Averell Harriman, 94, Dies; Noted Diplomat, Financier

Times Staff Writer

W. Averell Harriman, the last of the great diplomatic figures of World War II and an adviser to every Democratic President of the 20th Century except Woodrow Wilson, died Saturday at his summer residence at Yorktown Heights, N.Y. He was 94.

Death was attributed to renal failure, complicated by pneumonia. Harriman had been ill for about three weeks, since shortly after arriving in New York from Middleburg, Va., where he had made his principal residence since 1984. He had been under the care of doctors at his home.

Harriman’s wife, Pamela, a Democratic Party political activist and former daughter-in-law of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and his two daughters were with him when he died.

His passing was mourned abroad as well as in the United States where he was remembered as a major financial and political figure as well as one of the most durable diplomats in the country’s history.


The State Department said in a statement that his death marked “the passing of an era.” Sen. Ed ward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), recalling Harriman’s role in his brother’s Administration as President, called the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty negotiated by Harriman “a monument in our quest for nuclear arms control.”

“The world has lost one of her most respected statesmen,” President Reagan said in a statement released by the White House.

A family spokesman said Harriman will be buried beside his parents in the family cemetery on the vast Arden estate where he grew up 80 miles north of New York City. A funeral service will be held at noon Tuesday at St. Thomas Church in New York, with a memorial service to follow on Sept. 16 at Washington National Cathedral.

Harriman’s death closed a chapter of American diplomatic history, removing a figure whose personal experience spanned the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the world superpowers, whose personal observation extended from the Russo-Japanese War to the war in Vietnam.


Governor of New York

Besides serving five presidents in more than a dozen important posts, Harriman made two bids for the Democratic presidential nomination and served as governor of New York from 1955 to 1959.

Heir to a vast railroad fortune amassed by his father, Harriman first entered government service in the early days of the New Deal. He broke with his family’s staunch Republican tradition by voting for Democratic presidential nominee Alfred E. Smith against Herbert Hoover in 1928, and becoming an avowed Democrat in 1932.

Because of his longevity, Harriman had been for years the only survivor from the select company of World War II figures who were on close terms with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill and Josef Stalin. He served as Roosevelt’s ranking envoy to the World War II Allies.

Probably no other American of the 20th Century knew as many world leaders on a personal basis.

Returning to Washington with the Administration of President John F. Kennedy after an absence during Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower’s eight-year presidency, he continued to be a full-time presidential trouble-shooter until he was approaching 80. After his retirement, he remained a fixture in Democratic Party politics, arms control and diplomatic affairs.

Have to ‘Prove Yourself’

After serving as a ranking World War II diplomat and governor of New York, Harriman surprised some of his friends by accepting Kennedy’s assignment as an assistant secretary of state--the kind of job that goes ordinarily to an upward-bound young person--when he was 70 years old. His reply: “With these new presidents, you have to start at the bottom and prove yourself.”


Harriman did exactly that. Sixteen months later he was promoted to the No. 3 position in the State Department, undersecretary of state for political affairs.

In 1963, he reached the apex of his personal achievement, negotiating the U.S.-Soviet limited nuclear test ban treaty that put an end to the superpowers’ testing of atomic weapons in the atmosphere.

In 1968, he was the chief U.S. negotiator when long-awaited Vietnam peace talks got under way in Paris. Ten years after he had ostensibly retired, Harriman was called on by President Jimmy Carter to rally public support for the Administration’s ultimately successful battle to secure ratification of the Panama Canal treaties.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, with whom Harriman came to have sharp differences on the Vietnam War, paid him one of his highest tributes. “What this country sorely needs,” he said in 1966, “is a new crop of Harrimans who put country above self, duty above person, and who will go anywhere at anytime to do any task that has the promise of enlarging the hope for peace in this world.”

Medal of Freedom

Among Johnson’s last acts before flying home to Texas after Richard M. Nixon’s inauguration as President was to award Harriman the Medal of Freedom.

Harriman was already nearly 50 when Roosevelt sent him to London in 1941 to coordinate the United States’ delivery of lend-lease assistance to embattled Britain.

He became a confidant of Churchill, and was with the prime minister at Chequers, the latter’s country retreat, when together they heard the newscast reporting the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.


He first met Stalin in 1941 when he traveled to Moscow with Lord Beaverbrook, then Churchill’s minister of supply, to arrange lend-lease assistance to the Soviet Union.

During the course of the war, and especially after he was assigned as ambassador in Moscow in 1943, Harriman came to know Stalin better than any other Westerner, sometimes shocking others in his bluntness toward the Soviet leader.

Decision on Surrender

One of the more satisfying and significant moments in his Moscow service came at the war’s end when he flatly rejected, even before consulting Washington, the Soviet government’s bid to have a voice in deciding who would accept Japan’s surrender.

When Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov suggested there might be two supreme commanders in postwar Japan, Harriman replied: “I reject it in the name of my government.”

Harriman’s role during the war years was a crucial one because of his close association with each of the Big Three.

At a time when communications were more laborious, he was in position not only to interpret Stalin to both Roosevelt and Churchill but also to smooth relations between Roosevelt and Churchill themselves.

Except for the second Roosevelt-Churchill meeting in Quebec in 1944, Harriman was a participant in all of the great wartime summits from the Roosevelt-Churchill “meeting at sea” in August, 1941, off the coast of Newfoundland to Tehran, Yalta, and the meeting at Potsdam after Germany’s surrender.

Saw Danger of Nazism

Harriman, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said, “was among the first Americans to see the dangers of Hitler and Nazism” and among those who warned early “against illusions of easy collaboration with the Soviet Union.”

British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan regarded him as the ablest of American diplomats. He was, Macmillan said, “infinitely patient” and possessed “great resilience of thought, complete confidence in himself.”

Over the years, Harriman’s critics alternately found him “soft” on the Communists and a “cold warrior.” During a 1945 press briefing in San Francisco, Walter Lippmann and radio commentator Raymond Gram Swing walked out on Harriman in protest when he observed that the objectives of the United States and the Soviet Union were “irreconcilable.”

He insisted through it all that he had been consistent in his view that the United States and the Soviet Union could negotiate usefully while recognizing their profound differences.

“Averell felt much could be accomplished with the Russians through honest and unsentimental negotiations conducted with firmness but without hostility,” said former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, who served with Harriman in the 1968 Vietnam peace talks. “He was a superb diplomat, both wise and perceptive, and would call a spade a spade, but felt you didn’t have to surround it with a lot of hostile rhetoric.”

Good Friend of Dobrynin

Through all the ups and downs of U.S.-Soviet relations over the last quarter-century, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin, recently recalled to Moscow, remained one of Harriman’s friends in the diplomatic community.

Harriman’s first substantive contacts with the Soviets took place in the mid-20s when he operated a manganese mining concession in the Caucasus. When serious disagreement arose over his contract with the government, he went to Moscow for long talks with Leon Trotsky, who was then chief of the Soviet Concessions Committee.

His special interest in U.S.-Soviet relations continued until his death.

Periodic Trips

After he had retired from public service, Harriman continued to make periodic trips to the Soviet Union, and provided Columbia University a $10-million endowment for its Averell Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union.

On his last trip in June, 1984, he became one of the few Americans to meet with Yuri V. Andropov during Andropov’s brief tenure as the leader of the Soviet Communist Party.

Met Soviet Leaders

With the exception of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his immediate predecessor, Konstantin U. Chernenko, Harriman had known all of the top Soviet leaders since Trotsky and Stalin.

Last year, when the Soviet Union commemorated the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, Gorbachev remembered Harriman’s role by awarding him the Soviet Order of the Patriotic War.

While he made his mark as a wartime bridge between Allied leaders, Harriman later played a similar role in his own country. He was one of the few Roosevelt aides who continued in an important role through the presidency of Harry S. Truman, and he served again in the Kennedy-Johnson period.

In the Truman years, he served as ambassador to Britain, secretary of commerce, the U.S. Marshall Plan representative in Europe, special assistant to the President and director of mutual security.

Although he had known Roosevelt since he was a small boy, Harriman was closer to Truman than he was to Roosevelt and was counted with George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson and Gen. Omar N. Bradley among Truman’s closest advisers. They were the four who unanimously recommended in 1950 that Truman fire Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur.

By 1963, President Kennedy, unaware that Harriman would serve two more Democratic presidents, observed that he had already held as many top government assignments as any American in history, with the possible exception of John Quincy Adams.

sh Served Kennedy

Kennedy used Harriman as ambassador at large, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs and finally as undersecretary of state.

Although his age and his defeat by Nelson A. Rockefeller in the 1958 New York gubernatorial election made him an afterthought when the New Frontier assigned its men to battle stations, Harriman emerged once again as a man with powerful influence in a Democratic administration.

The defeat by Rockefeller was one of the biggest disappointments of his long career, for he had been expected to win a second term easily. He had himself provided Rockefeller the platform to build a gubernatorial campaign by making him chairman of a commission considering revision of the New York state constitution.

At the 1958 state Democratic convention, a fight over the party’s U.S. Senate nomination led to a severe split between reformers and Tammany Hall’s leadership headed by Carmine DeSapio. Bossism became the Republican issue against the divided Democrats and swept Rockefeller into office.

Harriman immediately began preparing himself for a return to Washington and diplomatic service, visiting the Soviet Union for long talks with Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev and traveling extensively in Africa and sending detailed reports to then Sen. John F. Kennedy.

Called ‘The Crocodile’

Growing deaf and surrounded by colleagues half his age when he joined the Kennedy Administration, he became known as “The Crocodile” for his irascibility and impatience with those New Frontiersmen he found naive or ill-informed.

While he made it plain that he preferred to be addressed as “Governor” in acknowledgement of his only elective office, he considered his new appellation complimentary and went so far as to use it as his code name in secret cables to the State Department from around the world.

It was apparently the creation of journalist Joseph Alsop, who recalled warning a young Kennedy aide to be wary when Harriman appeared to be dozing or paying no attention. “I told him,” Alsop said, “that Averell Harriman was like an old crocodile, quiescent looking, even somnolent seeming until the dictates of common sense or the great interest of the United States were attacked. Whereupon the great jaws open and another fool finds that he is figuratively missing a leg.”

As much as his drive and impatience, Harriman was known for his personal conservatism when it came to money. Although his fortune was estimated in the $150-million range, he had a rich man’s habit of never carrying cash in his pocket. The story was told that he was once unable to get into a Paris museum exhibiting some of his own prized paintings because he did not have the 10 centimes required for admission.

Harriman was born on Nov. 15, 1891, in the shadow of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the son of Edward Henry Harriman and Mary Williamson Harriman. By the time of his birth, his father had already amassed a small fortune. But while he was still a small boy, his father rebuilt the Union Pacific Railroad from bankruptcy, gained control of the Southern Pacific system and waged a titanic battle with James J. Hill and J. P. Morgan for control of the Northern Pacific.

Expedition to Alaska

The young Harriman traveled the country in his father’s private railroad car and joined the family on several trips abroad. In 1899, E. H. Harriman’s vacation trip to Alaska was turned into a major scientific expedition. The family chartered a steamer and invited two dozen scientists and naturalists to join their summer-long cruise.

In the course of the trip, they steamed across the Bering Strait for a brief visit to Siberia, marking Harriman’s first visit to Russian territory. In the years that followed, the scientists who accompanied them produced 13 volumes of studies of Alaska’s natural resources.

Six years after the Alaskan trip, Harriman was in Tokyo with his family when the treaty of Portsmouth ended the Russo-Japanese War, and he recalled seeing rioting in the streets in protest against the treaty.

When E. H. Harriman died in 1909, he left behind not only a $70-million fortune--huge for those days-- but a dream of a transportation system that would reach around the world.

His son was named a director of the Union Pacific while he was still a student at Yale, and upon his graduation entered an internship to prepare himself to take charge of the family’s railroad interests. Still in his mid-20s, Harriman was the Union Pacific’s vice president for purchasing.

With the approach of World War I, he left the railroad and entered the ship construction business in the Delaware Valley, pioneering in the construction of prefabricated ships, a technique permitting maximum use of its shipyards in the wartime emergency.

Varied Business Interests

After the war, he became one of the country’s largest steamship operators, entered international banking and promoted the development of commercial aviation.

In the midst of the Great Depression, he and his brother, E. Roland Harriman, merged their banking interests with Brown Bros. & Co. to form Brown Bros. Harriman & Co., one of the country’s leading private banking institutions. Its younger partners included not only the Harriman brothers but Prescott Bush, later a Republican U.S. senator from Connecticut and father of Vice President George Bush, and Robert A. Lovett, who was later undersecretary of state and secretary of defense during the Truman Administration.

Harriman was one of the first American bankers to become heavily involved in business in Germany at the end of World War I. And, as he directed his manganese concession in the Soviet Union, he financed coal and zinc mining operations in Poland and Silesia.

In 1932, he was elected chairman of the Union Pacific, taking over the office his father had held more than 20 years earlier, guiding the railroad through the Depression years. He led the introduction of lightweight, streamlined trains, the first of which he brought to Washington and enticed Roosevelt to visit.

In a further effort to stimulate passenger traffic, he dispatched an Austrian count to find the perfect location for a ski resort, and in 1936 built the $3-million Sun Valley resort in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. The famed spa not only brought winter traffic to the Union Pacific railroad but became a gathering place for Hollywood stars who aided a massive public relations campaign that popularized downhill skiing in the United States.

Idle Playboy Image

Though a highly successful business venture, Sun Valley contributed to the image of Harriman as an idle playboy, a picture evolved during the 1920s when he was one of the country’s top polo players and owner of a string of thoroughbreds bearing the colors of his Arden Farm Stables in major stakes races.

In 1928, he was a member of the United States international team that defeated Argentina for the Cup of the Americas--in effect the world championship--scoring the first game’s winning goal on a play described by sportswriter Grantland Rice as one of the great plays in the history of American polo.

The playboy image was spread by his constant identification as the wealthy son of a railroad baron, gossip columns about romantic involvements and his 1929 divorce from Kitty Lanier Lawrence, his first wife, and subsequent remarriage to Marie Norton Whitney, the former wife of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney.

Harriman’s second career in government and political life was launched under the influence of his eldest sister, Mary Rumsey, a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, fervent New Dealer and founder of the Junior League.

It was also encouraged by Roosevelt’s intimate friend and adviser Harry Hopkins and Herbert Bayard Swope, the influential editor of the old New York World, who was a Long Island neighbor and fierce competitor on the croquet lawns.

Hard-Driven Public Servant

Once he turned to a public service career, Harriman had little interest in reliving his years as one of the country’s best-known capitalists. He became known as one of the hardest-driven people in public life, a man who aroused aides from slumber in the early morning and drove himself late into the night.

“He could be extremely tough,” said Philip C. Habib, a member of Harriman’s delegation to the 1968 Paris peace talks. “He would work a full day even when he was old. Then the first thing in the morning, he would awaken around 6:30 or 7, and there he was on the phone. I usually got to the office earlier, and I knew as soon as the phone rang that he’d gotten up and wanted to know what was going on.”

By Harriman’s standards the pace at the Paris peace talks was relaxed.

In 1965, when Lyndon Johnson called a Christmas bombing halt in Vietnam, Harriman was one of several officials sent on the road in an effort to use the pause as an incentive for the North Vietnamese to begin peace talks. Although he was 74, Harriman made calls in 12 foreign capitals in 11 days, and on 11 of his stops he found the chief of state to be an old acquaintance.

On one day, he had his breakfast in New Delhi, lunch in Rawalpindi, afternoon tea in Tehran and dinner in Rome.

The stop in Tehran, he said, was not really necessary, but he paused long for tea with the Shah so his old friend would not be offended at his being in the area and not stopping to say hello.

Second Wife Dies

Harriman’s second wife, Marie, died less than three years after he returned from the Paris peace talks and the Republicans returned to the White House.

Then, in 1971, he married Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward, Winston Churchill’s former daughter-in-law, whom he met first in 1941 when he went to London to expedite the flow of emergency assistance to Britain. She survives.

Other survivors are two daughters, Mrs. Shirley Fisk and Mrs. Stanley Mortimer of New York; six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.