- Historic Sites
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
The first time I saw Adlai Stevenson was in July, 1953. After the splendid but massive failure of his 1952 campaign he had spent five months travelling, mostly in Asia. He had received world acclaim to set against his national defeat. London was the last stage of his journey. I heard him speak briefly to an all-party House of Commons tea meeting. The chairman introduced him with a somewhat self-conscious impartiality: America was indeed fortunate to have been able to choose between two candidates of the distinction of General Eisenhower and Governor Stevenson.
Stevenson’s reply was less heavily felicitous. I recall it as being brief, graceful, self-deprecatory, and mildly moving. It was not Olympian, but it was agreeable and satisfying. It confirmed me, then a young backbencher with few American contacts, in a simple view that it was a tragedy he had not been elected.
I did not speak to him on that occasion. Nor did I know him until another seven or eight years had passed and he had suffered both the further defeat of 1956, still more overwhelming than the previous one, and, with the nomination and election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, the final elimination of his Presidential hopes. Then in the last four years of his life, when he was a renowned but not altogether happy ambassador to the United Nations, I saw him frequendy. I spoke to him on the telephone an hour before he died. I had sent a message asking him to meet some people at lunch at my house on the following day. He rang back to accept with the enthusiasm for any social engagement, particularly a small one, that he always managed to display. “Good,” he said as we concluded, “I will see you just after one o’clock tomorrow.” He did not. Later that afternoon he collapsed and died on the pavement of Brook Street.
He was sixty-five, having been born, conveniently for reckoning his age at stages in his career, at the beginning of 1900. He lived his life in the American equivalent of the British Victorian age. Unlike the original, it was not a period of peace. But in most other respects the first sixty years of this century bore for America many of the characteristics of the long years of the reign of the old Queen. There was the same sense of steadily expanding power, the same belief that rapidly increasing material wealth contained the key to most of the problems of the nation and the world, the same conviction that the domestic political system, whatever its blemishes, was the best that history had ever seen and that its fundamental principles, subject to a little special packaging, were suitable for export as well as for home consumption. Of course there were differences. The setback of the American slump years was more severe than anything known in Victorian England, but in the context of the century the miseries that followed 1929 were relatively short-lived. And the disparate nature of the origins of the American people, together with the tradition of violence that sprang out of the Civil War and the settlement of the West, meant that there was always a stronger undercurrent of fear and tension.
Throughout Stevenson’s lifetime, however, these did little more than dent the surface of American national self-confidence. His liberal voice spoke from within the framework of assurance. It was a voice that, even though it never achieved a position of full authority, helped to civilize and make more responsible this plenitude of American power. It made it more acceptable to the world. He challenged the complacency of Eisenhower and the selfrighteousness of John Foster Dulles and was a counterpoise to the roughness of Lyndon Johnson. But he was nonetheless a product, although a sensitive and unselfish one, of this period of American leadership. For him there was never a conflict between liberalism and commitment abroad. To be responsible was to be involved, from Berlin to Korea, from Southeast Asia to Latin America.
This background of power was far from giving him a brash self-assurance. He questioned from time to time whether he was suited to the office for which he strove for a decade and whether a public career was not necessarily corrupting of a man’s private personality. But he did not question the parameters within which, had he succeeded, he would have sought to exercise the supreme power or within which, without full success, he used the very considerable influence that his fame brought him.
There is a view that Stevenson was the quintessential upper-class figure in American politics. I think this view is wrong, both in fact and in inference. Stevenson did not come from a signally upper-class background. The American aristocracy is an aristocracy of wealth, preferably old wealth and mostly eastern seaboard. His family were well established, but they were not Easterners and, although thoroughly comfortable, had no vast wealth. He lived his life against a secure and established background, but he was much less affected by his family provenance and privileges than Franklin Roosevelt, or Nelson Rockefeller, or Averell Harriman. And as a politician his hesitancies, fastidiousness, and occasional incompetencies were much more the product of a complicated, rather wistful personality than of any social syndrome.