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Averell Harriman, The Old Crocodile of Diplomacy

W. Averell Harriman was one of the more prominent public figures of the 20th Century, holding major positions in diplomacy, government, and business. Harriman served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1943, and later to Ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1946.  Less than a year into his position of Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Harriman was selected as the Secretary of Commerce by President Harry S. Truman. He was then put in charge of the Marshall Plan to rebuild infrastructure and support the economies of Europe after the destruction of World War II.

His political ambitions came to the fore when he was elected Governor of New York in 1954. He was a candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1952 and again in 1956 but lost out to Adlai Stevenson both times. Although unsuccessful, Harriman became a respected advisor in the Democratic Party and went on to hold numerous positions in the government. In the Kennedy Administration, Harriman served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs and in 1963, he became the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. In these positions, he was a key negotiator in the Vietnam peace talks.

As the following interviews demonstrate, Harriman was at once a brilliant, indefatigable diplomat but one who often could be imposing with those he worked with. A few even note how Harriman had the somewhat annoying habit of removing his hearing aid when he no longer bothered to pay attention to what others were saying. Others mention the pride they felt when they watched him in action, and underscore his honed political instincts and his commitment to service.

In Harriman’s own oral history, at the end of the article, he recalls his whirlwind trip to brief countries on LBJ’s initiative on the Vietnam War. John Melby talks about his impressions with Harriman in Moscow during World War II. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in June 1989. Thomas W. Wilson and Ambassador Ulric Haynes, Jr. discuss Harriman’s roles managing the Marshall Plan and as Governor of New York during interviews with Charles Stuart Kennedy in October 1996 and April 2011, respectively.  John Howard Morrow discusses Harriman’s visit to Guinea and a meeting with President Ahmed Sékou Touré in a May 1981 interview with Celestine Tutt.  Theodore J.C. Heavner, Edward C. Ingraham, Ambassador Henry L.T. Koren, Frank N. Burnet, and Albert Ashton Lakeland, Jr. were all interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy from June 1989 to May 1997.  Thomas L. Hughes, Frederic L. Chapin, and Walter Roberts provide anecdotes about Harriman’s various roles after working on Vietnam during interviews with Charles Stuart Kennedy, Horace G. Torbert, and Cliff Grace in July 1999, May 1989, and September 1990, respectively.

You can also read this short anecdote about Harriman’s meeting with Tito.

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“He thought he was going to deal with Stalin as he had with Churchill”

John Melby

Moscow, Acting Director for the Office of War Information, 1943-45

What was Harriman like, as a boss?

MELBY: Well, I thought he was pretty good. He had a few misconceptions to get over. When he arrived, he thought he was going to deal with Stalin as he had with Churchill. He was just going to spend weekends at Stalin’s dacha, wherever that would be. And it was going to be “Joe” and “Ave” and so on. And, as it turned out, Harriman didn’t even see Stalin for weeks. It took him a long time before he could present his credentials. Stalin was a busy man, and he wasn’t about to sit around and gossip with one of these upstart ambassadors. Averell never did have anything but correct, pleasant relations — but he got along with Stalin all right.

He used to have to see Stalin when it suited his purposes, which was usually after midnight. Of course, Stalin went to work at midnight. And then he worked all night, the rest of the night. Slept all day. It was a kind of an irregular life. But if the Russians wanted to live that way, that was their business. After all, it was their country. So, Harriman never got to know anybody. I mean, he knew Molotov, the Foreign Minister, but it was strictly on a very formal basis.

Q: How was he as a boss? Did he give you a difficult time? Was he a difficult person to work for?

MELBY: Not at all. He was very easy to work for. He liked the Foreign Service, appreciated it. He had great respect for language officers we had there, whom I was not one. He enjoyed [Deputy Chief of Mission George] Kennan and got along well. He was a man with a lot of peculiarities and strange mannerisms sometimes. He very seldom went to the chancery. He set up his office in his own bedroom. He had a huge bedroom in Spaso [House, the official U.S. Residence], and he worked there. He went down to the chancery only once a month or every other week. So he never had his office in the chancery, which was right on Red Square in those days.

“He was a man who was absolutely totally committed to what he was doing. He worked like a dog.”

Thomas W. Wilson

Information Officer for the Marshall Plan in Paris, 1942 to 1952

WILSON: 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. I’m not talking about the non-Americans with which we had to deal. I think quite apart from the fact that sure he was a very welcome man – he was an ambassador, and he was running in this case the Marshall Plan. He was running a program that the Europeans were absolutely dependent on. But I think he was, now that we begin to talk about it, very persuasive in private.

He was never a very good speaker. If you are talking about diplomacy, I’m talking about private diplomacy. He always knew what he was talking about. I think he was probably more responsible than any other individual in forcing the Europeans to take the Marshall Plan in a way that I think became ultimately its most important impact. That is to say, I don’t know if he’s responsible for this but we, the United States Government, refused to deal with the French and the Italians and the rest of them, nation by nation, which they all wanted. They thought they could get more from us I guess.

He insisted that it be a European plan, that they put together their requirements subject to our review and approval, but that they do it themselves; but that they not do what all of them tried to start doing which was to face their terrible economic problems on a national basis. All of them wanted to deal with their problems by cutting imports and exports. They wanted to nationalize their currencies, and in any event, I think he had more to do with it than anybody else, insisting on a daily, practical day-to-day basis that this was a European recovery program. They had to present their combined requirements. We would allocate against it. They would then have to re-divide it among themselves. They could not do it by nationalist priorities.

“JFK asked Harriman to tour Africa to give him advice on the formulation of American foreign policy”

Ulric Haynes Jr.

Ambassador to Algeria, 1977 to 1981

HAYNES: As it turned out, my first job was with the New York State Department of Commerce. I was working as an assistant to their legal counsel and I got that job — oddly enough for two reasons. I got it because Averell Harriman was the Governor of New York State at that time, and he was running for reelection. And he thought — and his people thought — it would be a good idea for him to appoint a young black attorney to his team in order to attract the black vote in New York State. That was one reason. The second reason was as a law student, I had worked as a freshman counselor on the undergraduate campus of Yale University. It was a way of getting my room and board paid. And one of my counselees was a young man named Peter Duchin, the bandleader Eddie Duchin’s son. And Peter Duchin was Averell Harriman’s godson….

So when Peter heard that Harriman was interested in my getting a job in his administration, Peter waded in and told his godfather, “Hey look, you got to hire this guy. He’s my friend.” And the rest is history….

Later on in about 1960, ’61 when I was working for the Ford Foundation in Nigeria, John F. Kennedy asked Averell Harriman to make a tour of the emerging nations of Africa to give him advice on the formulation of American foreign policy in Africa. Harriman got in touch with me in Nigeria and asked me to accompany him on his mission to Africa because I was again, fluent in French and familiar with Africa. And during that fascinating trip I was able to meet Léopold Senghor, Felix Houphouet-Boigny in the Ivory Coast, and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, as well as Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and the Abbé Fulbert Youlou in the Congo-Brazzaville….

[On] my trip with Harriman to the Congo with Lumumba, you will recall that the Americans, there has always been a suspicion — never proven, yet — that we were — our CIA was — involved with the demise of Patrice Lumumba (with Harriman, at left). And one of the reasons why we wanted Lumumba out of the way was that he was cozying up to the Soviet Union, realizing that, that this was a way of, of playing his cards in a way to get something from both the Soviet Union and the United States.

But it’s interesting, Lumumba was very, very conscious of the fact that the Americans were trying to subvert his government. He was very, very suspicious of the activities of the CIA in the Congo at the time. And I’ll never forget when Harriman went to his office to speak to him (he was prime minister at the time) about U.S. relations, he ushered us both (I was interpreting) into his bathroom.

He would not speak in his formal study because he was suspicious that it was being bugged. And the gist of his conversation was a complaint about the subversive activities of the American government.

Q: How did you find you were received in these places because black African Americans weren’t that plentiful in our Diplomatic Service or represented anywhere.

HAYNES: But I was received — generally received with surprise. And I’ll give you two anecdotes. When I went to the Congo with Averell Harriman just before Kennedy assumed office, I was driven around – I can’t remember how this happened — by a Congolese who was a junior executive in an American oil company in the Congo. In retrospect, I believe that he was one of the CIA contacts in the Congo.

And on one of our drives in the capital city, at that time called Leopoldville, we were at a checkpoint by Congolese soldiers. It was more than a little unnerving for me because one of the soldiers put a gun through the open window on the side where I was sitting. We were in a Volkswagen Beetle. And he said something to the Congolese who was driving me which I could not understand because they were speaking Lingala. And after a heated discussion, we were allowed to pass. And you know, after we passed, I asked my escort, “What was this all about?” He was a little embarrassed and he said, “Well, he, he wanted to know — the soldier wanted to know where I was going with that white man.” And it was a great awakening for me to come to the realization that, to most Africans, looking at African Americans, we are obviously people of mixed race. 

Q: Well, had you been keeping up your political ties?

HAYNES: Keeping up? I had many friends in the State Department, going back to my early days, and I had one benefactor who remembered me well, and that was W. Averell Harriman. He was no slouch when it came to pushing his Secretary of State or his President. He was very much the respected elder statesman. And he was the one who recommended me for the post of ambassador to Algeria.

I was proud to be on the scene that day to witness Harriman in action”

John Howard Morrow

Ambassador to Guinea, 1959 to 1961

MORROW:  Fortunately for the United States, the Presidential candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy, had arranged to send Governor Averell Harriman to Africa on a fact-finding mission in August 1960. Guinea officials did not conceal from me their pleasure at the fact that Harriman was including their country in his tour. Although the Governor came as a private citizen, he was greeted with the pomp and ceremony afforded official visitors. The Guinean Government wanted Harriman to occupy one of President [Ahmed Sekou] Touré’s guest homes, but he decided to stay at the Hotel de France. As already indicated, the official Residence, which we were occupying, had no facilities for visiting dignitaries.

At the Governor’s insistence, I was present at his meeting with the Guinean ministers as well as at his meetings with President Touré and his Cabinet. I made it a point, however, to see to it that Governor Harriman had the opportunity to speak privately with President Touré at the buffet dinner given in his honor at the Présidence. It was during this dinner, apparently, that Touré told his visitor that I was one of the most trusted and respected members of the diplomatic corps in Guinea.

The high point in the Harriman visit came during the meeting involving Touré, his Cabinet, Harriman and myself. We had assembled in the Cabinet Room, upstairs in the Présidence. The meeting started on a humorous note. The Governor had prefaced his remarks by telling the Guineans that he and I were good friends but we had one major difference in that we belonged to different political parties. Upon hearing these remarks, I half rose from my seat and with a perfectly straight face offered to leave the room so that the Governor would feel free to talk to Touré. President Touré and his Cabinet members, Governor Harriman and I joined the hearty laughter that met this gesture, which had been understood by all those present.

I was proud to be on the scene that day to witness Harriman in action. He was at all times direct and to the point and could be very blunt when the occasion warranted it. He made no apologies for those things for which America stood. He spoke the language easily understood and appreciated by Touré, who responded in kind, and also revealed what was on his mind. There was no room for misunderstanding during that meeting.

We caught a glimpse of Harriman as he might have been during his ambassadorship to the Soviet Union. All of us were pleased with the meeting of minds. I had the opportunity to talk with Governor Harriman for a few hours, at least four hours, during a combination breakfast-lunch at the Présidence the day before he left Guinea. We explored the problems confronting the United States not only in Guinea but also in Africa in general. I stressed my belief that America could make a real contribution to Africa in the areas of health, education and social welfare.

Before leaving the Présidence, Governor Harriman graciously presented me with his book, Peace with Russia, on the flyleaf of which he had written, “For John Morrow with admiration for the fine job you are doing and many thanks for your warm hospitality. Averell Harriman, August 1960.”

Q: The other question I wanted to ask had to do with our relations with Guinea after that visit. How did that visit affect future relations between the United States and Guinea?

MORROW: Well, the real impact of and significance of this meeting came actually after Kennedy became President. And a decision was made about the change of ambassador because of the change of party. And the fact that Kennedy had sent Governor Averell Harriman to visit not only Africa but specifically Guinea. And on the recommendations of Harriman — Harriman was there three days; he had very frank talks about the situation — Kennedy paid attention to the observations, I’m sure, made by Harriman, and he also paid attention to some of the reports which we had been sending back all along to Washington that had been ignored. 

Q: What kind of reports?

MORROW: Reports on the fact that some effort really should be made to take Guinea seriously and to set up a type of aid program that would be beneficial to them. You see, my emphasis was always on health and education and Harriman agreed with it. Not military, military suppliers or big stadia or the showy things, but something that really would affect the people…

But then fate came into the picture with [JFK’s] assassination and, of course, after that there was obviously a change. But there was a great hope, I’m sure, among the Guineans, as soon as Kennedy came into office, and then the fact that he had Touré make a visit in 1962 (read about their meeting at Disneyland), and it was in contrast that he was there on the spot and Touré had the chance to feel, ‘Oh I’m meeting a friend.’ It was a different situation altogether.

The tragedy is that Kennedy was removed from the scene … but, then, that affected not only the Guinean situation but affected the American situation. Very unique happening, however, to see a Senator and an African leader establish a type of rapport which was established from that meeting on. The kind of welcome we received in Guinea was carefully noted and reported by diplomats of the West and of the East, for everything that was done by the United States and by any one of the representatives was observed closely with the view of detecting possible implications for the future of U.S. and Guinean relations….

“If you didn’t get his attention in about the first ten seconds, you might as well forget it”

Theodore J. C. Heavner

Member of the State Department’s Vietnam Working Group, 1961 to 1963

Q: Could you talk a bit about your leaders in the Vietnam Working Group and what it was trying to do?

HEAVNER: It was already put together when I came on board in 1961… It was an interagency organization that was clearly led by State in a way that in retrospect seems kind of unusual…It was a very nice organization from my point of view. I thoroughly enjoyed all the people in it.…Harriman was Assistant Secretary then. I thought Averell Harriman was a very remarkable man. I remember him talking on the telephone, reading a draft, and interrogating me at the same time, which I thought was quite a feat.

I also learned very quickly if you didn’t get his attention in about the first ten seconds, you might as well forget it. He used to take out his hearing aid which was kind of a signal of “I’m not interested in what you are saying.” That was when Harriman was Assistant Secretary. He came in with Kennedy, as you may recall, and after a very distinguished career at much higher levels, accepted that Assistant Secretary job under Kennedy. I guess this was a real vote of confidence in Kennedy as well as something interesting for him to do….

I did have a fair amount of contact with both Hilsman and Harriman [on the Vietnam Working Group]. I remember one of the things that Harriman was very much concerned about, and rightly so as we have subsequently learned, was the use of defoliants. He thought that was a very bad idea. That destroying food crops was a form of warfare that would backfire on us. That it would be seen worldwide as an inhumane kind of weapon.

In any event, I ran into him again in 1975 when I was on Caribbean affairs and Carter had decided that all our ambassadors would be vetted and recommended by a panel of distinguished diplomats and other distinguished folks, one of whom was Averell Harriman. They were talking about each area subsequently and in due course the Caribbean came up. It was the custom that the country director, which was me in this case, was asked to join them for their consideration not of specific names but of the requirements of the chiefs of mission jobs there. Although I wasn’t asked for it, I assumed that they also wanted recommendations. Harriman was sitting down at the end of the table and I came in and sat down for my ten minutes and began to talk about the requirements for the job in the Bahamas.

About ten seconds after I began, sure enough, out came the hearing aid. I thought to myself that I had lost him again! 

“His factual knowledge of the area was just about nil but he had the most exquisitely honed political instincts”

Edward C. Ingraham

Indonesian Desk Officer, 1960 to 1965

Q: Averell Harriman was Assistant Secretary for East Asia at that time. How did he deal with you and what was his attitude towards Indonesia? 

INGRAHAM: It was interesting….By this time we could easily have broken relations and taken action against…not quite militarily, although military could have been on the horizon. Harriman fought against this.

He was a strange man. His factual knowledge of the area was just about nil. He learned a bit, but he wasn’t a great student. But he had the most exquisitely honed political instincts. You would go up to him and say, “This, this and this have happened. We think you should do this, this and this.” He would ask some very sharp questions and then say, “Okay go ahead and do it.”

You could ask him, “Well, why do you think we should?” And he would snap, “Never mind. Go ahead and do it.” The “never mind” was a way of saying, “I haven’t the faintest idea about the details of what you have proposed, but my instinct tells me to do it.” And it was a good instinct.

There was no one that Harriman would kowtow to.

“I was pretty much scared to death most of the time”

Henry L. T. Koren

State Department, Southeast Asian Affairs, 1961 to 1964

KOREN: … All of a sudden Averell Harriman called me and said, “We’re assigning you to Southeast Asian Affairs,” and I thought, “Oh, my God.”

Q: Why was that?

KOREN: He just wanted a man that he felt he could trust in Southeast Asian Affairs.

Q:  Harriman had this rather unusual appointment as assistant secretary for Asian Affairs when he was a man who was certainly eligible to have been–well, he aspired to be President, with a good reason, but also to be Secretary of State, and yet he accepted this position in Asian Affairs and it was not a sinecure at all. How would you describe Harriman as an operator, working under Harriman in Asian Affairs? 

KOREN: Well, to be quite frank, I was pretty much scared to death most of the time. I didn’t know Harriman. I had met him before, but it was purely social. His daughter was a friend of mine.

You probably heard that Harriman was considered the crocodile…That’s exactly the way it was. I used to go in and see him once in a while for various things, and I’d come back and I’d hold my arms up to my cheek and wonder where the blood was coming from.

Q: How did he treat you in these things?

KOREN: Roughly. If you didn’t measure up in his opinion and didn’t grasp the fundamental question quickly, he would tear you apart. He’d say, “What are you standing up there for that way? Good God, man.”

You know, he was very rough in language. He didn’t mean anything. He was very kindhearted personally, but he was a very tension-making individual to work for. To give you an example, two or three times he’d say, “Are you going to be in tomorrow?”

I’d say, “Sir, tomorrow’s Sunday.”

And he said, “Oh, yes, that’s right. I forget, you’re a Christer.”

But the first thing I would do in the morning was to get all the messages that had been piled up overnight and race through those just as fast as I could. I would get there well ahead of what I expected the Governor to get there, because he would call up all of a sudden and he would have seen a message and he would jump in the middle of the message and ask you, “What do you think so and so?”

Well, if you didn’t know just what the hell he was talking about, you’d stutter, and so that was something I think we all did. I did it because I had to reply to him. All the people who worked for me had to do it because I would ask them, and the old story.

Q: Yes, it moves down.

KOREN: All around the chain of command, it just moves down. It was exhilarating. You couldn’t work for Harriman without feeling there was something going on. There was not. Not tension, but excitement in the air, electricity, all the time. Anything that Harriman runs, he runs himself. 

“I kind of thought that Harriman had the right idea in what he was trying to do”

Frank N. Burnet

Staff Assistant to Governor Harriman in the Far East Bureau, 1961 to 1963

Q: What was Harriman’s operating style, from your vantage point within the Department and elsewhere?

BURNET: He’s not a man of words. I think he’s pretty much a man of action, in the sense of getting hold of the person who was vital to a particular problem or job that you had to do. Getting the right word to the right person at the right time. He’s very good at that. He, of course, is extremely well connected all over Washington. As part of the job, he made it very plain to me that I was going to be asked to do certain things. He didn’t say so in so many words, but when he wanted something done, it was to be done.

And if it meant sneaking a piece of paper outside of the normal chain in the State Department directly to the White House, he’d say, “Frank, I want you to get this over to so and so in the White House right away.” And he said, “Don’t mention this to anybody in S/S [the Secretariat Staff]”

The paper chain would go from the Assistant Secretary level on up to the Secretary in S/S, where it would be properly recorded and reproduced, and then sent in proper fashion, in their own sweet time, to the White House. Well, lots of times in a fast-breaking situation there wasn’t enough time for that, so he would ask me to take this over to the White House right away, and I’d do that.

But he was frequently on the telephone to the White House, or telephone to God-knows-where. He was quite a doer. Lots of meetings held in his office. We’d have people coming in almost every day from CIA, and certainly from AID [Agency for International Development]. In those days, Laos took up an inordinate amount of time. That was the hot spot and involved all of us quite a bit.

 “He was blaming the whole thing on me. But I must say that I took a certain pleasure in the event.”

Albert Ashton Lakeland, Jr.

Desk Officer at NEA Indian Affairs from 1963 to 1965

ASHTON:  I experienced the kind of amusing thing that happens to Foreign Service officers from time to time where the high and the mighty get their comeuppance when they step on the toes of a Foreign Service officer.

I was given the job of taking Harriman over to Parliament to meet Nehru. He was having these big discussions with Nehru. We got into the Ambassador’s limousine. Now in India they drive on the British side. I used to go to Parliament almost everyday and knew that when cars come in there they are going to open the door on the left hand side and there is little room to open a door on the right hand side. So I got around and sat in the right hand side going there.

Mr. Harriman took great umbrage about this. He asked me what I thought I was doing sitting in the place of honor. I tried to explain to him that when we arrive at Parliament you really want to be on the left hand side because of the way you enter.

He said, “Don’t argue with me young man. This is the flag seat. You get over there and I don’t want to hear another word about it.” I said, “Okay.” He was in a terrible mood about something and he just wouldn’t listen.

Well, we drive up in this narrow space and this Indian in his full guard uniform opens the door and I am sitting there. Nehru is holding out his hand and I step aside and Harriman is across the way sitting there stony faced. He didn’t know what to do. It would have been very difficult for him to slide across because of the big bump in the floor.

So he is sort of sitting there stony faced waiting for somebody to open the door. Finally somebody comes in and gets his door partly opened. He gets out and is standing there on the other side of the car looking very uncomfortable and flustered.

He comes around behind the car and I am standing aside there and he just shot me a dirty look. He never said a word about my being right or anything like that. He was blaming the whole thing on me. But I must say that I took a certain pleasure in the event.

“He also had ups and downs. His influence was episodic.”

Thomas L. Hughes

Assistant to the Under Secretary, 1961; Deputy Director of Intelligence & Research (INR), 1961 to 1963 

Q: What about the role of Averell Harriman at that time?

HUGHES:…Instead of the image others held of him as a grand old man, he thought of himself as eternally young. He was also a wild card, and he was always available. At first Jack Kennedy had doubts about Harriman’s loyalty, because Averell had been so disdainful of Joe Kennedy, his father. But you couldn’t have had a more devoted Kennedy supporter than Averell the morning after the election. I think Kennedy thought he would give him an impossible assignment like Laos to see what he could do with it.

Harriman was quite willing to humble himself to do this, but he was not called “the crocodile” for nothing. He would cut people off with his sharp, quick tongue. He was irascible, rather unpredictable, and not necessarily always coherent. He would snap at this and snap at that. He turned off his hearing aid when people got boring. Kennedy was amused at that. I got to know Averell quite well during the Kennedy-Johnson years, and our friendship continued for years afterwards until his death. Jean and I often saw the Harrimans socially, both with his first wife Marie and later with Pamela. Occasionally we were guests for dinner at their house in Georgetown, or on weekends at their estate in Middleburg.

In April 1963, Kennedy appointed the three of us to new positions at State — Harriman, [Roger] Hilsman, and Hughes — “the three H’s” Rusk called us, when swearing us in at the same ceremony on the Seventh Floor at State. On that occasion Harriman was elevated to an Under Secretary position, having just served as Assistant Secretary for East Asia. Hilsman succeeded him in East Asia, and I succeeded Hilsman in INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research]. By that time Laos was more or less behind us, and Vietnam was about to become a high priority problem.

Q: Wherever he sat, Harriman brought power with him.

HUGHES: Yes, power of a kind, but he also had ups and downs. His influence was episodic. After the Diem assassination controversy in late 1963 [in Vietnam], he played a lonely and lesser role. He chaired the Special Group (CI) on counter-insurgency, with mixed results. The significance of his assignments rose again in 1968 with the Vietnamese peace negotiations in Paris. Of course this is a man who thought throughout that he should have been President himself…. 

“He worked a full day and had extraordinary hours for a man who was 75.”

Frederic L. Chapin

Special Assistant to Averell Harriman from 1963 to 1965

Q: Averell Harriman still had very considerable political aspirations at that time…

CHAPIN: I don’t know that he had any aspirations to return but he certainly had important clout and he was responsible after Kennedy’s assassination for arranging for Robert Kennedy’s campaign and nomination as Senator from New York. I remember seeing all the fat cats from New York troop into Averell Harriman’s office and, naturally, that was one of the meetings that I did not take part in.

But it was a curious set-up. Just outside the Governor’s office, and it’s still that way today although there’s a curtain that is often drawn across it, is an office where the special assistant sits who controls all traffic to and from the Governor’s desk on official matters. And, there’s a solid glass wall all the way down so that you can see what’s going on and be beckoned to come into the office. Working for Harriman was a most unusual experience.

I had not been sufficiently briefed by Bill Sullivan as to what to expect. He worked a full day and had extraordinary hours for a man who was 75. I had to be there at 8:00 because he would be there before 9:00 and I had to get all his agenda items. He was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. He saw an amazing amount of foreign dignitaries and took part in a lot of high-level meetings so there were a lot of briefing papers to arrange and, of course, there was the overnight cable traffic.

I would go in as soon as the Governor arrived, and he would stand behind his desk and shuffle papers and look at these briefing memoranda and all the time he wanted me to brief him orally on the most important issues on his desk. He was apparently paying no attention whatsoever to what I was saying, shuffling these papers around, looking in his in-box, and I would go on spouting to this person who was apparently paying no attention to what I had to say, and then I would sit in meetings with him later in the day and my sentences would roll out. Incredible!

Q: He didn’t turn his hearing aid off at that time when you were talking to him.

CHAPIN: He didn’t turn it off if he wanted to hear what I had to say, but I have seen him in meetings not only turn his hearing aid off but take it out. It was an extraordinary performance.…

The most interesting case that I got involved in was a speech which G. Mennen Williams (read about Soapy Williams’ predilection for square-dancing) was going to make a speech at Harvard to national radio and T.V. on our policy towards South Africa. Governor Harriman was away on one of his speaking tours when Rudy Agree, who was the Special Assistant for Governor Williams, brought out to my house one evening about 8:30 or 9:00 the text of the speech that the Governor was proposing to make the next afternoon about 2:00 or 3:00 in Boston and I read through the first pages and scanned the rest.

Governor Williams proposed to use language about South Africa which we scarcely used toward the Japanese during World War II, and never used about the Germans. I said that I simply could not clear this for the Governor. I said he was going to be back the next morning and the first order of business I underlined certain passages and would discuss them with the Governor and I’m sorry that the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs would have to wait until Governor Harriman had had a chance to look at this personally. Well, in one of these stand-up sessions that we were having, Abe Chayes, the Legal Advisor came in. His name appeared at the bottom of the list as having cleared it, and Harriman said, “Have you cleared this?”

And Chayes said, “Yes.”

Harriman said to me, “Fred, you read him that sentence.” So I read him the sentence. “Did you approve that?”

Chayes looked very embarrassed. “Fred, read him that next sentence.” And this went on and then Joe Sisco came in. He was then Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and his name appeared as having cleared it.

Harriman said, “Joe, did you clear this?” Joe said, “Yes.”

“Read him the sentence.”

Well, at that point Chayes and Sisco and I adjourned to this glass-walled cubicle that I had outside the Governor’s office and Assistant Secretary G. Mennen Williams came up. Chayes and Sisco began reading this document for the first time. Somebody had cleared it in their offices and they started scratching out great sections and the next thing I knew, this whole party adjourned to the White House to McGeorge Bundy’s office where they cut out huge sections and, meanwhile, cancelled national and radio coverage for the Harvard speech. It was much emasculated…

I had been on that job as Special Assistant for two years and I said that Harriman had work habits that were intensive. He was there until 8:00 every night, five days a week and Saturday he’d come in maybe at 9:30 or so and would stay until 6:00.

In fact, I recall one Saturday afternoon he turned to me as I was sitting in his office and he said, “Fred, what are we going to do this afternoon?” And, I thought we had done quite a lot. And, Sundays I had to go down to the Department and read the telegrams, make a selection, and take them out to his house. I didn’t have the benefit of any State Department driver on Sundays and had to slog through the slush and whatnot of Georgetown.

I was terrified of having an accident and having all this highly classified material on me in transit to the Governor’s house and on return from the Governor’s house to the Department to lock it up securely. So that [on] Sundays I wouldn’t get back to lunch until about 3:00, so this was a 6-1/2 day-a-week job. I rarely saw the children before they went to bed.

“Where do you want me to go?” He said, “That’s for you to decide.””

Averell Harriman

On LBJ and Vietnam

Q: When did your close acquaintance with Lyndon Johnson begin?

HARRIMAN: I don’t know when it began. I think I first met him when he was Congressman during the Roosevelt Administration but I don’t recall. But of course, I knew him well when he was a Senator, when he was Majority Leader, and I had some talks with him during the ’50’s, during the period he was Majority Leader. I took a good deal of interest in the Democratic Party because I was a member of the Advisory Council to the National Committee….

We used to meet regularly and discuss matters of concern to the Democratic Party…The subjects which we discussed were not subjects that were necessarily before the Congress, since there were many issues we felt should be developed that were not before Congress as a platform for the Democratic Party in ’56 and again in ’60….We had some very blunt and heated talks–there were differences of opinion on a number of points which I felt were quite important at the time. I gave it a considerable amount of time, not only at the meetings, but in preparing for the meetings and going over positions on different subjects.

Q: Many of Mr. Johnson’s critics when he was President have made the point that he wasn’t interested in his earlier career in foreign affairs at all. While you served President Truman, either in the White House or as Mutual Security Administrator, did Mr. Johnson ever take any interest in the foreign affairs side? Did he ever come by and talk to you about it?

HARRIMAN:…He used to come to breakfast occasionally, I used to see him. I remember he reminded me of that. He had an extraordinarily good memory. He reminded me of some of the breakfasts we used to have when I had the house on Foxhall Road [in Washington, DC], some of the members of the Senate used to come…I always thought of him as a very loyal supporter of President Truman in the positions that he took. Naturally the people that would be most in my mind were those that took an adverse position.

Of course in the earlier days, 1948, we used to see a great deal of Senator Vandenberg, who was then Republican majority chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate. He played an important role in helping President Truman get the Marshall Plan legislation through–then eventually  the NATO. Those talks I remember rather well. I remember President Johnson very well as an active supporter on the Hill of the basic Democratic party principles, a very close supporter as I recall, in every aspect of business I had anything to do with, of President Truman during that very critical period….

The most intimate relationships that I had with the President  [Johnson], when he became President, related to the peace efforts he made. He sent me on a trip in December 1965 to a number of countries. It was just before New Year’s and I remember very well his calling me on the telephone and he said, ‘Averell, have you got your bags packed?”

I said, ‘Well, it’s always packed, Mr. President.”

He said, “[Secretary of Defense] Bob McNamara is here with me. He’s got an airplane waiting for you to take you to Europe.” I said, ‘Where do you want me to go?” He said, “That’s for you to decide.” Then he explained what he wanted to do. He said he was going to continue the Christmas pause in bombing the North [Vietnam] for a period, and he wanted to get support for his peace move. He wanted to get peace negotiations started, and I left that evening at 8:00 o’clock, as I recall it. I had no instructions, of course, except the general instructions which he gave me….

[T]he Soviet Union helped us both during October to create conditions which made it possible for President Johnson to stop the bombing in North Vietnam as he did in November 1968, and then again in January helped us end this rather ridiculous undignified discussion on the shape of the table. They brought heat to bear on the Hanoi delegation to stop that nonsense and to agree upon a compromise. Actually it wasn’t a compromise. It practically accepted one of the suggestions that had been made from Saigon, so Saigon couldn’t refuse…

I used to talk to the Secretary of State about this, and he said, “Well, if the Russians really want to help end the conflict, all they have to do is stop giving weapons to Hanoi.” I think we’ve got to recognize the Russians, so stated by Mr. Kosygin, look upon North Vietnam as what he calls a “Sister Socialist State.” It is their obligation as the great leader of the Communist movement, it’s their obligation to support North Vietnam just as we considered it our obligation to support South Vietnam…

I remember one very extraordinary day on which I had already stopped at Indonesia and I had seen the three principal members of that government, I stopped at Ceylon, and that was an interesting visit because not very many people visit Ceylon, and I’m glad I did because Ceylon is quite an influential Buddhist state, and they had been attempting to work with the Saigon government and with the Thai government to improve their relations and it was quite interesting. And I went to New Delhi and I saw Mrs. Gandhi and I spent the night. I remember having breakfast with Ambassador Bowles. Then I saw President Ayub, had lunch with him. I had to go to Peshawar and take a separate plane to go down to Rawalpindi. Then on to Tehran. I had tea with the Shah and I arrived in Rome just in time for a live 11:00 o’clock broadcast on television.

Q: That was some day!

HARRIMAN: That was one of the fullest days that I’ve had. But I felt it was very important. I was in a particular hurry on that trip because I thought if I went quickly to places it was important.…

Q: Did any of the visits on that trip result in any initiatives toward negotiations with Hanoi?

HARRIMAN: No. The purpose of this trip was quite a different purpose….The purpose of the trip was to inform them about the Manila Conference; to inform them of the efforts the President was making for peaceful settlement; to get support for the President’s initiative for peace. And I didn’t ask them to take any immediate steps. I emphasized the fact that the President sat at a round table with six Asian leaders as equals, which impressed them; the favorable military developments of South Vietnam; the limited objective that the President had of letting the people of South Vietnam decide their own future. These were all matters which they were interested in–the constitutional procedures which had been established. It was more a general effort to get a more sympathetic attitude towards what we were doing among these countries than it was to ask them to do anything particular for peace….