- Historic Sites
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
The marriage was a gradual failure. Various explanations have been offered for this, the most frequent being that Ellen Stevenson resented the shift in the balance of fame and found no compensation in her husband’s mounting political success. At the beginning she was the more sought-after and he witty, charming, and easy social coinage, but superficially little more. At the end, twenty-one years later, he was a national figure, and the Borden fortune had largely disappeared. Not having known Mrs. Stevenson, I express no opinion. What is certain is that the breakup was a source of deep and lasting distress to Stevenson.
Stevenson’s first foray away from La Salle Street and Lake Forest came at the beginning of Roosevelt’s first term. Partly through the agency of Harold Ickes, the new Secretary of the Interior, he went to Washington for eighteen months as an assistant counsel in the Agricultural Assistance Administration. Then he returned to Chicago and his law practice. He became a partner in 1Q35 and with the reorganization and renaming of the firm in 1937 graduated to a major role and a steadily enlarging income. By the outbreak of the war in Europe he was making thirty or forty thousand dollars a year.
“Diplomacy… is not the art of asserting ever more emphatically that attitudes should not be what they clearly are. It is not the repudiation of actuality, but the recognition of actuality, and the use of actuality to advance our national interests.” —1954
During this period he also became increasingly involved in community affairs, notably the Council on Foreign Relations but also a few charities, a cross-party cleangovernment league, and some regular party activity at the time of Roosevelt’s second-term election. He was then thirty-six, and it is doubtful if he had ever before made a straight political speech. Nor did he make more than a handful for another twelve years thereafter. But he nonetheless began to make a minority-audience public name for himself. His introduction of visiting speakers at the council became known as models of wit and felicity. They were delivered in a throwaway manner. They were not so composed. On one occasion when he was asked to insert a new point, he recoiled in horror. He could not possibly do it without at least an hour’s further preparation.
In 1939 he spent the early summer in England and returned oppressed by the shadow of the coming war. Soon after his return he began his first substantial political enterprise, his first attempt to mold opinion. He became chairman of the Chicago chapter of William Alien White’s Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. The length of the title was made necessary by an ambiguity of approach. The aim was to produce an Allied victory while keeping America at peace. Chicago was a key segment of the ideological battle line. Isolationist sentiment was strong there. Stevenson had to stand up to a lot of abuse, both public and private. He greatly disliked it, but his controversial nerves improved under the bombardment.
In July, 1941, he again took a job in Washington, as personal assistant to Frank Knox, whom Roosevelt had recently appointed Secretary of the Navy. Later that year he began to be attracted by elective office and contemplated the possibility of running for the United States Senate. But American entry into the war turned his thoughts away from that. He stayed with Knox until 1943, and was then sent to try to organize civil administration in Italy. At the end of the war and in early 1946 he was occupied with the organization of the United Nations.
A year after the end of war in Europe he was once more back in his Chicago law office. He was forty-six. He had refused an embassy. He had a good record of public service. He had developed a feel for diplomatic negotiation and some rather ill-directed sense of ambition. Not for the first or last time in his life he was uncertain what he wanted to do.
By the summer of 1947 he again began to be tentatively, mock-reluctantly, interested in elective office. A Presidential year was on the horizon. President Truman’s stock was low, and the likelihood of his defeat looked overwhelming. On the other hand the possibility of a Democrat of Stevenson’s stamp securing nomination in Illinois had improved. The old Kelly-Nash machine had been beaten in Chicago. Colonel Jacob Arvey had taken over as head of the Cook County Democratic organization. Maurice Kennelly, a successful Irish businessman with a reform reputation and a broad appeal, had triumphantly replaced Kelly as mayor.
As in 1941, it was the Senate that attracted Stevenson. If nominated, he could run against an isolationist incumbent who was an old enemy. If elected, he could pursue his main foreign-policy interests. A trio of influential Chicago gentlemen with little direct political involvement began to canvass actively on his behalf. There were also recommendations from Mrs. Roosevelt and Secretary Byrnes. Arvey was half-impressed. Mayor Kennelly’s success, and his own predilections, made him open to the idea of candidates with an appeal to middle opinion. But he was not sure about either Stevenson or his associates. He thought they might be too detached from the realities even of reformed Illinois politics. He made inquiries and gratefully received an assurance from Stevenson that, contrary to rumor, he had not been at Oxford, and “not even Eton.” Eventually Arvey gave them half of what they wanted. He preferred Paul Douglas for the Senate nomination, but Stevenson could run for governor. A thirtyman committee would make the formal decisions, but Arvey had made up his mind.