Adlai Stevenson: American Statesman and Presidential Candidate

Politician known for his wit, intellect, and failed presidential runs

Adlai Stevenson
Former Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson speaks at a campaign event for John F. Kennedy in San Francisco, California in 1960.

 Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Adlai Stevenson II (February 5, 1900 – July 14, 1965) was an American politician known for his sharp wit, eloquence, and popularity among intellectuals and the so-called "egghead" vote in the United States. A Democrat born into a long family bloodline of politicians and civil servants, Stevenson worked as a journalist and served as governor of Illinois before running for president twice and losing both times. He rose in stature as a diplomat and statesman after his failed bids for the White House in the 1950s.

Fast Facts: Adlai Stevenson

  • Full Name: Adlai Ewing Stevenson II
  • Known For: U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and two-time Democratic presidential candidate
  • Born: Feb. 5, 1900 in Los Angeles, California
  • Parents: Lewis Green and Helen Davis Stevenson
  • Died: July 14, 1965 in London, England
  • Education: B.A., Princeton University and J.D., Northwestern University
  • Key Accomplishments: Participated in negotiations during the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam War. Signed a 1963 treaty in Moscow banning nuclear weapons testing.
  • Spouse: Ellen Borden (m. 1928-1949)
  • Children: Adlai Ewing III, Borden, and John Fell

Early Years

Adlai Ewing Stevenson II was born on February 5, 1900 in Los Angeles, California, to Lewis Green and Helen Davis Stevenson. His family was well connected. His father, a friend of publisher William Randolph Hearst, was an executive who managed Hearst's California newspapers and oversaw the company's copper mines in Arizona. Stevenson later told a journalist who wanted to write about book about him, "My life has been hopelessly undramatic. I wasn't born in a log cabin. I didn't work my way through school nor did I rise from rags to riches, and there's no use trying to pretend I did. I'm not a Wilkie and I don't claim to be a simple, barefoot La Salle Street lawyer."

Stevenson got his first real taste of politics at age 12, when he met New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. Wilson asked about the young man's interest in public affairs, and Stevenson left the meeting determined to attend Wilson's alma mater, Princeton University.

Stevenson's family moved from California to Bloomington, Illinois, where young Adlai spent most of his childhood years. He attended University High School in Normal for three years before his parents withdrew him and placed him in Choate Preparatory School in Connecticut.

After two years at Choate, Stevenson headed to Princeton, where he studied history and literature and served as managing editor of the The Daily Princetonian newspaper. He graduated in 1922 and then began working toward his law degree—first at another Ivy League school, Harvard University, where he spent two years, then Northwestern University, from which he obtained his law degree, in 1926. In between Harvard and Northwestern, Stevenson worked as a reporter and editor at the family newspaper, The Pentagraph, in Bloomington.

Stevenson went to work practicing law but would eventually ignore the advice of his father—"Never go into politics," Lewis Stevenson told his son—and ran for governor of the state.

Political Career

Stevenson served as governor of Illinois from 1948 to 1952. However, the roots of his political career can be traced to more than a decade earlier, when he worked with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the details of the New Deal. Eventually, he was recruited to take on the corrupt administration of Republican Illinois Gov. Dwight H. Green, which was known as the "Green Machine." Stevenson's resounding victory on a campaign platform of good government propelled him into the national spotlight and eventually paved the way for his nomination at the 1952 Democratic National Convention.

The 1952 presidential campaign was largely about the threat of communism and government waste in the U.S. It placed Stevenson against a popular Republican, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower won handily, taking nearly 34 million popular votes to Stevenson's 27 million. The Electoral College results were crushing; Eisenhower won 442 to Stevenson's 89. The result four years later was the same, even though the incumbent Eisenhower had just survived a heart attack.

Stevenson Turns Down Russian Help in 1960 Election

In early 1960, Stevenson stated that while he would run if drafted, he would not seek a third Democratic presidential nomination. However, then-Senator John F. Kennedy was very actively seeking the nomination.

While Stevenson’s 1956 campaign promise to oppose U.S. nuclear weapons development and military growth had not resonated with American voters, it did convince the Soviet government that he was “someone they could work with.”

According to Stevenson’s personal biographer and historian John Bartlow Martin, Soviet ambassador to the U.S. Mikhail A. Menshikov met with Stevenson at the Russian embassy on January 16, 1960 on the premise of thanking him for helping arrange Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the U.S. But at some point during caviar and vodka, Menshikov read Stevenson a note from Khrushchev himself encouraging him to oppose Kennedy and make another presidential run. “We are concerned with the future, and that America has the right President,” Khrushchev’s note read, in part: “All countries are concerned with the American election. It is impossible for us not to be concerned about our future and the American Presidency which is so important to everybody everywhere.”

In the note, Khrushchev went on to ask Stevenson for suggestions on how the Soviet press could “assist Mr. Stevenson’s personal success.” Specifically, Khrushchev suggested that the Soviet press might help endear American voters to Stevenson by criticizing his “many harsh and critical” statements about the Soviet Union and Communism. “Mr. Stevenson will know best what would help him,” Khrushchev’s note concluded.

In later recounting the meeting for his biography, Stevenson told author John Bartlow Martin, that after thanking the Soviet ambassador for delivering the offer and Premier Khrushchev for his “expression of confidence,” Stevenson then told Menshikov of his “grave misgivings about the propriety or wisdom of any interference, direct or indirect, in the American election, and I mentioned to him the precedent of the British Ambassador and Grover Cleveland.” Which caused Menshikov to accuse President Eisenhower of interfering in recent British and German elections.

Always the diplomat, Stevenson politely declined the Soviet leader’s offer of assistance and repeated his refusal to seek the nomination. Kennedy would go on the win both the Democratic nomination and the 1960 presidential election over Republican Richard Nixon.

Ambassador to the United Nations

President John F. Kennedy appointed Stevenson, who had a deep knowledge of foreign affairs and popularity among Democrats, as the ambassador to the United Nations in 1961. President Lyndon B. Johnson reconfirmed him for the position later. Stevenson served as ambassador to the U.N. during a tumultuous time, through debates over the Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crises and the Vietnam War. It was a role for which Stevenson ultimately became famous, known for his moderation, compassion, civility, and grace. He served in the post until his death four and a half years later.

Marriage and Personal Life

Stevenson married Ellen Borden in 1928. The couple had three sons: Adlai Ewing III, Borden, and John Fell. They divorced in 1949 because, among other reasons, Stevenson's wife was said to have loathed politics.

Famous Quotes

Perhaps no other quote sums up Stevenson's worldview better than his call for peace and unity before the United Nations in Geneva in 1965:

"We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, 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 I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave to the ancient enemies of man half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all."

Death and Legacy

Just five days after making that speech in Geneva, on July 14, 1965, Stevenson died of a heart attack while visiting London, England. The New York Times announced his death this way: "To the public dialogue of his time he brought intelligence, civility and grace. We who have been his contemporaries have been companions of greatness.''

Stevenson is, of course, frequently remembered for his two failed bids for president. But he also left a legacy as an effective and polished statesman who won respect from his international peers and made a point of meeting personally with representatives of each of the 116 governors in the organization.

Sources

  • Adlai Ewing Stevenson: An Urbane, Witty, Articulate Politician and Diplomat. The New York Times, July 15, 1965.
  • Adlai Stevenson II Biography, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at The George Washington University.
  • Adlai Today, McLean County Museum of History, Bloomington, Illinois.
  • Adlai Stevenson II, Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development at the Illinois State University.
  • Martin, John Bartlow (1977). .An Immodest Proposal: Nikita To Adlai American Heritage Vol. 28, Issue 5.