Harrison, Gilbert A.

Harrison, Gilbert A.
May 18, 1915-Jan. 3, 2008
American magazine editor, publisher and veterans' leader

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The idea of a new World War II veterans organization was formulated by Gilbert A. Harrison in 1941; and in November 1942, while he was a sergeant in the Army Air Forces, he wrote to several of his friends, suggesting that they establish an association "based not on what [they] could get as veterans, but on what [they] could contribute to the postwar world." His idea found acceptance among many service men and women, and the American Veterans Committee was formed. Growing rapidly (it had about 110,000 members in January 1948), AVC is the largest organization composed exclusively of veterans of World War II. Harrison was elected vice-chairman of AVC for 1946-47, and was elected national chairman for 1948-49. The veterans leader has worked to keep AVC independent of outside pressures, particularly pressure from Communist groups.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, on May 8, 1915, Gilbert Avery Harrison is the son of Samuel Louis and Mabel (Wolfe) Harrison. His father is a wholesale diamond merchant. Gilbert and his two sisters were reared in Los Angeles, California, where he attended grammar school and Fairfax High School. At the latter he became interested in oratory. After his graduation from high school in 1933, Gilbert Harrison enrolled at the University of California in Los Angeles. He majored in psychology, served as editor of the University Daily and as chairman of the Student Religious Board. His B.A. degree was granted to him in 1937.

Young Harrison's first position was with the interfaith University Religious Conference in Los Angeles, working on projects to promote cooperation and good will among citizens of all faiths and races. He gave speeches on cooperation before high school audiences and fraternal organizations, and conducted interfaith radio programs. In 1941 he left the interfaith conference to become radio adviser to the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Later in that year he was appointed cochairman of the division of youth activities of the Office of Civilian Defense in Washington, D.C. In this position, Harrison planned activities for young people who contributed to the national defense program by collecting scrap, newspapers and other usable material. He was one of those who favored early American intervention in the war.

In February 1942 Harrison enlisted in the Royal Air Force for pilot training in the United States. After his elimination from pilot training, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces and was a communications sergeant in New Guinea and the Philippines. For some time he gave thought to a new World War II veterans organization which would place the interests of all citizens above those of any special group. By November 1942 he was writing his first letters about it to servicemen in many parts of the world. For a year the idea was discussed by mail, a correspondence circle of 125 members "operating without a name and with a borrowed mimeograph machine." Almost two years afterward, in January 1944, Harrison and four other servicemen signed the first "Statement of Intentions" of the American Veterans Committee, expressing their belief that "the influence of 14,000,000 World War II veterans could be a tremendous force for peace and a more democratic America." Convinced that this new group should have no commitments to the past, they declared as their goal "the achievement of a more prosperous and democratic America and a more stable world." Their motto became: "Citizens first, veterans second." Charles G. Bolte began the task of organizing the American Veterans Committee, and a bulletin was published and distributed to members. By September 1945 more than four thousand servicemen and veterans "of any race, creed, or color" had joined AVC.

After Harrison was discharged from the Army on points in December 1945-he had landed with the first occupation troops in Kyushu in Japan-he decided to put all his efforts into the organization he had helped found. In January 1946 he came to the AVC office that had been established in New York to work on arrangements for the first national convention. At that convention, held in Des Moines, Iowa, in June of the year, Bolte was elected chairman and Harrison vice-chairman of the twenty-four-man national planning committee. Moderate liberals hailed Harrison's victory as proof that AVC could not be captured by any Leftist faction. During 1946-47 Harrison worked to build the organization to the point where it would have strength to give its proposals weight in the nation. By June 1947 the organization had more than 100,000 members. It had given its support nationally to such measures as international control of atomic energy, a United Nations veterans league, unification of the armed forces, creation of additional river valley authorities modeled after TVA, a guaranteed annual wage, unemployment insurance payments to workers on strike, and Government control or ownership of industries "where enforcement of antitrust laws does not insure adequate competition."

When his year as vice-chairman of AVC had ended, Gilbert Harrison left for England to study American foreign policy at Oxford University. He spent nearly a year in Britain and then three months in Berlin as associate secretary-general of the Office of Military Government for Germany. Returning to the United States to attend the third national AVC convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in November 1948, Harrison headed the anti-Communist ticket and was elected national chairman of AVC, to succeed Chat Paterson. At the Cleveland convention a majority of the delegates voted (11,516 to 8,830) that no member of the Communist party was eligible for membership in AVC. The convention approved a liberal program that included support of the Marshall Plan, an independent Western European federation, and United States participation in a North Atlantic alliance. In domestic affairs, the convention requested a comprehensive Federal housing program, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, a minimum wage of seventy-five cents an hour. It reaffirmed its opposition to racial discrimination in all forms and called for implementation of the President's civil rights program. It also reaffirmed AVC's opposition to the bonus and asked increased GI allowances and a lower interest rate on GI loans.

Shortly after taking over the chairmanship of AVC, Harrison urged Attorney General Tom Clark and Secretary of the Treasury John Snyder to take action against the "Associated Klans of Georgia," which had been reported by AVC members to be "carrying out the principles of KKK-ism." He announced the reappointment of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., as national housing committee chairman of AVC to lead the drive for a long-range, comprehensive housing program in the Eighty-first Congress. Harrison also charged that the American Legion's demand for a monthly pension of sixty dollars for all veterans of both World Wars on reaching the age of sixty was "doing a disservice to the veteran by promoting class legislation instead of legislation for the security of all Americans."

Harrison's aims during his 1948-49 administration of AVC are to strengthen local chapters, increase membership which has dropped during the past year, and put AVC on a sound financial basis. His goal is to operate the organization nationally from membership dues alone and to retire AVC's national deficit from the sale of memberships in the "Committee of 10,000," a fund-raising drive for contributions from nonveterans who want to help AVC carry out its program.

The AVC official says that he is not affiliated with any political party, considering himself an independent, although he votes generally for the Democratic ticket. He is of the Jewish faith. Six feet tall, with gray-green eyes and brown hair, Gilbert Harrison weighs 165 pounds, has a deep speaking voice and a frank manner. Reading provides him with relaxation; his hobby, he says, is "collecting AVC members."

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