Adlai Stevenson

Adlai Stevenson

Adlai Ewing Stevenson, the grandson of the former vice president, Adlai E. Stevenson (1893-97), was born in Los Angeles on 5th February, 1900. After studying at Princeton University, Stevenson worked as a journalist and as a lawyer in Chicago.

In July 1941 William Knox persuaded Stevenson to join the Navy Department. During the Second World War Stevenson took part in several European missions for the State Department and from 1945 served on the American delegations to the foundation conferences of the United Nations Organization.

In 1948 Stevenson was elected governor of Illinois, where he developed a reputation for honesty and efficiency. He introduced a series of reforms including a merit system for the state police, improvements in state mental hospitals and greater state aid for schools.

While governor of Illinois Stevenson became a target for Joe McCarthy. Stevenson was attacked for appearing as a character witness for Alger Hiss, the alleged communist spy, in his perjury trial. Stevenson also upset a group of Conservative senators, including Pat McCarran, John Wood, Karl Mundt and Richard Nixon, when they sponsored a measure to deal with members of the Communist Party. Stevenson argued that "The whole notion of loyalty inquisitions is a national characteristic of the police state, not of democracy. The history of Soviet Russia is a modern example of this ancient practice. I must, in good conscience, protest against any unnecessary suppression of our rights as free men. We must not burn down the house to kill the rats." Despite the opposition of liberals such as Stevenson and Harry S. Truman, the Internal Security Act became law in 1950.

Stevenson was chosen as the Democratic Party candidate for the 1952 presidential election. It was one of the dirtiest in history with Richard Nixon, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, leading the attack on Stevenson. Speaking in Indiana, Nixon described Stevenson as a man with a "PhD from Dean Acheson's cowardly college of Communist containment." In an attempt to link Stevenson with the Soviet spy ring he added: "Somebody had to testify for Alger Hiss, but you don't have to elect him President of the United States."

Joseph McCarthy also attacked Stevenson as being soft on communism and claimed that he would like to spend sometime with him so that "I might be able to make a good American out of him." Stevenson retaliated by pointing out the dangers of "phony patriots", "ill-informed censors" and "self-appointed thought police". At one meeting he told his audience: "Most of us favour free enterprise for business. Let us also favour free enterprise for the mind."

Stevenson also had the added problem of having criticised J. Edgar Hoover and the efficiency of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1949. Since that date Hoover had been collecting information on Stevenson and when he became the Democratic Party candidate in 1952, the FBI compiled a nineteen-page memorandum on material that could damage his campaign. The FBI agent, Donald Surine, passed this onto Joseph McCarthy. This included false information alleging Stevenson was a homosexual and a Marxist. Faced by this smear campaign and the popular wartime hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Stevenson lost by 33,936,252 votes to 27,314,922.

Adlai Stevenson
Adlai Stevenson

In early 1954 Stevenson began attacking Eisenhower for not condemning the activities of Joseph McCarthy. Although McCarthy had now started investigating army commanders, he was unwilling to directly attack the man who had helped him win victory in 1952. Instead he delegated the task to his vice president, Richard Nixon. On 4th March, 1954, Nixon made a speech where, although not mentioning McCarthy, made it clear who he was talking about: "Men who have in the past done effective work exposing Communists in this country have, by reckless talk and questionable methods, made themselves the issue rather than the cause they believe in so deeply."

With the worst aspects of McCarthyism now over, Stevenson was selected as the Democratic Party candidate in 1956. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a popular president and with the economy in good shape, Stevenson had little chance of defeating his Republican Party opponent and lost by 35,585,316 to 26,031,322.

Over the next few years Stevenson concentrated on writing books on politics. This included Call to Greatness (1954), What I Think (1956), Friends and Enemies (1958) and Looking Outward (1963).

When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, he appointed Stevenson as the U.S. representative to the United Nations. Adlai Ewing Stevenson served in this post until his death in London on 14th July, 1965.

Primary Sources

(1) Adlai Stevenson, brief autobiography published in 1953.

My father's family moved to Kentucky from Virginia and North Carolina, and a generation or so later they moved on to Bloomington, Illinois, before the Civil War. They were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and Democrats, and strong in the faith, both political and religious. Miraculously, Grandfather Stevenson flourished politically in Republican Illinois and was elected Vice-President with Grover Cleveland in 1892. He was nominated again with Bryan in 1900, and, as a feeble old man, was a reluctant but very strong candidate for Governor in 1908. My father's Democratic allegiance and activity ended only with his death in 1929.

But my mother's family were Pennsylvania Quakers who came early to Illinois. Her grandfather, Jesse Fell, was a "liberal" of those days, I suppose, an abolitionist, educator and a founder of the Unitarian Church in Bloomington. Discontented with the Whigs, he took the leading part in organizing a "Republican Party" in Central Illinois and worked tirelessly for the advancement of his long-time friend, Abraham Lincoln. His son-in-law, my grandfather, William Osborn Davis, was also a Pennsylvania Quaker who found the Unitarian Church in Bloomington much to his liking. For forty years he was a leading Republican editor and publisher of Illinois.

So it is hardly surprising that when the son of the Democratic Vice-president married the daughter of the Republican editor of the same town, the newspapers of the country headlined the event as a "triumph of love over politics."

Small wonder, then, that as I grew up in Bloomington, I found myself in Mother's beloved Unitarian Church and Father's beloved Democratic Party.

(2) Adlai Stevenson was a strong opponent of the Internal Security Act (1950)

The whole notion of loyalty inquisitions is a national characteristic of the police state, not of democracy. The history of Soviet Russia is a modern example of this ancient practice. I must, in good conscience, protest against any unnecessary suppression of our rights as free men. We must not burn down the house to kill the rats.

(3) Adlai Stevenson, speech, New York City (27th August, 1952)

We talk a great deal about patriotism. What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? I venture to suggest that what we mean is a sense of national responsibility which will enable America to remain master of her power - to walk with it in serenity and wisdom, with self-respect and the respect of all mankind; a patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime. The dedication of a lifetime - these are words that are easy to utter, but this is a mighty assignment. For it is often easier to fight for principles than to live up to them.

Patriotism, I have said, means putting country before self. This is no abstract phrase, and unhappily, we find some things in American life today of which we cannot be proud.

True patriotism, it seems to me, is based on tolerance and a large measure of humility.

There are men among us who use "patriotism" as a club for attacking other Americans. What can we say for the self-styled patriot who thinks that a Negro, a Jew, a Catholic, or a Japanese-American is less an American than he? That betrays the deepest article of our faith, the belief in individual liberty and equality which has always been the heart and soul of the American idea.

What can we say for the man who proclaims himself a patriot - and then for political or personal reasons attacks the patriotism of faithful public servants? I give you, as a shocking example, the attacks which have been made on the loyalty and the motives of our great wartime Chief of Staff, General Marshall. To me this is the type of "patriotism" which is, in Dr. Johnson's phrase, "the last refuge of scoundrels."

The anatomy of patriotism is complex. But surely intolerance and public irresponsibility cannot be cloaked in the shining armor of rectitude and righteousness. Nor can the denial of the right to hold ideas that are different - the freedom of man to think as he pleases. To strike freedom of the mind with the fist of patriotism is an old and ugly subtlety.

And the freedom of the mind, my friends, has served America well. The vigor of our political life, our capacity for change, our cultural, scientific and industrial achievements, all derive from free inquiry, from the free mind - from the imagination, resourcefulness and daring of men who are not afraid of new ideas. Most all of us favor free enterprise for business. Let us also favor free enterprise for the mind. For, in the last analysis, we would fight to the death to protect it. Why is it, then, that we are sometimes slow to detect, or are indifferent to, the dangers that beset it?

(4) Adlai Stevenson, speech, Detroit (1st September, 1952)

The relationship between the Democratic Party and the working people of America is a very simple one. We both believe in equal rights for all and in special privileges for none. We both believe that the objective of our country and of its Government is to achieve human decency, to meet human needs, and to fulfill human hopes.

We tale honest open pride in what the tremendous progress of the last twenty years has meant, not for the Democratic Party, but for the whole nation. We pulled ourselves, as you know, out of the quicksand of depression. In fighting an awful war we did our part and we did it gloriously.

We have made America the best place to live and work in the world has ever known - a land where men are assured a decent wage and security when their work is done; a land where the mother can know that her children's opportunities are bright and limitless.

But these things, my friends, are not permanent. They have to be fought for, fought for by each succeeding generation. So it's my obligation, I think, to give you my ideas of our common interests, my thoughts about our common future.

I see three sets of common interests in the labor field. These are positive interests, constructive interests. We have talked, it seems to me, too much in terms of labor wars, too little in terms of labor peace, too much in terms of stopping things by law, too little in terms of establishing industrial democracy.

There is our first common interest in securing to all who work the minimums of human decency. This means, among other things, that the men and women in our working force, some 62,000,000 of us, shall receive a decent living wage, insurance against the risks of disability and unemployment, and the assurance of solid, not token, security when life's work is done.

It means, too, that we must struggle tirelessly to add to these assurances, equality of work opportunity for every one of us - regardless of race, of color or of creed. Human decency is the theme of our history and the spirit of our religion. We must never cease trying to write its guarantees not just into our laws, but into the hearts and the minds of men.

(5) Adlai Stevenson, speech, Louiseville (27th September, 1952)

Last Monday General Eisenhower spoke in Cincinnati about Korea. He said that this was a "solemn subject" and that he was going to state the truth as he knew it, "the truth - plain and unvarnished."

If only his speech had measured up to this introduction! And since he has tried, not once but several times, to make a vote-getting issue out of our ordeal in Korea, I shall speak on this subject and address myself to the record.

We are fighting in Korea, the General declares, because the American Government grossly underestimated the Soviet threat; because the Government allowed America to become weak; because American weakness compelled us to withdraw our forces from Korea; because we abandoned China to the communists; and, finally, because we announced to all the world that we had written off most of the. Far East.

That's what he says - now let's look at the record.

First, the General accuses the Government of having underestimated the Soviet threat. But what about the General himself? At the end of the war he was a professional soldier of great influence and prestige, to whom the American people listened with respect. What did he have to say about the Soviet threat? In the years after the war, the General himself saw "no reason" - as he later wrote - why the Russian system of government and Western democracy "could not live side by side in the world." In November, 1945, he even told the House Military Affairs Committee: "Nothing guides Russian policy so much as a desire for friendship with the United States."

I have no wish to blow any trumpets here. But in March, 1946, I said: "We must forsake any hope that the Soviet Union is going to lie still and lick her awful wounds. She's not. Peace treaties that reflect her legitimate demands, friendly governments on her frontiers and an effective United Nations Organization should be sufficient security. But evidently they are not and she intends to advance her aims, many of them objectives of the Czars, to the utmost."

(6) Adlai Stevenson, speech, Springfield (24th October, 1952)

But I do not believe it is man's destiny to compress this once boundless earth into a small neighborhood, the better to destroy it. Nor do I believe it is in the nature of man to strike eternally at the image of himself, and therefore of God. I profoundly believe that there is on this horizon, as yet only dimly perceived, a new dawn of conscience. In that purer light, people will come to see themselves in each other, which is to say they will make themselves known to one another by their similarities rather than by their differences. Man's knowledge of things will begin to be matched by man's knowledge of self. The significance of a smaller world will be measured not in terms of military advantage, but in terms of advantage for the human community. It will be the triumph of the heartbeat over the drumbeat.

These are my beliefs and I hold them deeply, but they would be without any inner meaning for me unless I felt that they were also the deep beliefs of human beings everywhere. And the proof of this, to my mind, is the very existence of the United Nations. However great the assaults on the peace may have been since the United Nations was founded, the easiest way to demonstrate the idea behind it is by the fact that no nation in the world today would dare to remove itself from membership and separate his country from the human hopes that are woven into the very texture of the organization.

The early years of the United Nations have been difficult ones, but what did we expect? That peace would drift down from the skies like soft snow? That there would be no ordeal, no anguish, no testing, in this greatest of all human undertakings?

Any great institution or idea must suffer its pains of birth and growth. We will not lose faith in the United Nations. We see it as a living thing and we will work and pray for its full growth and development. We want it to become what it was intended to be - a world society of nations under law, not merely law backed by force, but law backed by justice and popular consent. We believe the answer to world war can only be world law. This is our hope and our commitment, and that is why I join all Americans on this anniversary in saying: "More power to the United Nations."

(7) Alistair Cooke, The Guardian (3rd April, 1969)

Of all the politicians I have known, Adlai Stevenson was the one I knew best. The one who came closest to producing the embarrassment which a political journalist ought to be most careful to avoid; never to know a public man well enough that he inhibits you from writing about him frankly and fully while he's living his public life. When Stevenson died I wrote a piece about him which never saw the light of day because, I take it, people who knew him not at all might have been outraged by the discovery that he was a human being with frailties like you and me. For a week or more it was necessary to pretend that he was a saint.