingly concerned. Along with others in the U.S. government, Harriman believed that the first objective of communism was to extend itself to other parts of the world. This belief gave rise to the policy of containment, the attempt to resist Soviet aggression and thereby stop the further spread of communist influence. Harriman became a chief proponent of the idea that the United States must stop communism from infiltrating other countries.

As secretary of commerce, Harriman claimed that the Soviet Union had declared ideological warfare on the Western world. He believed the United States needed to maintain a strong military, especially a large and impressive air force, in order to keep communism away. At the same time, Harriman was not concerned about the anticommunist hysteria that began to sweep the country at the end of the 1940s, which he felt was unproductive and unnecessary.

Governor Harriman

When Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61; see entry) took office as president in 1953, Truman and his advisors, including Harriman, all left office. Harriman's influence on international events decreased. From this point on, his influence would seesaw as Democrats gained and lost power. He was influential under Democrats Roosevelt and Truman and later under Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69; see entry). Harriman lost influence during the Republican administrations of Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74; see entry).

During the 1950s, Harriman ran for the Democratic presidential nomination twice, in 1952 and 1956, losing both times to Adlai E. Stevenson (1900–1965). In 1954, Harriman ran for governor of New York and won, serving just four years before he lost his reelection race in 1958 to Republican Nelson A. Rockefeller (1908–1979). Harriman's career in elected office was not long, but people often called him "Governor" even after his term was over.

The Vietnam War

In the 1960s, the new Democratic administrations called Harriman back to public service. In 1963, at more than seventy years of age, he became undersecretary for political affairs under President Kennedy. Harriman headed the U.S. team that negotiated the 1963 Limited Test-Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. The treaty banned aboveground testing of nuclear weapons.

Harriman originally attempted to negotiate for a total ban on the testing of nuclear weapons. However, the Soviets had some practical concerns about such an arrangement: Aboveground testing could be easily monitored, but there was no way to monitor underground testing unless there were observers present in the facilities. The Soviet Union did not want Western observers in its nuclear weapons facilities. Therefore, the two countries could only agree on a limited ban on nuclear testing.

Vietnam was one of the hot spots in the Cold War. After the Vietnamese defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Harriman favored U.S. military intervention in the region, because communist-controlled North Vietnam was trying to take over noncommunist South Vietnam. However, as Harriman aged, his position changed. By the time Lyndon Johnson became president, Harriman was a voice of moderation in discussions about the war, arguing for negotiation and an end to the bombing of North Vietnam. President Johnson appointed Harriman as chief of the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks with the North Vietnamese in 1968.

When President Nixon took office in 1969, Harriman infuriated Nixon by calling for a fixed timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. He also recommended putting increased pressure on the South Vietnamese to assume greater responsibility in conducting the war. Americans who were protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75) were pleased by Harriman's viewpoint, even though Harriman was not aligned with the peace movement and did not support the protesters' efforts.

Last years

Harriman continued trying to improve U.S.-Soviet relations until the end of his life. He visited Soviet leader Yuri Andropov (1914–1984) in 1983 as a private citizen. Convinced that the Soviet Union wanted peace, Harriman encouraged the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89; see entry) to return to a policy of peaceful coexistence. Over the years, Harriman also authored several books, including Peace with Russia (1959), America and Russia in a Changing World (1971), and Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, 1941–1946 (1975). William Averell Harriman died in 1986 at the age of ninety-four.

For More Information


Abramson, Rudy. Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman, 1891–1986. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1992.

Cooper, Chester L. The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1970.

Harriman, W. Averell, and Elie Abel. Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, 1941–1946. New York: Random House, 1975.

Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

The Special Skills of a Master Negotiator

Averell Harriman was a skilled negotiator who worked closely with the world leaders of his day, including British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965; see entry), Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (1890–1986; see entry), Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971; see entry), and Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. Harriman's negotiating skills were exceptional; so, apparently, was his skill at reading upside down. Near the time of his death, Harriman revealed a favorite negotiating strategy: "I always read everything on the desks of people I went to see in Moscow, London, Paris … I found it quite useful."

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