Spanning the Century

Historians are not inclined to place Averell Harriman among the ranks of the “makers of American Diplomacy.” Nonetheless, his name is recurrent in the history of American foreign policy from World War II to the end of the Second Indo-China War. Harriman was, without a doubt one of the great American public servants of this century—and, given his longevity, the last of a vanished breed.

As heir to one of the great fortunes of the nineteenth century, Harriman was able to indulge his slightest whim, and for several decades he did just that. Still, he was always more than a playboy, albeit his three marriages, the last to a woman younger than his daughter, suggests that he never totally abandoned that life-style. Between polo and croquet, he managed to conduct himself as a banker and later a shipping tycoon. Shortly after reaching his first half-century, the very rich and very social W. Averell Harriman entered into public service in the wartime administration of the man many of his set were wont to call “the other Roosevelt.”

As lend-lease administrator in wartime Britain and later ambassador to the Soviet Union, Harriman began a career that included stints as secretary of commerce, governor of New York, positions in the Department of State and commissions as roving ambassador for presidents Kennedy and Johnson. At an age when his contemporaries were quietly ensconced before a fireplace, Harriman was gallivanting around the world negotiating treaties and soothing countless diplomatic feathers.

Rudy Abramson is a journalist rather than a professionally trained historian, and on occasion SPANNING THE CENTURY reveals the difference between the two. Nonetheless, Abramson was afforded access to Harriman’s personal papers and to his friends and colleagues to an unprecedented degree. The result is the fullest available portrait of a long and fascinating life.