Adlai Stevenson

This page is about the unsuccessful Presidential contender from the 1950s; for Grover Cleveland's Vice-President, see Adlai E. Stevenson; for the U.S. Senator from Illinois during the 1970s, see Adlai Stevenson III.
Portrait of Adlai Stevenson
Portrait of Adlai Stevenson

Adlai Ewing Stevenson II (February 5, 1900July 14, 1965) was an American politician and statesman, noted for his skill in debate and oratory. He was twice an unsuccessful candidate for President of the United States (1952 and 1956).


Childhood and education

Stevenson was born in Los Angeles into a political family; his grandfather Adlai E. Stevenson I had been Vice President of the United States. He was raised in Bloomington, Illinois, and educated at The Choate School and at Princeton and Northwestern University. He got his BA at Princeton in 1922 and a law degree at Northwestern in 1926. When Stevenson was a child, there was a tragic incident that haunted him for the rest of his life. While showing off with his brother's hunting rifle, he accidentally shot and killed a young playmate named Ruth Merwin. Stevenson rarely discussed the incident but many have theorized that his dedication to causes may have been due to the terrible burden of guilt he carried.

Law and governorship

After university he practiced law in Chicago. He moved into federal government in 1931, working with New Deal initiatives. During the war he worked in Washington as assistant to the Secretary of the Navy. Post-war he was a delegate to the United Nations in 1946 and 1947. Stevenson, who had toyed with the idea of entering politics for several years, entered the Illinois gubernatorial race and defeated incumbent Dwight H. Green in a landslide. Principal among his achievements as Illinois governor were reorganizing the state police, cracking down on illegal gambling, and improving the state highways. In 1949 Stevenson appeared as a character witness in the first trial of Alger Hiss.

1952 presidential bid

Early in 1952, while Stevenson was still governor of Illinois, President Harry S. Truman proposed that he seek the Democratic nomination for president. In a fashion that was to become his trademark, Stevenson at first hesitated, arguing that he was committed to running for a second gubernatorial term. Despite his protestations, the delegates drafted him, and he accepted the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago with a speech that according to contemporaries, "electrified the nation." Stevenson's distinctive speaking style quickly earned him the reputation of an intellectual and endeared him to many Americans, while simultaneously alienating him from others. Stevenson's intelligence was the subject of much ridicule among anti-intellectuals; it was during the 1952 campaign that Republican vice presidential candidate Sen. Richard M. Nixon of California labelled Stevenson an "egghead." In the 1952 presidential election, Stevenson secured only nine states and lost the Electoral College vote 442 to 89.

Following his defeat, prior to returning to law practice, Stevenson traveled throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe, writing about his travels for Look magazine. Although he was not sent as an official emissary of the U.S. government, Stevenson's international reputation gave him entree to many foreign officials.

1956 presidential bid

Many Democratic leaders considered Stevenson the only natural choice for the presidential nomination in 1956, and his chances for victory seemed greater after Eisenhower's heart attack late in 1955. Although his candidacy was challenged by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver and New York Governor W. Averell Harriman, Stevenson campaigned more aggressively to secure the nomination, and Kefauver conceded after losing a few key primaries. To Stevenson's dismay, former president Harry S. Truman endorsed Harriman, but the blow was softened by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt's continued support. Stevenson again won the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, aided by strong support from younger delegates, who were said to form the core of the "New Politics" movement. He permitted the convention delegates to choose Estes Kefauver as his running mate, despite stiff competition from John F. Kennedy. Following his nomination, Stevenson waged a vigorous presidential campaign, delivering 300 speeches and traveling 55,000 miles. He called on the electorate to join him in a march to a "new America," based on a liberal agenda that anticipated the programs of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. His call for an end to aboveground nuclear weapons tests created a storm, but was ultimately enshrined in the Test Ban Treaty of 1963. While President Eisenhower suffered heart problems, the economy enjoyed robust health. Stevenson's hopes for victory were dashed when, in October, President Eisenhower's doctors gave him a clean bill of health and the Suez crisis erupted. The public was not convinced that a change in leadership was needed, and Stevenson lost his second bid for the presidency, winning only 73 electoral votes in the 1956 presidential election.

Despite his two defeats, Stevenson remained enormously popular with the American people. Early in 1957, Stevenson resumed law practice with associates W. Willard Wirtz, William McC. Blair Jr. and Newton N. Minow. He also accepted an appointment on the new Democratic Advisory Council, with other prominent Democrats, including Harry S. Truman, David L. Lawrence and John F. Kennedy. He also served on the board of trustees of the Encyclopdia Britannica and acted as their legal counsel.

1960 election and the United Nations

Prior to the 1960 Democratic National Convention, Stevenson announced that he was not seeking the Democratic nomination for president, but would accept another draft. Because he still hoped to be a candidate, Stevenson refused to give the nominating address for relative newcomer John F. Kennedy, a cause for future strained relations between the two politicians. Once Kennedy won the nomination, Stevenson, always an enormously popular public speaker, campaigned actively for him. Due to his two presidential nominations and previous United Nations experience, Stevenson perceived himself an elder statesman and a natural choice for Secretary of State, an opinion shared by many.

Following Kennedy's victory, Stevenson was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, where he worked hard to support U.S. foreign policy, even when he personally disagreed with some of Kennedy's actions. His most famous moment came on October 25, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, when he gave a presentation at an emergency session of the Security Council. He forcefully asked the Soviet representative if his country was installing missiles in Cuba, punctuated with the famous demand, "Don't wait for the translation!" in demanding an immediate answer. In a diplomatic coup, Stevenson then showed photographs that proved the existence of missiles in Cuba, just after Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin had said they did not exist.

Stevenson died suddenly on July 14, 1965, during a stop in London. Following memorial services in Washington, D.C; Springfield, Illinois; and Bloomington, Illinois, Stevenson was interred in the family plot in Evergreen Cemetery, Bloomington, Illinois.

Stevenson's father, Lewis G. Stevenson, was Illinois secretary of state (1914–1917). Stevenson's eldest son, Adlai E. Stevenson III, was a U.S. senator from Illinois (1970–1981). His first cousin is actor McLean Stevenson.


Preceded by:
Dwight H. Green
Governor of Illinois
1949 – 1953
Succeeded by:
William G. Stratton
Preceded by:
Harry S. Truman
Democratic Party Presidential candidate
1952 (lost), 1956 (lost)
Succeeded by:
John F. Kennedy
Preceded by:
James J. Wadsworth
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.
1961 – 1965
Succeeded by:
Arthur J. Goldberg

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