Adlai Stevenson


“And to the Soviet Union I would say: There are laws of history more profound, more inescapable than the laws dreamed up by Marx and Lenin- laws which belong not to class relationships or stages of economic development, but to the nature and the destiny of man himself. Among these laws is the certainty that war follows when new empires thrust into collapsing ruins of the old. So stay your ambitions … do not sabotage the only institution [the United Nations] which offers an alternative to imperialism.” —1961

Eisenhower would “lead a crusade” (he had led one already, he stressed) to “clear up the mess in Washington.” He would be hard on corruption and communism. Still more important for vote winning was his “I shall go to Korea” statement at Detroit on October 24. The war there hung heavily over the nation throughout the campaign. Although more creditable and successful than its successor in Vietnam, it was nonetheless almost as unpopular, although less frenetically so. Eisenhower’s promise to go there came as a shaft of light. Most Americans did not ask what he would do when he arrived. The General would surely find a way out. Stevenson responded with a clearly argued but defensive antiappeasement statement. It was less appealing than the hopeful ambiguity of his opponent.

“7 don’t share the concern of some of my contemporaries about student demonstrations. I rather like their involvement in great issues. But if I could offer demonstrators one word of advice I would say that to state goals is easy; to tell us how to get there is not so easy. ” —1965

It was an exchange that was typical of the campaign. Stevenson’s speeches were more responsible, better phrased, better delivered, enlivened by a wit that was wholly lacking in Eisenhower (“I offer my opponents a bargain: if they will stop telling falsehoods about us, I will stop telling the truth about them”), and better received by the immediate audiences. But they made less impact across the nation, partly because they were less well reported by an overwhelmingly Republican press and partly because their message was less simple. Stevenson also spread his effort across too wide and diffuse a range of subjects.

Eisenhower’s campaign had some seamy edges. He did not disavow McCarthyism and indeed appeared with the senator in Wisconsin, cutting out of his speech there a passage of praise for General George Marshall, whom McCarthy had viciously attacked, which had been in the original draft. This aroused Stevenson’s particular contempt. “Crusade indeed” was his comment. Marshall was “General Eisenhower’s greatest benefactor.” Yet the General had given his hand to those, not only McCarthy, but also Senator Jenner of Indiana, who had traduced him. This was a break from Stevenson’s habit of courteous, almost overcourteous, treatment of his opponent. He reserved most of his acerbic remarks for the then Senator Nixon, second man on the Republican ticket, who specialized in suggesting that the Democratic candidate was steeped in the Acheson-inspired conspiracy to hand over the United States to communism. Stevenson called him “the brash and patronizing young man who aspires to be Vice President” and forcibly defended his own position in terms of classical liberalism.

Stevenson wound up his campaign in Chicago, where it had started, and awaited the returns in Springfield. At 9 P.M. he was told what the result would be and accepted it calmly.

He carried only nine states, all in or on the edge of the South. A few hours later Stevenson went across to his local hotel headquarters and conceded graciously. He added, spontaneously it seemed, that someone had once asked a fellow townsman—Lincoln—how it felt to lose: “He said that it felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.” He was as urbane in defeat as he had been four years before in victory.

Defeat in the Presidential campaign of 1952 left Adlai Stevenson with a lasting fame, both at home and abroad; dedicated minority support, particularly among the educated young, balanced by a strong current of criticism from others about the way in which he had conducted the campaign; and no very clear political role. His ardent supporters felt that he had widened their horizons and given them a purpose and commitment in politics that they had never before experienced. His detractors pointed out, with some justification, that he had been aloof, not very good on television, above the heads of much of his audience, sometimes elegantly flippant when he ought to have been stolidly earnest, and rather ill-organized. His lack of a clear future role was endemic in the American system. He automatically remained the titular head of his party. But he had no forum in which to exercise his leadership; and 1956 was a long way off, with a second attempt for a defeated candidate nearer to the exception than the rule.

“While I am not in favor of maladjustment, I view this cultivation of neutrality, this breeding of mental neuters, this hostility to eccentricity and controversy with grave misgiving. One looks back with dismay at the possibility of… Wesley contentedly administering a country parish, George Washington going to London to receive a barony from George in, or Abraham Lincoln prospering in Springfield with never a concern for the preservation of the crumbling Union.” —1955