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Adlai Stevenson II: Influential Giant of the Mid-20th Century

Updated on May 20, 2014
Adlai E. Stevenson during his 1952 campaign for President.
Adlai E. Stevenson during his 1952 campaign for President. | Source

Adlai E. Stevenson II was a titan of mid-20th Century American politics. Grandson of a former American Vice-President, influential in founding the United Nations, Governor of the State of Illinois, twice the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, and U.S. representative to the United Nations. His political style served as a transition from the New Deal to the JFK era in the Democratic Party.

Noted for his oratory, quips, and erudite manner, Stevenson became a hero to the mainstream intellectual left in the 1950s and a symbol for rational international engagement during the repressive McCarthy era.

Stevenson, born just six weeks into the 20th Century, was part of an Illinois political dynasty lasting a century and a half. His maternal great grandfather, Jesse Fell, was Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 campaign manager, an initiator and land donor of Illinois State University, and founder of several towns in Central Illinois. His grandfather, Adlai Stevenson I, was Vice President of the United States under Grover Cleveland from 1893-1897. His father Lewis was appointed Illinois Secretary of State during World War I. His eldest son, Adlai Stevenson III, was U.S. Senator from Illinois from 1970-1981.

Stevenson attended Princeton, where he edited the student newspaper. It served as excellent training for assuming the role of editorial writer at his family’s newspaper, The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, where he wrote while he attended law school at Northwestern University in Chicago.

In 1940, former Republican Presidential candidate Frank Knox (editor and publisher of the Chicago Daily News)-- newly appointed by Franklin Roosevelt as Secretary of the Navy—offered Stevenson a high-ranking speechwriting and legal position within the administration. At the end of the War, Stevenson worked on the US delegation in negotiations to establish the ground rules and function of the United Nations.

In 1948, Democratic political leaders in Illinois tabbed Stevenson to run against the incumbent Republican governor. In what was supposed to be a big year for Republicans, Democrat Stevenson staged an upset to become the 31st Governor of Illinois.

The 1952 Democratic Convention was held in Chicago, and with President Truman declining to run for a second full term, favorite son Adlai Stevenson stepped to the podium to give a speech welcoming the delegates. Stevenson charmed the crowd with his humor, his intellectualism, and his good-natured presentation. In referencing the attacks on the New Deal at the Republican Convention, he said:

“Our Republican friends have said it was all a miserable failure. For almost a week pompous phrases marched over this landscape in search of an idea, and the only idea that they found was that the [last] two great decades of progress...were the misbegotten spawn of bungling, of corruption, of socialism, of mismanagement, of waste and worse...after listening to this everlasting procession of epithets about our [party's] misdeeds I was even surprised the next morning when the mail was delivered on time."

For his oratory, Stevenson won the dubious prize of the 1952 Democratic Presidential nomination against war hero Dwight Eisenhower, after two straight decades of Democratic control of the White House. Despite his efforts, the Republicans won in a landslide in 1952, and again in 1956.

Nevertheless, Stevenson became a hero to American liberals and intellectuals who were appalled at the rise of McCarthyism and the banality of oppressive 1950s consumer culture. His warnings about the dangers of the Cold War, weak responses to growing strife over racial integration, consumer culture, and growing environmental degradation resonated with millions of voters.

When John F. Kennedy prevailed over Lyndon Johnson, Stevenson, and others for the 1960 Democratic Presidential nomination, it appeared that Stevenson’s window to influence International politics had closed. Yet Kennedy chose Johnson as his Vice Presidential running mate, and upon a close victory over Republican Richard Nixon, appointed Stevenson as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Coming off two straight defeats in national Presidential elections, many people—even on the liberal side of the political spectrum-- thought Stevenson was too timid or too intellectual to be effective in a hardened battle. But when the Cuban Missile Crisis emerged in October 1962, Adlai Stevenson issued one of the most confrontational and memorable performances ever seen in the United Nations.

Adlai Stevenson grave in Bloomington, Illinois.
Adlai Stevenson grave in Bloomington, Illinois. | Source
Plaque in front of the Stevenson family plot in Bloomington, Illinois.
Plaque in front of the Stevenson family plot in Bloomington, Illinois. | Source

Cuban Missile Crisis

Kennedy's cool and effective handling of a crisis that could have potentially propelled the United States and Soviet Union into global thermonuclear war rehabilitated his reputation in foreign affairs after the failed Bay of Pigs fiasco the previous year. Likewise, Adlai Stevenson's forceful confrontation of the Soviet ambassador on the floor of the United Nations rehabilitated his tarnished image while achieving an American victory in the court of public opinion on the World's greatest International diplomacy stage.

Adlai Stevenson continued to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations through the assassination of John F. Kennedy into the early stages of the U.S. war in Vietnam. He died of a heart attack at the age of 65 on July 14, 1965, while visiting friends in London, England.

Many landmarks and buildings in Illinois are named for Stevenson, including the Chicago freeway that leads toward his childhood home of Bloomington, Illinois. The Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington features a playful statue of Stevenson sitting on a bench a hole in the sole of his shoe-- a nod to a famous photo from one of his election campaigns.

Adlai Stevenson Quotes

“All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions.”

“There is a spiritual hunger in the world today, and it cannot be satisfied by better cars on longer credit terms.”

“Nothing so dates a man as to decry the younger generation.”

“I have been thinking that I would make a proposition to my Republicans friends: That if they would stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.”

“It's hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.”

“You can tell the size of a man by the size of the thing that makes him mad.”

“Nature is indifferent to the survival of the human species… including Americans.”

“We travel together, passengers on a little spaceship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil, all committed—for our safety—to its security and peace. Preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work and the love we give our fragile craft.”

“I am not an old, experienced hand a politics. But I am now seasoned enough to have learned that the hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.”

“Man is a strange animal. He generally cannot read the handwriting on the all until his back is up against it.”


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    John C Thomas 3 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

    Wow, refief2000! Is there any political leader you admire, for anything? Cuba is NOT better armed than they were in 1962, when they had actual Soviet ICBMs being installed, enough to wipe out the entire East Coast in 15 minutes. And Colin Powell didn't have multiple satelite photos of WMD, he had circumstantial evidence.

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    retief2000 3 years ago

    Failed Democrat presidential candidate running against one of those numb skull, do nothing, golfers and his hateful, anti-communist vice-president. He did the Colin Powell for the UN and Cuba is still communist and better armed. What a giant.