June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
A sunlit terrace by a graceful house in the countryside near Middleburg, with the Virginia hills shimmering in the distance. A tall man, slightly stooped but still remarkably handsome, his black hair mildly tinged with gray, his eye penetrating, his manners distinguished, his laugh disarming and infectious. This is Averell Harriman, the supreme public servant of our times, who, John F. Kennedy said, has held “probably as many important jobs as any American in our history, with the possible exception of John Quincy Adams.” Now in his nineties, he recalls his equally remarkable father.
You were born 102 years after George Washington’s first inauguration. This means you’ve lived nearly half the life of the republic. We’ve had forty presidents. You’ve lived in the administrations of eighteen of them—from Benjamin Harrison to Ronald Reagan.
I don’t remember Benjamin Harrison. McKinley was the first I was really conscious of.
Do you remember the Spanish-American War?
Oh, yes, I remember that very well. I remember the fighting and so forth. And I remember being on Fifth Avenue—my father had moved from the house in which I was born, which was right behind St. Patrick’s cathedral, up to One East Fifty-fifth Street—and I was in that house at the time of the Dewey parade down Fifth Avenue. That’s Admiral Dewey, in case some of the uninitiated don’t know their history well enough to realize that Admiral Dewey was our great hero, having fought the Battle of Manila.
Your father is regarded as one of the last of the great individualists in business. How would you define his influence in your life?
In the first place, he was religious. His father was a clergyman, and we all went to the little church at Arden [New York]. My father had very high ideals, in his behavior and also in his activities. He once told me what may seem a platitude now, but it was very moving at the time, along when I was perhaps fourteen years old or so—he died in 1909 when I was seventeen, just about to be eighteen—that he had tried to make everything with which he had contact better for that contact.
He took an interest in everything. He took an interest in good roads in Orange County when he lived down there. He took an interest in whatever was before him. In the railroad business, of course, he was very advanced. In 1898 he took over the Union Pacific. In 1903 he established the first pension plan, I think, on any railroad. I remember he established seventy years as the retirement age. It was a little old in those days; but when you think that today we are living much longer, it’s ridiculous for us to talk about sixty-two or sixty-five years old. Seventy, I think, has been established as right. He also established the first medical-care plan on any railroad.
Teddy Roosevelt started an investigation of my father’s railroads by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Roosevelt and my father had been great friends, but they broke because of a letter my father had written to a friend of his upstate whom he had known on Wall Street and who he wanted to keep in touch with things; his name was Sidney Webster. This Webster letter broke their relations, because in it my father said that Teddy Roosevelt hadn’t kept his promise. In the 1904 campaign my father had gone down to see Roosevelt and said, “I’m ready to support you and ready to end the row in the New York Republican party over Chauncey Depew, who was a senator, and raise fifty thousand dollars for your campaign, if you will make Depew an ambassador.” Roosevelt said he would. My father wasn’t interested in Depew; he was only interested in patching up the differences in the party. But Roosevelt did not keep his promise. So my father wrote to Webster explaining all this. The newspaper people had what they called the Ananias Club, consisting of people whom Teddy Roosevelt called “liars.” So the next morning my father was branded a “liar,” and that broke their relationship. Roosevelt was very vindictive and started this antitrust case, which was very farfetched at the time.
In any event, my father was a man of great integrity himself because of his religious background and training and his own personality. He expected a lot from people, and they gave it to him. He expected a lot from me, and that stimulated me.
He brought you along on his Alaska expedition.
Yes. And I remember meeting John Muir at that time. Do you remember him? He kept in touch with my mother after my father died, and I got very fond of him. He influenced me. He was a great naturalist, of course.
My father took all the family with him on his trips. We went down to Mexico a couple of times. And we went to Japan in 1905. It was an extraordinary experience, because I learned then of the violence of the Japanese. This was after the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War. Teddy Roosevelt was responsible for arranging the meeting at Portsmouth. The Japanese people were dissatisfied with the treaty. They thought they’d been sold down the river. They had demonstrations against the government people who were responsible. They burned down the foreign minister’s house; he had to climb over the back fence to get away. They were anti-American, and they demonstrated in front of the embassy. It was thrilling to me, a boy of thirteen. We had a detachment of Japanese soldiers in the embassy compound. I also remember that my father’s doctor and a friend were in a double rickshaw. The crowd, knowing they were Americans, threw rocks at them, and I still remember the big lump on the side of Dr. Lyle’s head when he came in. It’s funny how we remember details.
And did you go to Europe too?
We went to Europe a couple of times. My father had a very bad back. He thought he’d gotten it because, when he had been in Alaska, he shot a Kodiak bear, which is the biggest brown bear in the world, and he lay out on the ground, and his back had bothered him ever since. He went to Europe to try to get cured from that back trouble—unsuccessfully. But naturally I had a chance to see what was going on in Europe.
I went to Groton and then Yale. My father’s friend Endicott Peabody had me put down for Groton when I was born. Therefore, I got into Groton. Nobody except the godly got into Groton in those days. They have a more civilized approach today.
They even have girls there now.
Yes, which some say may have ruined it—I don’t know.
How do you account for the impact of Groton? So many people—beginning with FDR, yourself, Francis Biddle, Sumner Welles, Dean Acheson—went to Groton and became thereafter liberals, Democrats, and so on.
Dr. Peabody was the rector. He had very high ideals. He felt it was the obligation of everyone to serve his country and serve his community. He was terribly religious, of course. But service to whatever cause was at hand was one of the things he taught.
Groton was a school for the children of wealthy, patrician families. …
Well, it was true that it was. But they also got in people of lower income. I know my father gave them some money to pay for my tuition and also for the tuition of another boy. The boy was picked because he was of very low income, and he went through school as a result of the scholarship. My father felt that if I had the privilege of being in Groton, he ought to help somebody else be there.