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Adlai E. Stevenson II

“Shall we see his like again?” Walter Lippmann asked amid the outpouring of grief and national introspection that followed the July 14, 1965, death of Adlai Stevenson. The United Nation’s ambassador collapsed while walking along a London street following meetings with British officials, to which he had flown after addressing the United Nations Economic and Social Council in Geneva.

A brief summary of the life of Adlai Stevenson is possible only by ignoring a great portion of his many contributions to America and the world. He was governor of Illinois from 1949-53; he was nominated twice for the Presidency, in 1952 and 1956, and he was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 1961-65. But his legacy was varied, and much of it fell within three broad themes:

  1. Helping the Midwest in the 1930s to burst from its isolationism.
  2. Promoting public service as the highest calling of citizenship.
  3. Challenging Americans and all peoples to step back from the nuclear precipice and unite around their common humanity.

Although born in California in 1900, his parents--Lewis Stevenson and Helen Davis Stevenson--soon returned to Bloomington and the city remained home base for him through his junior year of high school, during his 1926 work as aPantagrapheditor and reporter, and for frequent visits thereafter. Here the ancestral lines that produced Adlai Stevenson came together: Fell, Davis, and Stevenson -- Jesse Fell, his great-grandfather, who had arrived in 1832; W.O. Davis, who came to town in 1858 at Fell’s invitation to teach, ended up marrying Fell’s daughter Eliza, and acquired the Pantagraph with Fell; and Adlai Stevenson I, who arrived with his family in 1852 and became a lawyer. Fell was active in creation of the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln’s rise to the presidency; Adlai I was elected Vice President of the United States in 1892 under Grover Cleveland; and Adlai II’s father, Lewis, was appointed Illinois Secretary of State in 1914 after the elected Secretary died. “I have a bad case of hereditary politics,” Adlai Stevenson II was fond of remarking.

Young Adlai attended University High School in Normal, and graduated from Princeton University in 1922, later obtaining his law degree at Northwestern. After joining a Chicago law firm, he became active in the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, was chosen its president in 1933, and through it developed close friendships with local persons and international visitors knowledgeable of world affairs.

In the late 1930s he became the major Midwestern spokesman for the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, tangling repeatedly with Colonel Robert McCormick’sChicago Tribune, one of the nation’s chief promoters of isolationism. When World War II began, the Secretary of Navy picked him to be his top aide, and at the end of the war he became one of the major behind-the-scene players in creating the United Nations.

Stevenson’s decision to seek election as governor of Illinois in 1948--a race he won handily--coincided with the start of the Cold War and McCarthyism, a fear of Communist strength both overseas and within America. Stevenson refused to believe that government was riddled with Communists, as some of the extreme partisans were charging, and he frequently clashed with these critics. He once stated, “The whole notion of loyalty inquisitions is a natural characteristic of the police state, not of democracy.”

Because of his growing national popularity, the party nominated Stevenson for President in 1952, but the Republican nominee, ex-General Dwight D. Eisenhower, rolled to a convincing win, and repeated this victory against Stevenson in 1956.

It was during that second campaign in 1956 that Stevenson challenged Americans and all the world’s peoples to step back from the nuclear precipice and unite around their common humanity. This would preoccupy him, above all other issues and controversies, until his death in 1965. As President John F. Kennedy’s United Nations ambassador from 1961 until his death, Stevenson soon became the world’s most insistent voice for disarmament while urging the richest nations to tackle the questions of world poverty.

He increasingly used the metaphor of a spaceship to represent planet Earth as he called for international unity, as he did in his final speech in Geneva five days before his death 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.

–Adlai E. Stevenson II, 1965

Biography by Dr. Walter (Mark) Wyman, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Illinois State University, Normal, IL

Visit the Adlai Today website launched by the McLean County Museum of History.