Harriman and Acheson: Fighting the Crimson and the Reds

Pictured at the White House in 1951, left to right: Secretary of State, Dean Acheson; W. Averell Harriman, Special Assistant to the President; President Harry Truman; Secretary of Defense, George C. Marshall.

5 February 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on the successes and failures of two rowing friends.

Recently, William O’Chee told the interesting story of the friendship of two men who each served as captain of the boat club of Brasenose College, Oxford, in the 1930s: Rupert Raw and John Gorton. In 1968, Raw, then at the Bank of England, persuaded Gorton, then the Australian Prime Minister, not to reduce his country’s reserves of sterling as this would push up interest rates in Britain. William concluded:

Raw appealed to Gorton on the basis of their strong friendship in the Boat Club, an appeal which not only succeeded, but which did much to maintain the ties of unity between the two nations.

Obviously, this is not the only time that former rowing friends have had their careers cross in later life. However, the story of Raw and Gorton is a particularly elevated example and it reminded me of another tale of two college oarsmen who went onto great and powerful things and who eventually found themselves pulling together, not oars, but the levers of power.

In 2015, I wrote a two-part post on the story of an entrepreneur, politician and diplomat who is now little remembered but who, according to the title of my article, was “The Man Who Spanned the 20th Century: From Jim Ten Eyck to Ronald Reagan (via Guy Nickalls and Joseph Stalin)”.

The remarkable man in question was (William) Averell Harriman (1891 – 1986), a son of the self-made millionaire and robber baron, EH Harriman. Harriman Junior was undistinguished academically at his prep school, Groton, and at Yale. However, he did excel at sport – including rowing and sculling. In 1908, his father had hired James A Ten Eyck, the best sculling coach that he could buy, to tutor his two sons on the private lake of his 20,000-acre estate at Arden, N.Y.

In his first two years at Yale, Harriman rowed and sculled but, at 160 pounds, he was too light to make the best crews. However, in his third year (1912), the precocious student applied for – and got – the job of chief coach. Yale was desperate to find a solution to its recent poor performance on the water and had decided to abandon professional coaching and to use a ‘gentleman graduate coach’ in the British manner. Harriman immediately left for Oxford to learn the fashionable ‘English Style’ of rowing directly from OUBC.

Left: Harriman at Groton School, fifth from the left. Right: Harriman at Yale in 1913, dubbed ‘the millionaire coach’ by the press.

The full story of Harriman’s two-year coaching career at Yale is covered in the second part of my 2015 post. Suffice to say here that, after returning from Britain (having narrowly missed booking a cabin on the Titanic), Harriman formed his coaching team and appointed the Yale Freshman Crew’s ‘7’ man to train the new men in the English Style. This ‘frosh’ coach was another Groton alumnus, one Dean Acheson (1893 – 1971). Forty years later, the two would find themselves working together again – but with the difference that failure in the 1910s meant defeat at the Harvard – Yale Race, failure in the 1950s meant nuclear Armageddon.

After leaving Yale, Harriman made fortunes in shipping, railroads and banking and got a mining deal with the new Soviet State by dealing directly with Trotsky. Until 1934, Harriman was a businessman, not a direct political player. However, he perceived that with the coming of the ‘New Deal’, power was shifting from Wall Street to Washington and the ‘reformed Republican’ attached himself to Roosevelt and the Democrats. The full story of W. Averell Harriman’s business, political and diplomatic career is in the first part of “The Man Who Spanned the 20th Century” but here I will jump to 1945. To quote myself:

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’. 

The 1912 Yale Freshman Crew. Dean Acheson is in the front row, second from the right.

Truman had few ideas on foreign policy and allowed the six a very free rein. They developed the Truman Doctrine to contain Soviet geopolitical expansion; the Marshall Plan to aid war ravaged Europe; and NATO, the European and North American defence pact against the Eastern bloc.

It has been claimed that the six were ‘the original best and brightest, leaders whose outsized personalities and actions brought order to postwar chaos’. Today, freewheeling patricians probably have no place in the modern world, but does what has replaced them inspire?

Arguably, Harriman and in particular Acheson were the most influential members of the six wise men. Harriman had access to anyone who mattered in the East or the West, while Secretary of State Acheson was said to be more responsible for the Truman Doctrine than Truman and for the Marshall Plan than Marshall. Harriman and Acheson failed to defeat Harvard in their youth, but they did succeed in avoiding war with the Soviets in their old age. Even Yale should be grateful.

Years later, following a disagreement with Acheson over Vietnam, Harriman is alleged to have said to an aide: ‘To you he’s the great Secretary of State. But to me, he’s the freshman I taught to row at Yale’.

4 comments

  1. “After leaving Yale, Harriman made fortunes in shipping, railroads and banking and got a mining deal with the new Soviet State by dealing directly with Trotsky”.

    I should have added that a contemporary politician claims that he knows both “The Art of the Deal” and how to deal with the Russians. In his case it is fantasy but in Harriman’s case it was real.

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