Adlai E. Stevenson, governor of Illinois and twice a Democratic nominee for president (1952 and 1956), was one of the leading political figures of the mid-twentieth century. Raised in Illinois where his family had been prominent in the political world for several generations, Stevenson attended Princeton University and, in 1926, earned a law degree from Northwestern University. He practiced law in Chicago for seven years before becoming special counsel to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) during Franklin Roosevelt's first term. In 1935, he returned to law practice. When war erupted in Europe, Stevenson chaired the Chicago Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies (the White Committee) and, in 1940, he returned to Washington to act as special assistant to FDR's Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox. In December 1943, he traveled to Italy under the aegis of the Foreign Economic Administration to conduct a two-month investigation into the Italian economy. Stevenson returned to Chicago for a short time and then, in 1945, FDR appointed him as special assistant to Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural and Public Affairs Archibald MacLeish to begin work on the establishment of the United Nations. Working together as delegates to the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in London, Eleanor Roosevelt and Stevenson formed both a political alliance and personal friendship. In 1948, at her urging, he ran successfully for governor of Illinois and assailed political corruption in the state. As governor, he reorganized the state government, improved the state's infrastructure, fought against organized crime, and drew additional attention when he resoundingly vetoed the Broyles loyalty-oath bill.
In 1952, when city bosses opposed to the rise of the organized crime investigator, Estes Kefauver, helped deadlock the Democratic convention, the Democrats drafted Stevenson, who had delivered a ringing convention address. Fundamentally more conservative than either Truman or Kefauver, Stevenson not only had an "uneasy" relationship with Truman but with organized labor, civil rights organizations, and other traditional liberal constituencies as well. He lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower by a substantial margin.
Over the next four years Stevenson abandoned some of his conservative positions and became a major spokesman for the Democratic Party. He joined ER in her anger over the tactics of Joseph McCarthy and in an outspoken defense of the United Nations and he attacked the Eisenhower administration's close ties to the business community. ER threw her support behind Stevenson in the 1956 campaign primaries and Stevenson again won the party's nomination to challenge Eisenhower. Stevenson campaigned both eloquently and energetically on a "New America" platform that included a nuclear test ban and an end to the draft. A newly moderate Democrat with a reputation as an intellectual, Stevenson found himself criticized from both right and left. Republican critics dubbed him an "egghead" and Democrats took him to task for being unable to relate to the common man and for his urging moderation in implementing the Brown decision. He lost by a considerable margin.
As the 1960 convention approached, Stevenson refused to declare his candidacy or campaign in any primary; however, he did not prevent supporters from organizing a draft Stevenson movement. Thus, although Kennedy's sweep of the primaries made him the leader going into the convention, ER and other Stevenson supporters believed that, should the convention turn to him, he would accept the nomination once again. Stevenson then surprised his supporters by removing his name from consideration without first informing them, an act that strained his relationship with ER.
John Kennedy rewarded his support during the campaign by appointing him UN Ambassador. In this position, Stevenson was able to use his considerable talents to advocate support for the emerging African nations and for arms control. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Stevenson's suggestion to exchange a U.S. withdrawal of missiles in Turkey for a Soviet withdrawal of missiles from Cuba helped defuse a potentially catastrophic international situation.
Stevenson, always more of a "dove" than a "hawk," privately deplored President Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War and was frustrated by his inability to influence foreign policy. Furthermore, the rigors of his political activities began to take a toll on his health. On a trip to London in 1965 to discuss with U.N. Secretary General U Thant ways to end the conflict in Southeast Asia, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Sources: Allida Black, Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), pp. 182-87; Paul S. Boyer, ed., The Oxford Companion to United States History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 747; Paul S. Kirkendall, ed., The Harry Truman Encyclopedia (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1989), p. 342; John Bartlow Martin, Adlai Stevenson of Illinois (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1977), p. 291; John Bartlow Martin, Adlai Stevenson and the World (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1976), pp. 748-49.
Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .
For more information, visit The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers home page at https://erpapers.columbian.gwu.edu/.
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