Adlai Ewing Stevenson II Biography, American Political Leader


Who is Adlai Ewing Stevenson II? Information on Adlai Ewing Stevenson II biography, life story and political career.

Adlai Ewing Stevenson II; (1900-1965), American political leader. His importance lay chiefly in his efforts to raise the level of political debate in the United States. He shunned emotionalism and appealed to reason. As a speaker, he had an unusual command of language and a sharp and subtle wit. His eloquent speeches and statements were directed toward educating Americans on the nature of the world in which they lived and the challenges that faced them in it. Unsuccessful in two presidential campaigns, Stevenson never dominated United States politics, but he did affect the ways in which Americans looked at and discussed public affairs.

Family Background.

Stevenson was born in Los Angeles, Calif., on Feb. 5, 1900. His family background made participation in politics almost inevitable. His grandfather, the first Adlai E. Stevenson, had served as vice president. Pride in family achievements, talk of politics, and the presence of politicians were features of the home in which the second Adlai was raised. His parents took care that his knowledge of the world was not limited to Bloomington, 111., the scene of most of his early life. Adlai traveled extensively in America and Europe and was educated at the Choate School, and at Princeton, Harvard, and Northwestern universities. He received his B. A. from Princeton in 1922 and his law degree from Northwestern in 1926. His marriage in 1928 to Ellen Borden was terminated by divorce in 1949; the couple had three sons.

Adlai Ewing Stevenson II

Source :

Early Government Service.

Stevenson’s government career began with federal agency posts in the New Deal era. But even in the early 1930’s, his chief interest was foreign affairs. In Chicago he battled isolationism as a leader in the Council on Foreign Relations and in the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. These activities led to work in wartime Washington, chiefly as assistant to the secretary of the navy. In 1945 he transferred to the State Department and participated in the preparatory conferences leading to the foundation of the United Nations. He served as a U. N. delegate in 1946 and 1947.

Governor of Illinois.

Stevenson was elected Democratic governor of Illinois in 1948. In this first candidacy for public office, he achieved his only victory at the polls. During his four-year administration, Stevenson drew able people into the state government and improved the police force, highways, educational system, and welfare programs. He also vetoed bills that troubled him, including an anti-Communist measure which he regarded as “more dangerous to ourselves than to our foes.”


First Presidential Campaign.

Stevenson’s electoral triumph and his record as governor aroused national interest in him as a prospective Democratic presidential candidate for the 1952 election. Although flattered (“and I suppose flattery hurts no one,’ he remarked; “that is, if he doesn t inhale”), he preferred to serve a second term as governor. Nevertheless, unable to resist pressures generated by President Truman and other party leaders, he accepted a draft to oppose the Republican candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Stevenson’s campaign enlarged his circle of enthusiastic followers, but failed to produce victory. He defended Truman’s foreign policy of containment, but rejected the President’s “give ’em hell” political technique in favor of “talking sense” to the American people. To Stevenson, talking sense meant essentially avoiding suggestions that there were cheap and easy solutions to the nation’s problems. His earnest speeches, however, could not compensate for his opponent’s advantages: Eisenhower was a national hero, and there was widespread confidence in his ability in foreign affairs, while Truman’s foreign policy was unpopular.

Stevenson captured only nine states; the electoral vote was 442 to 89. Defeated, Stevenson said that he felt as Abraham Lincoln had on a similar occasion: “like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark … he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.”

After the election, Stevenson continued to play a large political role as titular leader of the Democratic party. He traveled widely, spoke frequently, and criticized the Eisenhower administration vigorously. He maintained that the administration was weakening the vital Western alliance and not doing enough to promote economic development and to combat communism.

Adlai Ewing Stevenson II

Source :

Second Campaign.

In 1956, Stevenson was not a reluctant candidate. Supplementing his established style with informal contacts with voters, he vigorously pursued the nomination in state primaries and secured it on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention. Against Eisenhower, however, he was even less successful than in 1952, capturing only 73 electoral votes. Efforts to force discussion of new issues hurt him. His suggestions for ending tests of H-bombs led to charges that he would weaken the nation’s defenses. Rejecting advice to stress domestic issues, he talked increasingly of foreign affairs. Even more than in 1952, Stevenson lost, despite the popularity of his party, because he could not match Eisenhower’s personal appeal.

Despite defeat, Stevenson remained a man of influence. He expressed the sense of crisis that many Americans felt after 1956: “our Russian competitors are much tougher than most of us have yet realized—and . . . this time we might get licked,” he warned, “unless we are willing to change our habits, our political behavior and our complacent outlook on the world.” He emphasized two themes—halting the arms race and promoting economic progress in Asia and Africa.

By 1960, Stevenson’s ideas were widely accepted, and many admirers sought his third nomination. Reluctant to engage in political battles again, he bowed to pressure and became a candidate for the Democratic nomination, but was defeated by the hard-driving John F. Kennedy.


Ambassador to the United Nations.

Stevenson, who had helped his party return to the White House, was rewarded, not with the office of secretary of state that he wanted, but with appointment as ambassador to the United Nations. He accepted with the understanding that he would help shape policy. In 1963, the Kennedy administration took a step he had long advocated by signing a treaty banning nuclear testing in the atmosphere.

Although the UN had not been as effective as Stevenson had hoped, he regarded it as important. As ambassador, he battled to safeguard and strengthen the world organization, as in his successful resistance to Russian efforts to weaken the office of secretary general.

Adlai Ewing Stevenson II

Source :

In the UN, Stevenson employed his great prestige and skill in debate to defend American policies, such as opposition to the admission of Communist China and resistance to Russian efforts to place missiles in Cuba, but he also brought the organization’s point of view into the councils of his own government. He urged Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to heed world opinion and use UN machinery.

Stevenson played a secondary role in policy making under the Kennedy-Johnson administrations. Some U. S. moves, such as support of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 and sending troops when a revolt broke out in the Dominican Republic in 1965, troubled him. Nevertheless, he resisted pressure from admirers to resign, and he publicly defended American policies. One of his last acts before his death of a heart attack in London on July 14, 1965, was a BBC broadcast defending American involvement in the war in South Vietnam.


Although Stevenson’s spirited delivery cannot be reproduced in print, his eloquence and wit can be gleaned from his publications. They include Major Campaign Speeches of Adlai E. Stevenson, 1952 (1953), Call to Greatness (1954), What I Think (1956), The New America (1957), Friends and Enemies: What 1 Learned in Russia (1959), Putting First Things First: A Democratic View (I960), and Looking Outward: Years of Crisis at the United Nations (1963).

Stevenson’s oldest son, Adlai E. Stevenson III, was elected to the U. S. Senate in 1970.

Leave A Reply