Childhood & Early Life
William Averell Harriman was born on November 15, 1891, in New York City, US, to Edward Henry Harriman and Mary Williamson Averell. He was the fifth of the six children of his parents. His father was a railroad magnate, and his mother was a noted philanthropist. His eldest sister, Mary Harriman Rumsey, was the founder of ‘The Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements,’ while his youngest brother, Edward Roland Noel "Bunny" Harriman, was a financier and philanthropist.
He got introduced to Russia for the first time as a child when he and his family accompanied his father to the ‘Harriman Alaska Expedition’ arranged by the latter. The expedition included an elite interdisciplinary team consisting of imminent personalities such as Edward Curtis, C Hart Merriam, John Burroughs, and John Muir.
Harriman studied at the ‘Groton School’ in Massachusetts and then attended ‘Yale University.’ While at ‘Yale,’ he became part of the undergraduate senior secret student society called ‘Skull and Bones.’ Following his graduation in 1913, Harriman inherited a large fortune and became the youngest crew coach at ‘Yale.’
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Harriman served as the vice president of ‘Union Pacific Railroad Co.’ from 1915 to 1917 and served as its chairman from 1932 to 1946. From 1915 to 1946, he served as the director of ‘Illinois Central Railroad.’ He chaired its executive committee from 1931 to 1942. He established the ‘Merchant Shipbuilding Corporation’ in 1917, to develop merchant ships for the ‘Allies’ during the First World War and served as its chairman from 1917 to 1925.
Meanwhile, in 1922, he set up ‘W.A. Harriman & Co.’ It was a banking business set up with his father’s money. It became ‘Harriman Brothers & Company’ after his brother joined the company in 1927. The company merged with ‘Brown Bros. & Co.’ in 1931 to form ‘Brown Brothers Harriman & Co,’ which is presently the oldest and one of the largest private banks in the US.
In 1924, after American financier August Belmont Jr. died, most of his thoroughbred breeding stock was purchased by Harriman, Joseph E Widener, and George Walker. In 1927, Chance Play, one of the horses of Harriman, won the 2-mile ‘Jockey Club Gold Cup.’
He and Vincent Astor founded the weekly journal ‘Today’ in 1932, which later merged with the American weekly news magazine ‘Newsweek’ in 1937. He also founded the ‘Sun Valley Ski Resort’ in Idaho in 1936. Apart from the ‘Illinois Central Railroad,’ other associated properties of Harriman included the ‘Pacific Mail Steamship Co.,’ the ‘Union Banking Corporation,’ ‘United American Lines,’ the ‘American Hawaiian Steamship Co.’ and the ‘Southern Pacific Railroad’ (including the ‘Central Pacific Railroad’).
In 1937 and 1939, he served as the chairman of the ‘Business Advisory Council’ (presently called ‘The Business Council’) for the US ‘Department of Commerce.’
Harriman’s banking business served as the primary link between German businessman Fritz Thyssen (and other German companies) and the ‘Wall Street.’ Thyssen aided the ‘Nazi’ party financially till 1938. After Hitler declared war against the US, the American government, following the ‘Trading with the Enemy Act,’ ordered the seizure of German interests on October 20, 1942. This led to the seizure of some of Harriman's business interests, too.
Political & Diplomatic Career
Harriman was a close friend of Hall Roosevelt, the youngest brother of First Lady of the US, Eleanor Roosevelt. Harriman was motivated by his eldest sister, Mary Harriman Rumsey, to give up his finance job and join hands with her and the Roosevelts in furthering the objectives of the ‘New Deal.’ Harriman started his political journey after joining the newly formed prime ‘New Deal’ agency, ‘National Recovery Administration’ (NRA), established by the then US president, Franklin D Roosevelt. Harriman served as the administrator and special assistant in the ‘NRA’ during 1934–1935.
In spring 1941, he became a special envoy of Franklin D Roosevelt to Europe. He helped in coordinating the ‘Lend-Lease’ program and was with Franklin D Roosevelt when the latter had a meeting with Winston Churchill at Placentia Bay in August that year. The outcome was the ‘Atlantic Charter.’
He was made the US ambassador to the Soviet Union under the Franklin D Roosevelt administration. He assumed office on October 23, 1943, and served till January 24, 1946, while Harry S Truman took over as the 33rd president of the US on April 12, 1945. Harriman attended important Second World War conferences in this role. He succeeded in winning America’s demand for a "Big Four" power to dominate the post-war world, instead of the "Big Three." The “Big Four” was supposed to include China, along with the US, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. A ‘Four Power’ declaration was signed on October 30, 1943.
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He served as the US ambassador to the UK under the Truman administration from April 30, 1946, to October 1 that year, before he was made the 11th US secretary of commerce. He held the post from October 7, 1946, to April 22, 1948. He was in charge of the ‘Marshall Plan’ in 1948.
He was made the director of the ‘Mutual Security Agency,’ a position established during the Truman administration. Harriman served in this position from October 31, 1951, to January 20, 1953.
He was elected as the 48th governor of New York during the 1954 New York state election. He assumed office on January 1, 1955, and served for a term, till December 31, 1958. He was defeated by ‘Republican’ Nelson Rockefeller, during the 1958 New York state election. Meanwhile, he contested for the presidential nomination in the 1952 and the 1956 ‘Democratic National Conventions.’ However, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson emerged as the ‘Democratic’ presidential nominee both the times.
From January to November 1961, he remained the ambassador-at-large in the John F Kennedy administration, before he was inducted as the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs on December 4 that year. He served the post till April 4, 1963. His contributions in such capacity included aiding in negotiating the ‘Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty’ in 1963.
From April 4, 1963, to March 17, 1965, he served as the under secretary of state for political affairs and thus worked under the administrations of both Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson. Thereafter, Harriman was again made the ambassador-at-large, a position he held till the end of the Johnson administration. During 1968–1969, he led the US delegation that had preliminary peace talks with North Vietnam in Paris.
He was conferred with the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom,’ with ‘Distinction,’ in 1969; the ‘Sylvanus Thayer Award’ in 1975; and the ‘Freedom Medal’ in 1983.
In 1978, he was included as a senior member of the ‘US Delegation’ at the ‘Special Session on Disarmament’ of the ‘United Nations General Assembly.’
He held the membership of the ‘Psi Upsilon Fraternity,’ the ‘Knights of Pythias,’ the ‘Jupiter Island Club,’ the ‘Council on Foreign Relations,’ the ‘Club of Rome,’ and the ‘American Academy of Diplomacy Charter.’
Family & Personal Life
Harriman was married to Kitty Lanier Lawrence, great-granddaughter of James Lanier and granddaughter of Charles D Lanier, from 1915 to 1929. They had two daughters, Mary Averell Harriman and Kathleen Lanier Harriman.
He married Marie Norton Whitney in 1930. Following Marie’s death on September 26, 1970, Harriman married Pamela Beryl Digby Churchill Hayward in 1971. Pamela was the former wife of Randolph Churchill, son of Sir Winston Churchill, and the widow of Hollywood and ‘Broadway’ agent and theater producer Leland Hayward.
Harriman passed away on July 26, 1986, in Yorktown Heights, New York, and was interred at the ‘Arden Farm Graveyard’ in Arden, New York.