Averell Harriman Reflects on Russia

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Averell Harriman (left) with Eleanor Roosevelt and an unidentified man in New York City, 1960.

"Peace with Russia depends on us," the former ambassador and governor declares in this talk on American-Soviet relations. Speaking at a 1959 Books and Authors Luncheon to promote his book Peace with Russia, Averell Harriman reflects on his recent visit to Russia and his meetings with Khrushchev.He attempts to explain the difference between the "new" Russia of Khrushchev and that of Stalin. While both leaders were committed to world revolution, Stalin relied on the failures of capitalism to stoke the flames of revolt, whereas Khrushchev now feels the visible successes of the Soviet economy will attract like-minded leaders to emulate the communist system. Stalin felt he was the equal of Lenin, a "creator of the religion." Khrushchev, by contrast, is "a disciple," well-versed in Marxist-Leninist ideology but not possessed by the same messianic fervor. Instead of the Terror, there is party discipline.

Harriman disagrees with the then-fashionable Powder Keg Myth, that the Soviet Union is so rotten and volatile that a single spark will lead to its collapse. On the contrary, this patrician millionaire, businessman, veteran diplomat, and politician, seems to have a very clear-eyed grudging respect for our adversary. He admits there are lots of "gripes," particularly about housing, but admits that people are generally accepting of the regime. Because such a tight grip is maintained on education there is no radical student class. Though the people are "brainwashed" by incessant propaganda, it is up to the United States to deal with the USSR as an equal, not feed the frenzy of anti-communism by name-calling and needlessly aggressive acts. Throughout this speech, delivered in Harriman's much mocked hesitating monotone, one feels he is not talking down to the audience but genuinely attempting to make his points. It's an interesting counterpoint to the Red Scare hysteria which dominated so many headlines of the day. 

Averell Harriman (1891-1986) had a career in public service that appears almost unimaginable today. Heir to enormous wealth (his father was a railroad baron), Harriman was an indifferent student noted mostly for his polo prowess when he was swept up in the idealism of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. He worked his way through a series of increasingly high-level appointments in the Roosevelt administration, eventually becoming this country's wartime ambassador to the Soviet Union. An important figure in the Truman administration as well, he is credited (or charged) with encouraging the Truman Doctrine of containment which contributed to the Cold War. When Eisenhower came into office, Harriman surprised many by showing political ambitions. In 1954, running as "Honest Ave,"  he was elected Governor of New York. His presidential ambitions were thwarted in both 1952 and 1956 when he lost the Democratic party nomination to Adlai Stevenson. He then returned to positions of diplomatic power under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, focusing on peace missions to Southeast Asia.

The New York Times, in its obituary, notes that:

Patience, persistence, resourcefulness, a grasp of detail and a shrewd sense of how to get things done were among the qualities that helped Mr. Harriman win his high government appointments in the administrations of four Democratic Presidents - Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson and Kennedy - and to get his work done, decade after decade, with a striking degree of success. He also benefited from much hard work and, notably as Ambassador in Moscow, from an independent-mindedness that was nourished by the awareness that he did not need his salary. As he put it: ''Fortunately, I'm not dependent on my job to eat and, therefore, have a certain independence. That is a great advantage.'' And there was his sheer gusto: Neither age nor shifting political winds could wither the enthusiasm of William Averell Harriman for affairs of state. His lanky, somewhat stooped figure was present in the highest councils of the nation and the world for four decades, so long that to many Americans he was the country's superdiplomat.

As noted above, Harriman does not sound like a politician, neither hectoring nor pleading with his listeners. He does not weasel or waffle like a career State Department employee, either. There is something endearingly uncharismatic about his public persona. Despite his fantastic wealth and fascination with power, which enabled him to "bond" with such disparate types as Churchill and Stalin, he seems to have inspired an almost universal loyalty in those who served under him. Thomas W. Wilson, the Information Officer during Harriman's stint implementing the Marshall Plan, recalls:

I did know Harriman very well and worked with him several times. I don’t know anybody who worked with him, if they could work with him, who didn’t love him. He was a man who was absolutely totally committed to what he was doing. He worked like a dog. He expected you to also, but he didn’t expect you to do anything he didn’t do himself. He was really a wonderfully effective person. Everybody felt they had to respect him.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 150521
Municipal archives id: LT8896