The Man Who Spanned the 20th Century: From Jim Ten Eyck to Ronald Reagan (via Guy Nickalls and Joseph Stalin) – Part 1

Yale Varsity Eight, 1913. Picture: Library of Congress.

Tim Koch writes:

The head coach that Yale appointed in December 1912 seemed an odd choice to many people. He was a Junior (3rd Year) who had only rowed for the University as a Freshman (1st Year) and he was the socialite son of one of the richest men in the United States. It was a bold move made largely out of desperation. Yale had not won the annual regatta against Harvard, the oldest intercollegiate contest in the United States, since 1907. Bob Cook, who coached Yale from 1872 to 1899, supported the appointment, saying that the young man in question was ‘easily the most promising crew coach in America….. I hope that he can give his life to it.’ As things turned out, the new coach did not make rowing his lifetime’s commitment. However, the two years that he did give to coaching were remarkable for their efforts. Further, after he left Yale and rowing behind, his life and work from the First World War to the final days of the Cold War had a great and lasting effect on the United States and on the world.

William Averell Harriman was born in New York in 1891, the son of E. H. Harriman. ‘E.H.’ had begun his working life as a $5 a week office boy and rose to become head of the Union Pacific Railroad with a fortune of $70 million (in the days when $70 million was worth something). It is easy for the children of fabulously wealthy men to lead lives of unproductive (and often self-destructive) leisure but this was not to be the case. As W. A. Harriman’s New York Times obituary pointed out:

His strong-minded father impressed on him the virtues of a healthy body, strong nerves, an ability to mix with others and public service. ”Great wealth is an obligation,” his father declared.

William Averell Harriman, 1913. Dubbed by the press as ‘the millionaire coach’. Picture: Library of Congress.

Harriman Junior was an undistinguished student academically at his prep school, Groton, Massachusetts, and later at Yale (he probably would not get into an Ivy League University today). However, he did excel at sport – including rowing and sculling. Typically, in the summer of 1908 his father hired the best sculling coach that he could find to tutor his two sons on the private lake of his 20,000-acre estate at Arden, N.Y. He chose James A. Ten Eyck whose Syracuse eight had just defeated a much fancied Cornell crew at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta. In September 1909, Harriman went up to Yale and made the Freshman Crew. He had ‘a polished style’ but his weight of only 160 pounds/72.5 kg went against him and in his Sophomore (second) year he took up double sculling. His coaching career spanned his Junior (third) and Senior (fourth) years and I will return to this after a brief summary – as far as that is possible – of the remarkable life that W. Averell Harriman led after Yale.

Harriman at Groton School, fifth from the left.

While still at Yale, Harriman joined the Board of the Union Pacific Railway, having gained some practical experience of the business by working as a track repair man in his holidays. In 1917, keen to show that he was not just ‘the boss’s son’, he left Union Pacific and bought a rundown shipyard. In less than ten years he was the most powerful man in American shipping. Having thus proved ‘that a man can rise from greatness’, in 1926, he sold his ships and returned to Union Pacific as Chairman. In 1920, he had also established the private bank of Harriman Brothers and undertook as series of innovative international investments including making a mining deal with Leon Trotsky and the new Soviet Russian State. Though not all of his business ventures were profitable, Harriman’s successes were notable – as when he made huge profits for Union Pacific during the Great Depression when many other railroads went bankrupt.

Until 1934 Harriman was a businessman, not a direct political player. However, he perceived that with the coming of ‘The New Deal’ (a series of interventionist government programmes made in response to the Great Depression), power was shifting from Wall Street to Washington. Democrat President Roosevelt (‘FDR’) made the ‘reformed Republican’ chief of the National Recovery Administration, an agency established to set prices and establish ‘fair practice’. In 1941, while America was still technically neutral, FDR put him in charge of Lend-Lease Aid to Britain. His brief was ‘to keep the British Isles afloat’ by supplying food and materials from the U.S. and this he did using all his considerable skill. The UK, standing alone against the Nazis, had three weeks supply of food left and desperately needed a friend like Harriman. Fêted by his hosts, he enjoyed an intimate relationship with Churchill and his Government (though not as intimate as the one he enjoyed with Winston’s young and newly married daughter-in-law, the ‘colourful’ Pamela Churchill).

Harriman (second from right) meeting the first American food ship to arrive under lend-lease to Britain. While this is clearly a posed publicity shot, the sending of fresh eggs across the Atlantic seems a little eccentric.

During the war Harriman’s diplomatic skills became increasingly recognised and he was a key participant at all of the major wartime summit meetings. His role was crucial as he was able to interpret Stalin to both Roosevelt and Churchill and he also smoothed relations between the latter two leaders.

Yalta, 1945. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin seated, Harriman standing, back right.

With previous experience of dealing with the Soviet Union, Harriman was an obvious choice as U.S. Ambassador to the USSR from 1943 to 1946. He shocked many with his bluntness towards Stalin but this may have produced some sort of respect from the Soviet leader who made him a gift of a white stallion. Never an ideologue with the Soviets, he found Stalin ‘ruthless and brutal….. but basically dependable’ and also ‘better informed than Roosevelt and more realistic than Churchill’. He claimed that his most notable achievement as Ambassador was rejecting the USSR’s demand for a Soviet occupation zone in Japan, typically something he did without consulting Washington.

1942: Churchill, Stalin, Harriman. Stalin always won the staring contests.

After the War Harriman was briefly Ambassador to Britain but was soon appointed President Truman’s Secretary of Commerce. He was concerned that, with the arrival of peace, most Americans only wanted ‘to drink Coke and go to the movies’. He felt that the United States should take an interventionist role in ‘defending freedom’ around the world. Motivated by noblesse oblige, Harriman and other patricians paid little heed to the instinctively isolationist American public opinion. He and fellow Yale Crew alumnus Dean Acheson were the leading members of the group of six friends who later became known as ‘The Wise Men’. Truman had few ideas on foreign policy and allowed the six to develop the policy of ‘containment’ in dealing with the Communist bloc. To this end Harriman was one of the founders of NATO, the collective defence agreement, and he became an architect of the Marshall Plan, the initiative to aid the rebuilding of Europe in a bid to stop the spread of Communism.

1951: The Freshman Coach, the Head Coach and the Commander-in-Chief – Acheson, Harriman and Truman. Picture: pastdaily.com

In post-war American domestic politics Harriman, standing as ‘an uncompromising New Deal-Fair Deal candidate’, was an unsuccessful in obtaining the Democratic nomination for President in 1952 and in 1956. His only elected office was as Governor of New York State between 1954 and 1958. Despite (or perhaps because of) his liberal reforms in those four years (foreshadowing Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society) he was defeated after one term by one of the few men richer than he was – Nelson Rockefeller.

In 1960, President-elect Kennedy (‘JFK’) gave Harriman a very free hand and appointed him ‘ambassador-at-large’, to operate ‘with the full confidence of the president and an intimate knowledge of all aspects of United States policy’. He effectively served in this role not only for JFK but also for his successor as President, Lyndon Johnson. In 1963, he negotiated the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets that put an end to the superpowers’ testing of atomic weapons in the atmosphere. He spent most of the decade focused on Vietnam and for a time he supported the war in South East Asia. In 1968, he became the chief U.S. negotiator at the Paris peace talks, but after the election of Republican President Richard Nixon Harriman was, to his frustration, replaced.

1960: Harriman with President Kennedy. The 71-year-old was initially sidelined at the youthful Kennedy White House, but the new President soon found that there was no replacement for him. Edward Kennedy later said: ‘when my brother Jack first became President, he announced that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans. Then he turned around and realized that Averell Harriman still had it’.

1963: Harriman with Khruschev at the Test Ban Treaty talks.

1964: Harriman with President Johnson. Picture: businessinsider.com

In the 1970s, Harriman became a leading spokesman for detente as well as assuming the role of the Grand Old Man of the Democratic Party. In 1976, President Carter recruited him to rally public support for the Administration’s ultimately successful battle to secure ratification of the Panama Canal treaties. His final diplomatic mission was in 1982 during the Reagan Administration when, at the age of 92, he went to Moscow to meet with Soviet Leader Andropov. Possibly the 71-year-old Reagan like having a man around who was actually older than himself, even if it was someone who was, in the words of Presidential chronicler T.H. White, ‘the last tall timber of the New Deal’.

Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

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