Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

William Averell Harriman (1946–1948): Secretary of Commerce

William Averell Harriman was born on November 15, 1891, in New York City. He attended Groton School and graduated from Yale in 1913. Harriman worked for the Union Pacific Railroad during and after college and was its chairman of the board from 1918 to 1927. He was appointed a member of the Business Advisory Committee for the Department of Commerce by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 and was its chairman from 1937 until 1940.

During the early years of World War II, he helped coordinate lend-lease aid to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. From 1943 until 1946, Harriman was the ambassador to the Soviet Union and became an early advocate of a firm policy toward Moscow.

For a brief time, Harriman was the ambassador to Great Britain in 1946, but he then moved into Truman's cabinet as secretary of commerce. From 1950 until 1951, Harriman was a troubleshooter for the President and offered advice on foreign policy issues ranging from the Korean War to the strengthening of NATO.

Later, he became the director of the Mutual Security Agency (1951-1953). During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Harriman served as assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs (1961-1963) and undersecretary of state for political affairs (1963-1965). He negotiated the neutralization of Laos (1962) and the nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union (1963), and he served as an ambassador-at-large during the Johnson administration. Averell Harriiman retired in 1969 and died on July 26, 1986.