Adlai Stevenson, Presidential Hopeful, Woos Voters and Patriots

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Caption:Portrait of American politician and diplomat Adlai Stevenson (1900 - 1965) as he speaks behind a WNYC microphone, New York, New York, 1952.

The Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, addresses the 1952 American Legion convention at Madison Square Garden in New York.

After apologizing (to much laughter) for keeping the Legionnaires from their eagerly awaited trips to "museums, art galleries, and concerts," the governor of Illinois reviews his own rather paltry service record, that of an Apprentice Seaman in World War I. He then summarizes America's place in the postwar world, reminding the audience that "only the strong can be free" and praising the Legion for working to keep America vigilant. 

He reminds them that there are still "vital interests" that cannot be defended by "clever diplomacy or propaganda." He points out the vulnerability of U.S. cities to Soviet air attacks and pushes for a greater emphasis on Civil Defense. Having established his pro-military credentials, he then rounds on "special interests" and "groups" who attack blacks, Jews, Japanese-Americans, and other minorities in the name of patriotism. True patriotism, he contends, is not fear-mongering bluster but "the tranquil dedication of a lifetime." He then performs a similar rhetorical maneuver, railing against the "Communist menace in our country" and calling Communism itself  "abhorrent," before launching into an impassioned defense of those whose lives have been ruined by attacks on their political beliefs or associations. While again emphasizing his anti-Red stance, he warns "not to burn down the barn to kill the rats." In an interesting example of how quickly Orwell's phrase had become common usage, he defends schools and schoolteachers against "self-appointed Thought Police and ill-informed censors." Concluding, he returns to his own vision of patriotism, which is "not the fear of something. It is the love of something." 

Stevenson was born in 1900. He came from a family with strong political connections. His grandfather had been vice president under Grover Cleveland and his father, secretary of state in Illinois. Stevenson, however, did not enter the political arena until relatively late, instead practicing law and working for the family newspaper. In 1948 he scored an upset victory over the incumbent and was elected governor of Illinois. When, in 1952, President Harry S. Truman decided not to seek re-election, he encouraged Stevenson to run for the office. Initially reluctant, Stevenson allowed himself to be "drafted" by a Democratic party that, realistically, had little chance of retaining the presidency after holding it for five consecutive terms and in the face of Dwight D. Eisenhower's overwhelming popularity. There was also the problem of Stevenson's demeanor, which was unlike anything the American electorate had ever seen. As The New York Times described him:

He was…the idol of the eggheads, men and women who were not ashamed to confess to a college education and to ideas more profound than those ordinarily passed at the bridge table. Professional politicians, however, were less enthusiastic, because he seemed reluctant to work with them and because they though he talked over the heads of his audiences.

"Egghead" was indeed the term coined by opposition columnist Stewart Alsop to mock Stevenson's intellectual pretensions. He had a reputation as an electrifying and witty speaker, and was unafraid to hold positions that were not in line with the hysterical anti-Communist atmosphere of the day. In additional to the "disadvantages" of being articulate and thoughtful, Stevenson was divorced, still a sign of considerable opprobrium. He was crushed by Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. In 1960, he expressed an interest in running a third time but was defeated by Sen. John F. Kennedy. After Kennedy's victory, Stevenson was offered the position of ambassador to the United Nations. It was in this role that, despite mistreatment from his own administration, Stevenson made his greatest mark as a public servant. The website for the Harvard Square Library describes how:

…Stevenson devoted himself wholeheartedly to his responsibilities. He served as president of the Security Council and advocated arms control and improved relations with the new nations of Africa. He established residency in an apartment at the Waldorf-Astoria, and threw himself into the busy social scene of the city. 

In April 1961, Stevenson suffered the greatest humiliation of his career. After an attack against Fidel Castro's Communist forces at the Bay of Pigs, Stevenson unwittingly disputed allegations that the attack was financed and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency, claiming instead that the anti-Communist forces were supported by wealthy Cuban emigres. When Stevenson learned that he had been misled by the White House, and even supplied with CIA-forged photographs, he considered resigning the ambassadorship, but was convinced not to do so.

Nevertheless, Stevenson remained a respected international diplomat and was applauded for his efforts to stop nuclear testing. He opposed President Lyndon B. Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam and was on his way to consult with U.N. Secretary General U Thant on the subject in 1965 when he suffered a fatal heart attack. 

Stevenson's career contradicts the typical view of the 1950s as a decade of monolithic conformity and incuriosity. Despite his own reserved nature, he evoked strong feelings of loyalty and support. The positions he advocates in this talk (before what must be considered to be, at best, a lukewarm audience) seem politically vibrant and challenging, even today. Still, there is an element of aberration in such a private-seeming individual rising as high as he did. The Gale Encyclopedia of Biography summarizes: 

A lonely, thoughtful man, with a tinge of melancholia which made him seem unhappy despite his warm humor and flashing wit, he appeared colorless compared with Eisenhower. He later declared that one of his principal disappointments in 1956 was the failure to provoke a real debate on the issues. Stevenson's contribution to public discussion was, nevertheless, large and unique, for he appraised the importance of issues in the revolutionary new era.

At the time of his death, Adlai Stevenson was sixty-five years old.  


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.