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, https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/feds_role_during_wwii.
  • 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, https://www.treasury.gov/about/organizational-structure/offices/Pages/Office-of-Foreign-Assets-Control.aspx.
  • 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

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