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Guide to the James G. Harbord Papers
1902-1949
 MS 1493

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400


New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by CUNY fellows Lauren Bailey, Karen Hammer, Jenny LeRoy, and Sophia Natasha Sunseri

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on January 15, 2019
Description is in English

Biographical/Historical Note

Early life

This collection consists of correspondence and other papers of James Guthrie Harbord, a prominent New Yorker, World War I General, and President of the Radio Corporation of America ("RCA"). Harbord was born in Bloomington, Illinois on March 21, 1866. His family then relocated in a covered wagon to Lyon County, Kansas in 1878. A biographical cartoon published in the January 1930 edition of The American Magazine mentioned that the family moved again so that he and his sisters could attend college. Harbord frequently recounted that during the move, he was personally responsible for leading the family cow 70 miles from the old home in Manhattan, Kansas.

Early Military Career

Harbord graduated from Kansas State Agricultural College in June 1886. He became interested in the military life through his experiences with the college drill squad. Harbord went on to hold every military rank, up to and including major general, and was decorated twelve times.

He enlisted in the United States Army as a Private on January 10, 1889 and retired as Major General on December 29, 1922, and in the meantime participated in both the Spanish American War and World War I. On January 10, 1889, he enlisted in Company A, 4th Infantry, and he served as an enlisted man in Washington Territory and Idaho. Harbord was promoted to second lieutenant on July 31, 1891, as number one of the class appointed from the ranks that year, and was assigned to the Fifth Cavalry. In that unit, he served in Indian Territory, Kansas and Texas. He became a Distinguished Graduate of the Infantry and Cavalry School in 1985. He then served as a Major in the Second U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, the Torrey Rough Riders, raised in the Rocky Mountain States in 1889. On July 1, 1898, Harbord was promoted to First Lieutenant for the 10th Cavalry on July 1, 1898, serving in Alabama and Texas. He received his first overseas appointment in Cuba, in the Adjutant General Departments of Santiago, Puerto Príncipe, and Eastern Cuba.

On January 21, 1899, he took an extended leave to marry Emma Yeatman Ovenshine, daughter of Brigadier General Samuel Ovenshine. He also served in the Philippines as Assistant Chief of the Philippines Constabulary from 1903 to 1913, until terminating service with the Philippines Government under the operation of the "Manchu Law" on January 1, 1914. Various papers and articles on the Philippines are included in the collection. In 1914, he commanded the unit defending the California border at Calexico. In 1916, he was on the Mexican border with General John J. Pershing, pursuing Pancho Villa.

Service During World War I

Harbord is perhaps best known for his service in World War I. A significant portion of the correspondence in the collection contains anecdotes about the War as well as personal letters to his wartime colleagues. He attended War College in Washington between 1916-17 and was then selected by Colonel Roosevelt as a Brigade Commander in the division which Roosevelt hoped he would be allowed to raise for World War I. When this plan did not materialize, he accompanied General Pershing to France, at the same receiving a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel on May 15, 1917. He served as such during the period of organization of the American Expeditionary Forces until May, 1918, and received another promotion to Brigadier General, National Army, in August, 1917. Assigned to the Marine Brigade of the 2nd Division in May, 1918, General Harbord commanded it in the Verdun Sector and during the fighting in the Bois de Belleau and at Bouresches, during the stand of the 2nd Division near Chateau Thierry, which stopped the German advance on Paris in June 1918. He was then promoted to Major General, National Army and assigned to the Second Division on July 14, 1918, serving as commander during the Soissons Offensive in the great battles of July 18th and 19th.

In recognition of his ability for organization, General Harbord, on July 29, 1918, was assigned to command the important Services of Supply. His effective work aided materially the efficiency of the A.E.F., and he continued in this command until May, 1919. He was then re-appointed Chief of Staff, A.E.F., and served in this capacity until August, when he was sent by the President of the United States to the Near East as Chief of the American Military Mission to Armenia.

The collection includes correspondence with General MacArthur, General Pershing, General Patton, General Petain of France, as well as other key military figures of the 20th Century.

RCA Years

After several other domestic appointments, Harbord retired from the military on December 29, 1922 to become President of the Radio Corporation of America. This was perhaps a disorienting move for Harbord, because he apparently didn't even know that RCA existed when Owen Young first asked him to become director. He twice declined, but finally accepted the position, thereby giving up any opportunity he may have had to receive the highest military title. He accepted the position after Secretary of War Weeks pointed out the great service he could render by improving the nation's communication facilities. After seven years as President, he was made Chairman of the Board of Directors of RCA on January 3, 1930. Several important developments occurred at RCA while Harbord was Chairman. In 1926, RCA began television broadcasts and formed NBC, and in 1928, RCA was one of four corporations that jointly formed RKO Pictures. In 1929, RCA acquired the Victor Talking Machine Company (maker of the "Victrola") and became RCA-Victor. He held numerous other directorships, including the directorship of New York Life Insurance Company and the Santa Fe Railroad. Harbord also received a lot of attention in the popular press after he joined RCA, and was the subject of numerous magazine articles and biographies. Harbord retired from the position in 1930.

During his years as a civilian, he enjoyed traveling, both abroad and in the western United States, riding, golf, and spending time with extended family. Harbord had no children of his own. While he was Chairman of RCA, Harbord lived on Dogwood Lane in Rye, New York. His first wife died of tuberculosis in 1937, and he married his second wife, Anne Lee Brown, in 1939. In 1925, he wrote a memoir, Leaves From a War Diary, published by Dodd, Mead & Co., 1925, which contains his experiences during the War. He also wrote two other books about his wartime experiences:  The American Expeditionary Forces: its Organization and Accomplishments, published by Evanston in 1929, and  The American Army in France, published by Little Brown & Co. in 1936. Harbord continued to serve in a consulting role for the military during his years with RCA, often receiving requests for his opinion from high-ranking military officers. Harbord remained as Chairman of the Board for RCA until 1947, retiring shortly before his death. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.