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A Latter-Day Elizabethan


ISSUE:  Summer 1976

Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, 1941—1946. By Averell Harriman and Elie Abel. Random House. $15.00.

The first reaction of the educated public to a new volume of political memoirs is one of wariness. Will this be another pièce justicatif — or an example of Establishment iconography aimed at glorifying distinguished pomposity—or both combined, as in the much overrated Stimson memoirs. Such doubts are usually fortified by the carping reviews of the woodwork academics that book section editors increasingly retain to pick away at the reputations of public figures; their typical complaint is that the author “has added nothing new to scholarly understanding.”

This is hardly the way to approach the memoirs of either a great personality or a leading actor in fateful events, and Averell Harriman was both. For six years, he met and negotiated on virtually an equal level with Churchill and Stalin. Although nominally only a presidential envoy, he was in fact the living embodiment of American industrial and technological might at a time when Britain and Russia were fighting for survival.

Still, these factors alone might not justify another account of the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin relationship had Harriman been merely another financier turned public servant. But of course he was far more than that. Neither a career official in the conventional sense nor an intellectual, Harriman is basically a latter-day Elizabethan—a self-avowed “adventurer” in government with the instincts and reactions of a canny hunter and sportsman rather than a bureaucrat. Hence his fascination for everyone who has ever been privileged to work with him. One does not read Harriman (or his amanuensis, Elie Abel) for strained interpretations or an encyclopedic chronicle of past events but for quite another quality, the truth. To the discerning reader, Special Envoy provides an insight into the idiom of political discourse between allies in wartime and illuminates the underlying forces and interests that inform it. Through the veil of an austere prose style, emerge subtle profiles of three political titans, etched in sharp relief against a backdrop of vast movements of men, machines, and supplies across oceans and deserts.

Averell Harriman arrived in London in March 1941, armed with the simple designation of president’s Special Representative for “all matters relating to facilitation of material aid to the British Empire.” He immediately fell into a working relationship with Churchill of such a close and fraternal character that on occasion he ended up sitting with the British cabinet. In this congenial atmosphere, there was none of the invidious suspicion that later characterized his mission to Moscow. Instead, the chief problems were technical—how to arrange priorities in equipment and supplies; how to sustain the flow of lend-lease in the face of the submarine menace; how to reconcile British requirements for armaments and raw materials with the mounting demands of America’s own rearmament program. In this world of practical imperatives, where scarcity of shipping and landing craft from first to last determined the timing and character of military operations, and where production of trucks and tanks and aircraft had to be constantly adjusted to the availability of trained manpower, Harriman with his railroad and shipping background proved to be the ideal expediter.

But Averell Harriman could not have accomplished what he did had he not fitted so easily and naturally into the inner circle of the British governing class. He quickly found out that in Britain the direction of the war effort, including defense priorities, foreign policy, and strategic planning, was the personal province of Churchill, Here, affinity of personality and social background, with enough transatlantic contrasts to prevent boredom, made all the difference between a stiff official relationship and a niche in the official family that Churchill carried around with him. In this atmosphere of mutual trust and friendship Harriman’s effectiveness was such that he could be blunt without giving offense and could influence decisions in ways that served the best interests of both countries. The measure of his importance is that from the moment of his arrival he totally supplanted the admirable but reclusive American ambassador, Winant, in the most important aspect of Anglo-American relations, the furthering of the war effort.

It was from London that Harriman and Churchill together opened the dialogue with Stalin that ultimately led to Harriman’s appointment as wartime Ambassador to the Soviet Union. The first contact with the Soviet leader took place when Churchill and Harriman visited Moscow in September 1941 at a time when the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse after the initial German onslaught. The second took place in the summer of 1942 after the Casablanca conference between Roosevelt and Churchill and in the midst of the German drive in Southern Russia that was to end at Stalingrad, The accounts of these missions form two of the most interesting parts of the book and also portray the vintage Harriman at the height of his powers—spinning out the first conversations about Soviet military requirements to get the feel of Soviet mentality; sensing that Eastern Europe, and especially Poland, would be a focal point of dissension between East and West; alerting Washington to the monolithic but sluggish natures of Soviet totalitarianism; restraining the unbalanced zeal of Beaverbrook and others who would have diverted essential equipment from Britain itself; constantly impressing on the suspicious and desperate Soviet leadership that second fronts require massive preparation and that both lend-lease and Anglo-American military operations were hopelessly dependent on the fragile chains of the trans-Atlantic lifeline.

Harriman’s operational role in these early missions stood him in good stead when in October 1943—in one of those rare instances where the right man is put in the right place at the right time—he was sent to Moscow as Ambassador. Where his predecessors had discharged largely formal representational functions, Harriman served as a personal link between the White House and the Kremlin. He played a crucial role in Roosevelt’s first meeting with Stalin at Teheran and maintained continuity in the dialogue between the two chiefs-of-state in the intervals between Teheran and Yalta and between Yalta and Potsdam.

As the tide turned in favor of the allies, political differences increasingly infected the military relationship. Then, as now, the Soviet Union was less interested in territorial acquisition—it had enough indigestible minorities already—than in cushioning its frontiers with ideologically subservient regimes. The ringing absolutes so confidently voiced in London and Washington about self-determination in Eastern Europe became increasingly unrealistic the further one stood from the armies on the ground. To Harriman in Moscow, it was obvious that Poland’s geographical location as an invasion corridor ruled out any return to prewar government-by-colonels-for-landowners, and he did what he could to bring an intransigent Polish government-in-exile into some accommodation with Moscow before the Soviet armies crossed the Vistula. But what little leverage the allies possessed to install (not restore) western-style democracy in Warsaw rapidly diminished as the Soviet armies rolled westward. And the bargaining position of Roosevelt and Churchill was not helped by the top priority which the American chiefs-of-staff assigned to cajoling the Soviet Union into an early declaration of war against Japan.

With respect to the controversial agreements at Yalta, Harriman thinks that an over-optimistic belief on the part of the Soviet leadership that the shattered societies of Eastern Europe would turn to Marxism, rather than any fixed design to deceive, was responsible for their apparent acquiescence in the principles of self-determination. He implies that it was naive for the United States, in light of the devastation and slaughter inflicted by the Germans, to believe that any Soviet government would tolerate unreliable governments on its frontiers. But despite this realism, Harriman sympathized with the aspirations of these societies for political freedom and (in contrast to his deputy Kennan) tried to extract every concession for parliamentary democracy, however minor, that could be obtained before the Iron Curtain descended.

The most arresting parts of Special Envoy are its glimpses into the private personalities of the three war leaders. Here a knowledge of Harriman’s somewhat unique personality is all-important. Being a sportsman rather than an intellectual, he instinctively views each situation without preconceptions and surveys the terrain carefully before making a move. He unites a simple set of virtues, in which courage, prudence, and an athletic approach to hard work are uppermost, to keen perception of character and motivation. He is also a team player who sets great store on loyalty, but his integrity is such that the truth seeps out even when he tries to gloss over it. This is what makes his judgments of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin so fascinating.

In these memoirs Winston Churchill comes through with his greatness undiminished and his humanity enhanced. Harriman obviously thinks of Churchill almost as a colleague— less as a fount of wisdom and authority than as a whimsical, maddening, talented friend who also happened to be the wartime Prime Minister of Britain. Throughout, Churchill’s admirable personal qualities override his occasional lapses of judgment and frequent policy differences with Washington,

Stalin, on the other hand, emerges somewhat differently from the conventional portrait. By any standard a monster in his callousness to the death and suffering of human beings, including millions of his own people, the portrait that comes through is that of a cool, tenacious, immensely capable executive, rather low-key and reserved in manner. To Harriman, the most striking and unexpected aspect of Stalin was his extraordinary grasp and comprehension of technical detail, which, with his astute sense of political psychology, made him a far more formidable negotiator than his British and American counterparts, who for all their great qualities were essentially politicians.

The most unflattering portrait in the book, though Harriman himself would be dismayed at the observation, is that of his own chief, President Roosevelt. However unstinting their admiration, the authors portray a president of distressing vanity and superficiality in his approach to foreign policy, whose principal merit seems to be willingness to accept the advice of an exceptionally able team of military and civilian advisers. The fatuous and self-confident ignorance about elementary points of European history and culture that Roosevelt parades in these pages seems only equalled by the flimsy basis of his pronouncements. (“Roosevelt had studied (sic) in Germany and felt that he was particularly knowledgeable on the subject.” ) Some of the presidential sallies into high strategy defy comment. At one point he suggests that after the war the Persian Railroad be internationalized “to give the Soviet Union assured access to the Persian Gulf.” At another point he proposes that the city of Lwow (“a Polish island in a sea of Ukrainian peasants”) be governed by an international committee. For months he threatens the feasibility of the invasion of Europe by insisting that the supply lines of the British and American armies on the continent be criss-crossed so as not to make American logistics transit through France. His interest in Poland and Eastern Europe—to the extent it exists at all— is not for the populations of these unhappy lands but for their effect on the ethnic vote.

With respect to Roosevelt’s personal qualities, flat understatement makes the observations all the more biting. Roosevelt is depicted as a person who relishes other people’s discomfort. We see him publicly slighting and baiting his friend and colleague Churchill at Tehran in the curious belief “that Stalin would prove more tractable if the Western powers did not appear to be acting in unison.” In a visit to the White House just before Yalta Harriman describes his chief as evincing “a surer grasp of reality in discussing the Far East”; he also “kept his mind on the subjects and came to clear-cut decisions.”

After Roosevelt’s death and the end of the war in Europe, Harriman’s role changed. Truman was friendly, and willing to be educated, but his entourage, and especially Secretary of State Byrnes, were anxious to stake out positions of their own. At Potsdam, at the San Francisco Conference to establish the U. N. , and in negotiations with the Soviet Union regarding the occupation of Japan and the future of China, Harriman provided expert advice but no longer served as an indispensable link between the president and the heads of the two most important allied states. The postwar ambassadorship in London was inevitably an anti-climax, and appointment as Secretary of Commerce an incongruous reward for someone with his conspicuous talents in international affairs. Not until the Kennedy administration, 14 years later, did Harriman again play a significant diplomatic role, and then not at the exalted level of the wartime years.

One hopes that a work of this kind will puncture some of the extraordinary myths about the conduct of wartime diplomacy that have been propagated by revisionist historians and the vast army of unqualified commentators spawned by the Ph. D. explosion. In the real world of politico-military operations, planning and decision-making are collective undertakings of immense complexity and duration. Options are conditioned at every point by practical limitations: shipping, landing craft, spare parts, trained manpower, the priorities of allies, etc. Even a Stalin is daily confronted with a stacked deck in the form of unfolding events and has to answer to colleagues.

Several reviews of Special Envoy complained that Averell Harriman showed little propensity to criticize wartime policy and even less to reveal his own thoughts. In this they misjudge both the nature of the times and the man—or rather mistakenly apply the contemporary mood of guilt and exposure to a different era. Harriman is an achiever, not a critic. He believes in understatement, not sensationalism. He played his part on the stage of history at a time of unity and conserisus, before the citadel of Anglo-American unity was destroyed from within.

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