William Averell Harriman

William Averell Harriman

William Averell Harriman, the son of the railway magnate, E. H. Harriman, was born in New York City on 15th November, 1891. He joined his father's Union Pacific Company in 1915 and became chairman of the board in 1932.

Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Harriman as U.S. Ambassador of the Soviet Union in 1943. He held the post until 1946 when Harry S. Truman appointed him as Secretary of Commerce. Harriman worked on the Marshall Plan and served as national security adviser during the Korean War.

A member of the Democratic Party Harriman was elected governor of New York in 1954. After two unsuccessful attempts to become the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952 and 1956 Harriman served in several posts under President John F. Kennedy. This included negotiating the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

Despite being named as a Soviet spy by Anatoli Golitsin, Harriman was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as ambassador-at-large for Southeast Asian affairs in 1965. He also served as chief US negotiator when preliminary peace talks opened in France between the United States and North Vietnam in 1968.

Harriman lost this position as US negotiator under President Richard Nixon but returned to office in 1978 when he was appointed the senior member of the US Delegation to the United Nations General Assembly's Special Session on Disarmament. William Averell Harriman died in 1986.

Primary Sources

(1) Studs Terkel interviewed W. Averell Harriman about his experiences during the Second World War for his book, The Good War (1985)

Roosevelt was the one who had the vision to change our policy from isolationism to world leadership. That was a terrific revolution. Our country's never been the same since. The war changed everybody's attitude. We became international almost overnight.

I found that Churchill felt it was very important to help Stalin. I certainly agreed. There was that meeting at sea between Roosevelt and Churchill. I attended it. Churchill decided to send Beaverbrook and Roosevelt decided to send me. We both went to Moscow in October 1941. We both agreed that Stalin was determined to hold out against the Germans. He told us he'd never let them get to Moscow. But if he was wrong, they'd go back to the Urals and fight. They'd never surrender. We became convinced that, regardless of Stalin's awful brutality and his reign of terror, he was a great war leader. Without Stalin, they never would have held.

Much of the aid we first gave to Russia we took away from what we promised Britain. So in a sense, Britain participated in a very real way in the recovery of Russia. After that, the Russians got mean. Poland, of course, was the key country. I remember Stalin telling me that the plains of Poland were the invasion route of Europe to Russia and always had been, and therefore he had to control Poland.

It was fear. He didn't want to see a united Germany. Stalin made it clear to me - I spoke with him many times - that they couldn't afford to let Germany build up again. They'd been invaded twice, and he wasn't willing to have it happen again.

There's a myth that Roosevelt gave Stalin Eastern Europe. I was with Roosevelt every day at Yalta. Roosevelt was determined to stop Stalin from taking over Eastern Europe. He thought they finally had an agreement on Poland. Before Roosevelt died, he realized that Stalin had broken his agreement.

I think Stalin was afraid of Roosevelt. Whenever Roosevelt spoke, he sort of watched him with a certain awe. He was afraid of Roosevelt's influence in the world. If FDR had lived, the cold war wouldn't have developed the way it did, because Stalin would have tried to get along with Roosevelt.

Last updated: 27th May, 2002