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Digital Archive International History Declassified

Biographies

William Averell Harriman

William Averell Harriman was appointed as Secretary of Commerce in 1946, and worked on the Marshall Plan from 1949-1950.

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Biography

b. November 15, 1891 - d. July 26, 1986

William Averell Harriman came from an affluent background as an heir to the Union Pacific Railroad fortune. He was appointed as Secretary of Commerce in 1946, and worked on the Marshall Plan from 1949-1950. He then served as Truman’s national security adviser during the Korean War.

Chairman of the Board of Union Pacific Railroad, 1932; Ambassador to United Kingdom, 1946; Secretary of Commerce, 1948-1952; National Security Advisor, 1950-1953; Governor, New York, 1954-1958

Presidential advisor William Averell Harriman was born in New York City, and was heir to his father’s Union Pacific Railroad fortune. By 1932, he was chairman of the board of Union Pacific, as well as being involved in banking, shipbuilding and international finance ventures.

He and Armand Hammer were among the first Americans to seek business concessions from the government of the USSR. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Harriman to Moscow, first as a minister and, later, as an ambassador.

Harriman served briefly as US Ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1946, and was appointed Secretary of Commerce under President Truman. He worked on the Marshall Plan in 1949 and 1950, and then served as President Truman’s National Security Adviser during the Korean War.

Elected governor of New York in 1954, he lost a re-election bid in 1958 to Nelson Rockefeller. After two unsuccessful tries for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1952 and 1956, he served in various posts in the Kennedy Administration’s State Department.

In 1963, Harriman was an important figure in negotiating the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the US and the USSR. President Johnson appointed him ambassador-at-large for Southeast Asian affairs in 1965. In this capacity, Harriman travelled around the world to solicit support for US policies in Vietnam and to investigate the possibilities of a negotiated peace.

In 1968, he served as chief US negotiator when preliminary peace talks opened in Paris between the US and North Vietnam. Henry Cabot Lodge took over negotiations after Nixon was elected President.

Harriman criticized the manner in which Nixon handled both the war and the peace talks, and lost his position in the administration. He returned to foreign affairs in 1978 when he was appointed the senior member of the US Delegation to the United Nations General Assembly’s Special Session on Disarmament.

William Averell Harriman passed away in 1986.