Averell Harriman (1891-1986) - 1 August 1986
Let us now praise a famous man, who, early in the morning of Saturday 26 July, died at the age of 94, retaining, until a month before the end, apart from increasing deafness, his health and his reason.
Averell Harriman was the most enduring diplomat statesmen of the middle and last half of the 20th Century. More than anybody, I think, outside the heads of government he shaped the political relationship of Europe and America, and the west’s relations with the Soviet Union. As much, at any rate, as his old enemy, Mr Molotov, who endures, long banished from the Communist party, into his 97th year, and was quoted only a month or so ago as enjoying my old age.
Averell Harriman seemed to lack every attribute that goes to make a successful politician, every attribute but one – he was spectacularly handsome in the smooth, but chiselled, way of Gregory Peck or better, Frederick March, for whom he was frequently mistaken by the people on the streets.
He could chuckle, in a grudging way, at other men’s humour but had none himself. His voice was a rambling monotone, he was a dreadful public speaker. Somebody – it may well have been me – once wrote about him that when he was thinking aloud, before two or three, or two or three thousand, he gave the impression of a bloodhound munching on his food with great care, in case some of it was mixed in with paper and glass.
But then, he really wasn’t a politician, though he was smitten by the presidential bug at one time, got over it, and ran for the governership of New York State. He squeaked in once, but on the second try was massacred by Nelson Rockefeller. It was just as well he had other gifts which had nothing to do with bloodshot eloquence or wheeler-dealing or reciting every other week that he passed a bigger budget for housing or for education for crime prevention, etc etc.
His service was to the United States and Europe in the second war and well beyond and it spanned just 50 years. In 1934, at the rather late age, for a starter in politics, of 42, he was recruited by President Franklin Roosevelt to bring New York state into Roosevelt’s national recovery administration, a sweeping experiment in national socialism which dictated strict codes of competition in business and fixed wages for everyone from steel workers to burlesque comics. It was declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.
In 1983, at the age of 91, Harriman went on a personal mission to Moscow to press Mr Andropov to do something to prove his declared sincere and fervent desire to restore normal relations with the United States. All the obituary tributes that I read or heard casually threw in the word "patrician" to fix him in the social structure.
I imagine that an innocent Italian coming on the word in connection with Averell Harriman would be surprised to learn that he was a descendent of one of the noble families of the Roman republic before the 3rd Century – Harriman would have been surprised himself. But, in a 200-year-old republic which is also the oldest democracy, the genuine aristocrats have to lie low.
They are there, they are the seventh- or eighth-generation descendants either of the founders of New England, or of colonial country squires who live quietly now on their acres in Virginia or Georgia or Maryland. The word patrician is a handy label to apply to the sons or grandsons of the first generation of plutocrats, like the Vanderbilts or Rockefellers, and Harriman was certainly one of them. His father’s story is an 18-carat American story.
His grandfather was the humble, genteel rector of a Long Island church, but his son, Averell’s father, was a smart boy who chose to seek salvation here and now. A broker's clerk in his teens, at 22 he bought a seat on the New York stock exchange, in his prospering early middle age he fixed his gaze on the national railroads, just when they were being slammed across a continent by entrepreneurs who suffered from no legal restrictions except the restrictions of their own capital, or conscience, of which they had little.
In his 50th year, Father Harriman and a New York bank rescued the Union Pacific from bankruptcy – he turned it into a thunderingly profitable enterprise and began to collect railroads as other men collect stamps. He took over the Southern Pacific, which for 50 scandalous years or so owned – that is controlled – the California legislature.
Then he went after the Northern Pacific, but he came up against an equally rapacious tycoon, James J Hill. Together, by raising competition bids with rival banks, they precipitated a financial crisis that rattled Wall Street, and shook the nation. The freewheeling ways of these railroad barons and their bankers, their unchecked habit of forming holding companies to evade the antitrust laws, was too much for the president, Theodore Roosevelt, who did something shocking and unheard of on behalf of the government of the United States – he sued Harriman's and the Hill's and the mighty banker, JP Morgan.
Morgan was outraged. He rushed down to Washington, and threatened the president with a countersuit. "You get your lawyer," said Roosevelt, "and I’ll get my nine lawyers." And in the end, it was the nine old men of the Supreme Court who broke the monopolies, but not before Edward Harriman had accumulated a personal kitty of just under $100million. When he died in '99 he could boast that he ownerilled 60,000 miles of railroad lines. He left behind also a son and heir, and eight-year-old Averell Harriman.
And what could you expect of him? What you got from scores of the breed – spoilt, loitering sons but loiterers on grand scale – who were sent to the best schools and from there picked up the strings, or the dividends, of their fathers' incomes, built capacious summer homes, did the grand European tour, married a loitering heiress to other fortunes, spent the rest of their lives trying to banish boredom.
For a while, a remarkable long while, Averell Harriman seemed to fall easily into the mould; Groton and Yale from which he graduated with a lowly C average; met the right girls, married one, the daughter of a banker. But this languid, handsome young man lacked one fatal characteristic of the type – he did not enjoy boredom. He loved to work, he worked like a sweating pro at games and became the fourth-ranking pool player in the country.
Just out of Yale he was, naturally, you might say, elected to the board of Union Pacific, but he had the sense and the decency to recognise that he was there as his father’s son. So he got out of railroads, into shipping, and pretty soon was a shipping magnate. He moved into Wall Street, formed his own investment house and then a private bank and then, in the early 1920s, took a surprising interest – considering his bloodline and his presumed prejudices – in making a deal with the new Bolshevik government of Russia to finance manganese mining.
He went off to the Soviet Union and had a long session with Trotsky, and appeared to be impressed by his intelligence and business sense but after that visit, Harriman showed to his associates an inconspicuous gift that would surface time and again in his later life, and tell why this apparently slow, phlegmatic man would become the cherished advisor to five presidents.
Nothing to do with knowledge alone or intellect – he had a gift for being unimpressed by impressive people. He was unstartled by brilliance. He acted from wary hunches and, in this instance, he defied the expert wisdom by deciding that Trotsky would not win an endurance contest with Joseph Stalin. He withdrew from the deal.
Throughout the 1920s, and on into the '30s Depression, Averell Harriman was unheard of in political circles. He was, he had always been, an automatic Republican, but when the country and the capitalist system was floundering in the pit, Harriman was roused by the energy to restore them of the paralysed Franklin Roosevelt. He must also have been flattered that when businessmen were anathema to the New Dealer Democrats, Roosevelt chose to call on the businessman’s son of a robber baron. He was a Democrat for the rest of his life.
And from then on, you can count the steps by which he went, onwards and upward, first as an administrator in the department of commerce and then in charge of production, on to Britain to organise lend and lease, then to see that everything possible was shipped to Britain and Russia, and once America was in the war, he blossomed – though outside the public knowledge – as the supreme special presidential envoy.
Ambassador to the Soviet Union, then to Britain, then – for Truman – the coordinator of the Marshall Plan to try and restore the industrial and economic fabric of western Europe. He was Kennedy’s roving ambassador and Johnson’s and negotiated the Geneva Accords, on the civil war in Laos. When he was 72, he spelled out the treaty with the Russians that banned above-ground nuclear tests. When he was 76, he started the Paris talks with the North Vietnamese to end the war in Vietnam.
He went everywhere and everywhere leaders as different as de Gaulle, Chiang Kai-shek, Adenauer, Stalin, Benes, Churchill were astonished that this slick, methodical, well-bred man slowly revealed a mastery of their problems and his own. Show him everything, Churchill once said, as he opened the file on secrets to which most British Cabinet members were not privy.
On his 90th birthday, Harriman gave $10million to Columbia University to promote American studies of the Soviet Union. American ignorance of the Soviet Union, he said, is very dangerous. So, not an intellect, not an ideologue, he waved no flags, he took no irreconcilable positions, he was a slow, grinding negotiator of almost endless patience.
The North Vietnamese in Paris were irritated at his unruffled attention to their daily introductory denunciations of the American imperialist beast. When they got down to brass tacks, he would then turn on his hearing aid. He had no illusions about the foreseeable prospect of the bear lying down with the eagle, but, in the light of that explosion that illuminated the morning sky over Hiroshima, he thought they’d better try.
Most of all, he had a sixth sense for guessing, against all the barometer readings, how the political weather in any capital he visited might change. Hence, five presidents decided, a precious man to have at their elbow.
THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC
Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.