Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower faced each other for president in 1952 and again in 1956. In both elections Stevenson took two of the worst defeats in history, but even after these defeats, the Democratic Party begged him to get back into the game for the 1960 election. He reluctantly agreed at the last minute but by that time Kennedy had gained the momentum needed to secure the Democratic nomination. While Stevenson lost the race for president, he is remembered as a man of integrity with moral convictions who forever won the people's hearts.
The grandson of former vice president Adlai E. Stevenson (1893-1897) he made a name for himself as governor of Illinois in 1948 as an honest and efficient politician, credited with cleaning up corruption. He introduced a series of reforms to improve education, initiated a merit system for the state police, and improved the state’s mental hospitals.
As governor he became a target for Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt after testifying on behalf of Alger Hiss, an alleged communist spy for the Soviet KGB. Despite the Red Scare hysteria, Stevenson never wavered in his determination to testify on behalf of Hiss.
When asked why he spoke on behalf of Alger Hiss he replied, “I think that one of the most fundamental responsibilities, not only of every citizen, but particularly of lawyers, is to give testimony in a court of law, to give it honestly and willingly, and it will be a very unhappy day for Anglo-Saxon justice when a man, even a man in public life, is too timid to state what he knows and what he has heard about a defendant in a criminal trial for fear that defendant might be convicted. That would to me be the ultimate timidity."
Stevenson was not a politician who would “spin” his views on things, and look to polls to know what position to take. While McCarthy was on the hunt, Stevenson did not shy away, but knew from the start the tactics that were employed were questionable at best. He was but one of the few that opposed the Internal Act of 1950 that gave rise to McCarthyism. Stevenson vehemently opposed McCarthy, saying “When demagoguery and deceit become a national political movement, we Americans are in trouble, not just Democrats, but all of us.”
He was selected by Truman and drafted by the Democratic Party in 1952 to run against the enormously popular World War II hero General Dwight Eisenhower. Not a bitter man after losing the race, he said, “Better we lose the election than mislead the people, and better we lose than misgovern the people.”
With the support of Eleanor Roosevelt he was again nominated in 1956. Delivering over 300 speeches he wrote himself, he called on a “New America” that among other things would ban aboveground nuclear weapons tests. He knew this opinion was not wholeheartedly supported by the general public and would probably lose him votes. Later he would comment that “There are worse things than losing an election. The worst thing is to lose one's convictions and not tell the people the truth." To his satisfaction in 1963 as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations he would sign a nuclear treaty banning all but underground nuclear testing.
Eisenhower was a popular president and with the economy in good shape, Stevenson had little chance of defeating Eisenhower. Asked to give advice to a young politician he said, “Never run against a war hero.”
He was appointed ambassador to the United Nations under the Kennedy administration and served until 1965, when he died of a heart attack.
Stevenson embodied the true spirit of liberalism and will always be remembered as the outspoken critic of McCarthy. Today the threat of terrorism, not unlike the threat of nuclear warfare during the Cold War era has summoned a nationalist attitude in our country that often gets confused with patriotism. Chided by McCarthy for his convictions, Stevenson responded saying, “What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? I venture to suggest that what we mean is a sense of national responsibility…..patriotism is not a short, frenzied outburst of emotions but a tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”