Brown Brothers Harriman in the Second World War

Public impressions of Brown Brothers Harriman during the Second World War often center on the allegation, first lodged in the early 2000s, that Prescott Bush, a BBH Partner and father of President George H. W. Bush, was a Nazi sympathizer. The grounds for this allegation rest entirely on Bush’s directorship of the Union Banking Corporation (UBC), of which he (not BBH) was also a shareholder. Founded in 1924, UBC was the American investment arm of a Dutch bank, Bank Voor Handel en Scheepvaart, that was owned by companies controlled by German industrialist Fritz Thyssen. Until he disavowed the Nazi regime in 1938, Thyssen had been a major force behind the Nazis’ rise to power.

Those who are concerned by the implications of Bush’s personal investment in UBC ought to find reassurance in the words and deeds of BBH and its Partners, both in the run-up to the Second World War and during the war itself.

In purely financial terms, Germany held diminishing appeal for BBH in the 1930s. The 1931 Stillhalte had caused the firm to suffer net losses of nearly 25 percent on loans to its German business partners, including Gebrüder Arnhold, J. Dreyfus & Co., Aron Hirsch & Söhn, Simon Hirschland, and Mendelssohn & Co. Long before the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, BBH had begun to reduce its remaining exposure in German markets.

The Great Depression, meanwhile, inspired the Partners of BBH to embrace a new commitment to public service, led by Averell Harriman. In 1933, Harriman joined the National Recovery Administration, a government agency that aimed to stimulate business recovery through fair practice codes and wage and price controls.

Harriman’s backing for these and other New Deal reforms was shaped by an old-fashioned sense of noblesse oblige. As he put it in a 1934 interview: “The rich man who uses the dollar as a yardstick to the success or non-success of his activities, and who does not take a much broader national consideration into account, is not the highest type of citizen, nor does he get the fullest satisfaction out of life.”

Harriman also sounded the alarm about the rise of Nazi Germany. In 1940, as German armies swept through Europe, Harriman urged the United States to reject isolationism and do whatever it could to support Britain and other nations at war with Germany. The alternative, he believed, was too awful to imagine. “Are we willing to face a world dominated by [Adolf] Hitler?” he asked in a New York speech in February 1941.

In spring 1941, Harriman was appointed as U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s special envoy to Britain and the Soviet Union, with a focus on administering Lend-Lease aid, and then, in 1943, as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union.

Harriman was hardly the only BBH Partner to answer the call to public service.

Robert Lovett had long inveighed against the weakness of the U.S. military in the face of the growing threat of a war he felt was inevitable. A noted authority on the strategic use of air power, Lovett was an obvious choice for U.S. assistant secretary of war for air on the eve of the Second World War. He went on to oversee a major retooling of American industry for aircraft production that was critical to the U.S. war effort.

The war also saw Averell’s brother, Roland, begin his long association with the American Red Cross, when in 1944 he became manager of the organization’s North Atlantic region. Prescott Bush, who would go on to serve 10 years as a moderate Republican senator for Connecticut, took on the role of national campaign chairman for the United Service Organizations, helping to raise more than $33 million for recreation services for American service personnel. And Elbridge T. Gerry, who would become a partner in 1956, served as U.S. Army intelligence officer on the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Of course, the most important contributions of all came from the 86 BBH employees (some 20 percent of the firm’s staff) who served in the U.S. armed forces, two of whom gave their lives to ensure the Allied victory in 1945.

The devotion to public service was a distinguishing characteristic of this generation of BBH Partners and staff, as Partner Thatcher Brown recalled in his memoirs. “There was something in the associations and in the minds of this group of businessmen besides the mere making of money,” he wrote. “There was…also the desire to…make room for public service in various fields outside of their business.”

For Further Reading

  • Rudy Abramson, Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman.
  • Thatcher M. Brown, Brown Brothers & Co. Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. 1900–1950, typescript. 1950.
  • Ron Chernow, The Warburgs: the Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family. New York: Random House, 1993.
  • W. Averell Harriman and Elie Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, 1941-1946. New York: Random House, 1975.
  • E. Roland Harriman, I Reminisce. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
  • Mickey Herskowitz, Duty, Honor, Country: The Life and Legacy of Prescott Bush. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 2003.
  • David M. Jordan, Robert A. Lovett and the Development of American Air Power. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2018.
  • Gary Richardson, “Federal Reserve’s Role During WWII,” Federal Reserve History,
  • Mira Wilkins, The History of Foreign Investment in the United States, 1914–1945. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Knight Woolley, In Retrospect—A very personal memoir. Privately printed, 1975.
  • Office of Foreign Assets Control, United States Treasury,
  • Alien Property Custodian: Vesting Order Case Files
  • Department of Justice: Decimal Files, Silesian-American Corp.
  • Library of Congress: Manuscripts, W. A. Harriman Papers
  • National Archives and Records Administration:
  • Foreign Funds Control Subject File: Brown Brothers Harriman
  • Foreign Funds Control Subject File: Fritz Thyssen
  • State Department: Decimal Files, 1940-49


200 Years of Partnership

Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. (“BBH”) may be used as a generic term to reference the company as a whole and/or its various subsidiaries generally. This material and any products or services may be issued or provided in multiple jurisdictions by duly authorized and regulated subsidiaries.This material is for general information and reference purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax or investment advice and is not intended as an offer to sell, or a solicitation to buy securities, services or investment products. Any reference to tax matters is not intended to be used, and may not be used, for purposes of avoiding penalties under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, or other applicable tax regimes, or for promotion, marketing or recommendation to third parties. All information has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy is not guaranteed, and reliance should not be placed on the information presented. This material may not be reproduced, copied or transmitted, or any of the content disclosed to third parties, without the permission of BBH. All trademarks and service marks included are the property of BBH or their respective owners.© Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. 2021. FIRM-00337-2021-04-20

As of June 15, 2022 Internet Explorer 11 is not supported by

Important Information for Non-U.S. Residents

You are required to read the following important information, which, in conjunction with the Terms and Conditions, governs your use of this website. Your use of this website and its contents constitute your acceptance of this information and those Terms and Conditions. If you do not agree with this information and the Terms and Conditions, you should immediately cease use of this website. The contents of this website have not been prepared for the benefit of investors outside of the United States. This website is not intended as a solicitation of the purchase or sale of any security or other financial instrument or any investment management services for any investor who resides in a jurisdiction other than the United States1. As a general matter, Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. and its subsidiaries (“BBH”) is not licensed or registered to solicit prospective investors and offer investment advisory services in jurisdictions outside of the United States. The information on this website is not intended to be distributed to, directed at or used by any person or entity in any jurisdiction or country where such distribution or use would be contrary to law or regulation. Persons in respect of whom such prohibitions apply must not access the website.  Under certain circumstances, BBH may provide services to investors located outside of the United States in accordance with applicable law. The conditions under which such services may be provided will be analyzed on a case-by-case basis by BBH. BBH will only accept investors from such jurisdictions or countries where it has made a determination that such an arrangement or relationship is permissible under the laws of that jurisdiction or country. The existence of this website is not intended to be a substitute for the type of analysis described above and is not intended as a solicitation of or recommendation to any prospective investor, including those located outside of the United States. Certain BBH products or services may not be available in certain jurisdictions. By choosing to access this website from any location other than the United States, you accept full responsibility for compliance with all local laws. The website contains content that has been obtained from sources that BBH believes to be reliable as of the date presented; however, BBH cannot guarantee the accuracy of such content, assure its completeness, or warrant that such information will not be changed. The content contained herein is current as of the date of issuance and is subject to change without notice. The website’s content does not constitute investment advice and should not be used as the basis for any investment decision. There is no guarantee that any investment objectives, expectations, targets described in this website or the  performance or profitability of any investment will be achieved. You understand that investing in securities and other financial instruments involves risks that may affect the value of the securities and may result in losses, including the potential loss of the principal invested, and you assume and are able to bear all such risks.  In no event shall BBH or any other affiliated party be liable for any direct, incidental, special, consequential, indirect, lost profits, loss of business or data, or punitive damages arising out of your use of this website. By clicking accept, you confirm that you accept  to the above Important Information along with Terms and Conditions.

1BBH sponsors UCITS Funds registered in Luxembourg, in certain jurisdictions. For information on those funds, please see

captcha image

Type in the word seen on the picture

I am a current investor in another jurisdiction