Harriman, W(illiam) Averell

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HARRIMAN, W(illiam) Averell

(b. 15 November 1891 in New York City; d. 26 July 1986 in Yorktown Heights, New York), financier, sportsman, diplomat, governor of New York, and elder statesman of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations of the 1960s.

Harriman was one of six children born to the railroad titan Edward Henry Harriman and Mary Williamson Averell Harriman, daughter of an upstate New York railroad and banking family. He and his siblings were reared in an atmosphere of extraordinary privilege, the family dividing its time between an East Fifty-first Street mansion in Manhattan and a twenty-thousand-acre Arden estate in the Ramapo Mountains of Orange County, New York. Educated at Groton School in Massachusetts and Yale University (B.A., 1913), Harriman was just weeks from high school graduation when his father died in the spring of 1909. His inheritance included not only fabulous wealth, judiciously passed on to him by his mother, but parental expectations for great achievement.

Although he once seemed destined to follow in his father's footsteps as a capitalist, Harriman broke with his family's Republican traditions and became an ardent New Dealer and, eventually, one of America's most durable government officials and political figures, serving five Democratic presidents. Although he was then in his seventies, he was a globe-trotting ambassador and troubleshooter for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. In 1963 he led U.S. negotiations concluding the first nuclear weapons agreement with the Soviet Union, and in 1968 he headed the U.S. delegation in the first peace negotiations with the government of North Vietnam.

Before beginning his government and political career as one of the Wall Street figures referred to as Franklin Roosevelt's "tame millionaires," Harriman was known widely as a sportsman and a businessman whose career was notable for both spectacular initiatives and conspicuous setbacks. In 1915, after a two-year apprenticeship, he was named vice president for purchasing of Union Pacific Railroad, the legendary line his father had rescued from bankruptcy and turned into the centerpiece of a huge railroad empire. Two years later, opting out of military service, he set out to make his own mark as an industrialist and financier while also making a contribution to the United States' effort in World War I. He opened two shipyards and built oceangoing freighters for the government until the end of the war. Thereafter, he operated passenger and merchant ships and financed such highly publicized ventures as manganese mining in the Soviet Republic of Georgia and the creation of a giant aviation conglomerate called the Aviation Corporation of America. In December 1930, as the Great Depression deepened, he and his brother Roland merged their banking and financing operations, W. A. Harriman and Company and Harriman Brothers and Company, with Wall Street's venerable Brown Brothers Bank. Brown Brothers Harriman and Company, the investment bank thus created, remained a stalwart of the New York financial district into the twenty-first century. In 1932, twenty-three years after his father's death, Harriman was named chairman of the board of the Union Pacific and led a highly publicized modernization of the railroad, including the introduction of streamline passenger trains.

Although his business and financial activities frequently put him in the news, Harriman was equally well known as a sportsman and socialite. He bred and trained both Labrador retrievers and thoroughbred horses, played polo with a passion, and mastered croquet, then a favored weekend diversion on the lawns of Long Island, New York, estates. In 1928 he starred in the U.S. defeat of Argentina's national polo team for America's Cup and the sport's unofficial world championship. He also became a major figure in popularizing downhill skiing in the United States, creating the Sun Valley resort in Idaho, which became a favorite getaway for Hollywood film stars after its opening in 1936. During the mid-1920s gossip and press accounts linked Harriman romantically with Teddy Gerard, an actress and cabaret singer. In the spring of 1929 his fourteen-year marriage to Kitty Lanier Lawrence, which produced two daughters, ended with a Parisian divorce. The following February he married Marie Norton Whitney, the recently divorced wife of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Sonny) Whitney.

By the time John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president in 1961, Harriman had become an icon of the Democratic Party. After a number of New Deal jobs, he had risen to prominence as America's special emissary in London, overseeing the flow of lend-lease supplies and equipment toGreat Britain in the days leading up to World War II. From 1943 until 1946 he was the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. A participant in nearly all of the wartime Allied summits, he became an important channel of communication between President Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Later a favorite of President Harry S Truman, Harriman served, briefly, as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, secretary of commerce, director of mutual security, and, on occasions, as a special envoy for the White House. Twice, in 1952 and again in 1956, he made his own bid for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, but he was a hopelessly inept campaigner and was never in serious contention. Despite his political awkwardness, he was elected governor of New York in 1954 and led a progressive and modestly successful administration. But in his 1958 campaign for reelection, he was portrayed as an instrument of Tammany Hall (the most powerful of the Democratic Party committees in New York City) and lost to Nelson A. Rockefeller in a landslide.

Because of his age, increasing deafness, and only modest success as a politician in his own right, Harriman seemed an unlikely candidate for a significant role in the Kennedy administration, given its emphasis on youth. But he aggressively lobbied for an appointment, and Kennedy rewarded him with an honorific and ambiguous assignment as ambassador-at-large. Beginning in April 1961 Harriman's dogged efforts to create a neutral government and prevent Laos from falling to the Communists established his bona fides with the new president. Thus, when Kennedy initiated a major shakeup of the State Department in November 1961, Harriman was named assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs. The job was one ordinarily filled by young diplomats on the way up, but Harriman eagerly accepted it, because it gave him his own turf and involved him in issues far beyond the quixotic struggle to form a coalition government from the disparate political and family factions in Laos. Just as he became assistant secretary, Vietnam emerged as a first-order foreign policy problem for the Kennedy administration. As the U.S. stake in the conflict was raised, Harriman supported the implicit decision to make Vietnam, not Laos, the place for the U.S. stand against communist insurgency in Southeast Asia. But, along with other liberals in the administration, he soon became a sharp critic of the U.S.–supported regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, urging the president to give more attention to the political situation in Saigon. At the State Department, he became de facto leader of a group that considered political and civic action as important as military intervention in confronting the threat from the north.

Because he was assigned to the Far East, Harriman was generally excluded from the foreign policy area that interested him most, the complex and crucial relations with the Soviet Union. He was not among the advisers Kennedy summoned to address the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, and he was devastated. The Soviet Union had been his passion since his ill-fated manganese-mining venture, which had taken him to Moscow for business talks with Leon Trotsky in 1926. Since leaving Moscow as U.S. ambassador at the end of World War II, he had returned as a private citizen. He had met with Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow and had been one of Khrushchev's hosts during the Soviet leader's visit to the United States in 1959. Left off the president's missile crisis team, Harriman sent un-solicited memos and advice to the attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, with whom he had assiduously cultivated a close personal relationship. Like his brother the president, Robert Kennedy increasingly valued Harriman's long experience. In the wake of the missile crisis, as the attorney general became deeply involved in foreign policy, Harriman's stock continued to rise in the administration. In March 1963 he was named undersecretary of state for political affairs, putting him in the upper echelon of the country's foreign policy apparatus, where he had yearned to be.

Shaken by the missile crisis and the specter of nuclear war, Washington and Moscow moved dramatically to break a long diplomatic impasse over nuclear weapons testing. On 10 June 1963, after an exchange of messages with Khrushchev, Kennedy announced that direct negotiations on limitation of nuclear weapons testing would take place in Moscow. The following day Harriman was named to lead the U.S. delegation in deliberations with the Soviets and Great Britain. Although the parties had signaled a clear willingness to restrict testing, the issue of verification, specifically the number and type of permitted inspections, remained contentious.

With Khrushchev himself joining the first day of talks, negotiations got under way on 15 July. The possibility of a comprehensive test ban was given up early in the twelve days of talks that followed, and the delegations focused on a pact to ban nuclear weapons tests everywhere except underground. Each day Harriman cabled detailed reports to the White House, giving specifics of private informal conversations with Khrushchev as well as the progress of the negotiating sessions. Late on July 25, following a telephone call to the Situation Room at the White House, Harriman joined the Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, and the British delegation leader, Lord Hailsham, in initialing the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

Although Harriman remained eager to serve, his importance faded after Lyndon Johnson became president in November 1963. He was given responsibility for African affairs, turning his attention principally to new strife in the Congo, where Kennedy had faced one of his first foreign policy crises. At the same time he tried to establish himself with the new president by energetically campaigning for Johnson in 1964, but in 1965 he found himself back where he had been in the first days of the Kennedy administration, as a roving ambassador. For more than a year he traveled the world continually, to meetings, on troubleshooting assignments, and on goodwill ventures. In 1966 Johnson made Harriman his unofficial "Ambassador for Peace," giving him authority to pursue any potential opening to a diplomatic resolution. Harriman took his mandate seriously, but his "peace shop" was spoken of derisively at the State Department, and some of his closest allies believed that his assignment was merely a way to keep him occupied.

Not until after Johnson's announcement on 31 March 1968 that he would not seek reelection did the government of North Vietnam agree to peace talks. There followed a month of jockeying over a location. On 10 May the president announced that negotiators would meet in Paris and Harriman would lead the U.S. delegation. Opening in a circus-like media atmosphere and with the U.S. presidential campaign under way, the talks proved to be a farce, with prolonged haggling over such procedural issues as the shape of the negotiating table and, eventually, recalcitrance by the government of South Vietnam. Harriman remained engaged as delegation leader until Johnson's last day in the White House. On 19 January 1969, the evening before Richard Nixon's inauguration as president, he arrived back in Washington and left government once again.

On 21 September 1971, a year after the death of his wife, Marie, Harriman married for the third time, to Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward, with whom he had carried on a secret wartime liaison while she was the wife of Winston Churchill's son, Randolph. During the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Harriman and his wife worked for arms control and for ratification of treaties ceding ownership of the Panama Canal to the government of Panama. In retirement, Harriman made six more trips to Moscow, the last in 1983. Half a century had passed between his first job in the New Deal and his last trip to the State Department to report on his final visit to the Kremlin. In the end his career had become a symbol of stability and continuity in U.S. government and foreign policy across the American century. Harriman died of respiratory arrest and other afflictions of age four months shy of his ninety-fifth birthday. He is buried at the family's Arden estate near Harriman, New York.

See Papers of W. Averell Harriman, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. W. Averell Harriman and Elie Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, 1941–1946 (1975), is the first of what might have been a multivolume autobiography. Rudy Abramson, Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman (1992), the only Harriman biography to date, was written with Harriman's cooperation. Harriman, America and Russia in a Changing World: A Half Century of Personal Observation (1971), is drawn from a series of lectures in which Harriman considered the past and future of U.S.–Soviet relations. Chester L. Cooper, The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam (1970), is an insider account by a longtime Harriman aide. Roger Hilsman, To Move a Nation: The Politics of Foreign Policy in the Administration of John F. Kennedy (1967), is a State Department official's view of Vietnam mistakes. David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972), views an aging Harriman as one of the wiser architects of American policy. Murray Klein, Union Pacific: The Rebirth (1990), is the second volume of a railroad history that chronicles the Harriman years. Two articles about Harriman are Douglass Cater, "Averell Harriman: Portrait of a Public Servant," Reporter (19 Feb. 1952), and E. J. Kahn, Jr., "Plenipotentiary," New Yorker (3 May 1952). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post (all 27 July 1986).

Rudy Abramson

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