For American liberals of the 1950s, Adlai Ewing Stevenson, Jr. was not merely a leader, but the living, breathing embodiment of their cause. In some ways, Stevenson can be compared to Barack Obama circa 2008 – a profoundly eloquent intellectual whose supporters loved him more for the vision he offered than the specific policies he sought to enact. “It would be hard to argue,” the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1956, “that the words of conservative Dwight D. Eisenhower… show a greater sense of the frailty of human striving or the tragedy of the human condition than those of liberal Adlai E. Stevenson.”
It was in a similar vein – of the need to rise above the human penchant for fierce, but shallow posturing and thoughtlessness – that Stevenson would charge straight into the headwinds of the “Red Scare” and Joseph McCarthy’s reign of terror. Going before the American Legion convention in August 1952, he dispensed with the usual paeans to patriotism that politicians give – and challenged Americans to a higher standard of “patriot”.
Those who endured the anxious moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis will remember Stevenson’s devastating exposure, in the highly charged atmosphere of the United Nations, of the Soviet Union’s deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. Those with good memory or political knowledge will recall his desire to “talk sense to the American people” and his razor-sharp wit on the campaign trail. Stevenson, alas, had the misfortune of twice facing the Supreme Allied Commander. “The General”, as the media called Eisenhower was a virtual lock in 1952 and 1956, but the right-wing assault on Stevenson as an aloof elitist who couldn’t be trusted to fight the Cold War didn’t help matters. By the time the Eisenhower era ended, the potential offered by John F. Kennedy killed Stevenson’s White House aspirations.
Stevenson, the grandson of Grover Cleveland’s Vice-President, didn’t seek public office until 1948. Drafted by Democrats to run for Governor of Illinois, he ended up ousting the incumbent Republican in a landslide, possibly helping Harry Truman eke out a critical victory in the state. He enjoyed being Governor, and was popular with the public for promoting efficient and honest government. When a highly unpopular Truman bowed out of the 1952 Presidential race, he and many other leading Democrats urged Stevenson to run. Stevenson, for his part, wanted to stay as Governor. Only when he was drafted on the 3rd ballot of the Democratic National Convention did he agree to run. Stevenson electrified the Convention with his inspiring acceptance speech, saying that while he had not wanted the nomination, he would fight hard to deserve it.
He was going to have to fight hard if he had any chance of winning the general election. Not only was he up against the universally popular “Ike”, but the leaders of the anti-Communist witch-hunt known as the “Red Scare”. Stevenson, like other Cold War liberals supported the containment of the USSR, but this hardly satisfied right-wing demagogues like Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. “Adlai the Appeaser” was the chosen phrase of Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s running mate – a heated accusation that equated the avoidance of demagoguery with the enabling of Adolf Hitler. In a period where thousands were arrested or publicly condemned as either Communists or Communist sympathizers, often without a shred of evidence, this charge had serious impact. The great playwright Arthur Miller, himself accused of Communist sympathies, penned “The Crucible” as an allegory to the atmosphere of hysteria engulfing the nation.
Adlai Stevenson, even as he carried the Democratic Party banner into the 1952 election, was determined to stand against this dangerous tide. When he was invited to address the American Legion convention in August 1952, he saw his chance to speak out against McCarthy, Nixon and the politics of fright. What he had in mind as his theme was hardly the kind of argument that Legion attendees – almost entirely survivors of the two World Wars – would want to hear. It would have been far easier – and much more feasible politically – for Stevenson to make soothingly bland remarks about America, national pride and the honor due to veterans. He chose an altogether different, and far more courageous, path. In front of America’s war heroes, he would challenge their mindset as “patriots”, extending that message to the nation as a whole.
On August 27th, Stevenson delivered what rhetorical scholars would call a Jeremiad. Named after the Old Testament prophet who spoke far and wide against the evils of his time, it is a style that identifies a major – but non-material – crisis affecting the nation or group, criticizes the target audience for insufficiently addressing the crisis (if at all), and urges them to turn their focus towards ending it. It is usually not a pleasant speech for an audience to hear. A great example of a Jeremiad is Robert F. Kennedy’s speech (note: PDF file) the day after Martin Luther King’s assassination, which greatly expounded on RFK’s call to “tame the savageness of man” the night before.
The first part of Stevenson’s speech reflected the muscular Cold War liberalism of Truman, Hubert Humphrey and Kennedy: “[M]any only partly understand or are loath to acknowledge,” he said, “that the costs of waging the [C] old [W] ar are but a fraction of the costs of hot war.” Nothing particularly new or illuminating there; presumably the Legionnaires clapped in appreciation of his words.
Then he made his transition towards a daringly different theme:
The United States has very large power in the world today. And the partner of power-the corollary-is responsibility. It is our high task to use our power with a sure hand and a steady touch-with the self-restraint that goes with confident strength. The purpose of our power must never be lost in the fact of our power-and the purpose, I take it, is the promotion of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
What he said next was an eloquent, but direct retort to McCarthyism:
We talk a great deal about patriotism. 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 which will enable America to remain master of her power-to walk with it in serenity and wisdom, with self-respect and the respect to all mankind; a patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime. The dedication of a lifetime-these are words that are easy to utter, but this is a mighty assignment. For it is often easier to fight for principles than to live up to them.
Patriotism, I have said, means putting country before self. This is no abstract phrase, and unhappily, we find some things in American life today of which we cannot be proud.
After acknowledging that “I find it sobering to think that their [i.e. the right-wing] pressures might one day be focused on me”, Stevenson offered a blistering critique of those who had wrapped themselves in the flag as a tool to destroy or discriminate against those they hated:
There are men among us who use ''patriotism'' as a club for attacking other Americans. What can we say for the self-styled patriot who thinks that a Negro, a Jew, a Catholic, or a Japanese-American is less an American than he? That betrays the deepest article of our faith, the belief in individual liberty and equality which has always been the heart and soul of the American idea.
What can we say for the man who proclaims himself a patriot-and then for political or personal reasons attacks the patriotism of faithful public servants?...To me this is the type of ''patriotism'' which is, in Dr. Johnson's phrase, ''the last refuge of scoundrels.''
The anatomy of patriotism is complex. But surely intolerance and public irresponsibility cannot be cloaked in the shinning armor of rectitude and righteousness. Nor can the denial of the right to hold ideas that are different-the freedom of man to think as he pleases. To strike freedom of the mind with the fist of patriotism is an old and ugly subtlety.
The first paragraph saw Stevenson challenge the patriotism of those who embraced segregation, religious intolerance and – just 11 years after Pearl Harbor – the internment of loyal Americans on the basis of their ancestry. As if calling out a significant portion of the population for un-American behavior, he proceeded to condemn McCarthy (while not naming him, it was obvious who Stevenson was referring to) as a cynical hypocrite, at a time when the Wisconsin Senator was at the height of his popularity. He then turned his attention to defending freedom of expression, especially the right of American citizens to “think as [they] please” without fear of character assassination. “Let us also favor free enterprise for the mind,” Stevenson added, linking free speech to American capitalism and the postwar economic boom that was well underway.
After reaffirming his opposition to Communism, Stevenson warned the veterans against following the witch-hunt mindset that had emotionally and mentally scarred so many Americans:
Yet, as I have said before, we must take care not to burn down the barn to kill the rats. All of us, and especially patriotic organizations of enormous influence like the American Legion, must be vigilant in protecting our birth-right from its too zealous friends while protecting it from its evil enemies.
The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live, and fear breeds repression. Too often sinister threats to the Bill of Rights, to freedom of the mind, are concealed under the patriotic cloak of anti-communism.
I could add, from any own experience, that it is never necessary to call a man a communist to make political capital. Those of us who have undertaken to practice the ancient but imperfect art of government will always make enough mistakes to keep our critics well supplied with standard ammunition.
There is no need for poison gas.
It is important to note that almost every politician in the early 1950s was seeking to embrace the cause of zealotry, to protect them from McCarthy’s accusations if nothing else. Senate critics of McCarthy’s rhetoric and tactics, like Millard Tydings and William Benton, were ousted from office, and their careers ended, in large part due to McCarthy’s public condemnations. Even Hubert Humphrey, a lifelong crusader for Civil Rights, felt he had to sponsor a bill in the United States Senate that banned the Communist Party.
For the Democratic Party’s nominee for President to not only refuse to join the witch-hunt, but openly condemn it, took guts. Even the hero of D-Day was unwilling to risk political backlash by opposing “Tail Gunner Joe” until McCarthy’s fall from grace was well underway.
Stevenson wasn’t finished, however. In a passage one could as easily apply to 2012 as 1952 (see the Texas Republican Party’s new platform that attacks “critical thinking skills”), he rebuked the right-wing assault on public education, particularly teachers and professors accused of Communist sympathies. “As a practical matter, we do not stop communist activity in this way,” he declared. “What we do is give the communists material with which to defame us. And we also stifle the initiative of teachers and depreciate the prestige of the teaching profession which should be as honorable and esteemed as any among us.”
The candidate then concluded his speech by returning to his previous theme of patriotism, urging the Legionnaires – and the nation by proxy – to aspire to a higher calling as Americans than the shallow baseness of the day.
Men who have offered their lives for their country know that patriotism is not the fear of something; it is the love of something. Patriotism with us...is the love of this Republic and of the ideal of liberty of man and mind in which it was born, and to which this Republic is dedicated.
With this patriotism-patriotism in its large and wholesome meaning-America can master its power and turn it to the noble cause of peace. We can maintain military power without militarism; political power without oppression; and moral power without compulsion or complacency. The road we travel is long, but at the end lies the grail of peace…We can pluck this flower, safety, from this nettle, danger. Living, speaking, like men – like Americans – we can lead the way to our rendezvous in a happy, peaceful world.
Perhaps Stevenson knew he had nothing to lose by speaking out as he did. Public polling simply confirmed with statistics what signals from the electorate had already made clear: Americans liked Ike, were far from wild about Harry Truman, and wanted a break from 20 straight years of Democratic government in the White House. As it happened, Ike won in a landslide, carrying every state outside the Old Confederacy and breaking the “Solid South” as well. He would beat Stevenson by even more in 1956, when the Democrat fully embraced an ambitious liberal agenda that, in large part, would be enacted by Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. “The liberal hour” of the 1960s came too late for the man who courageously kept the flame burning, as his cause labored in the wilderness.
On this Independence Day, as we celebrate our country and put our patriotism on display, it is worth remembering the words that Adlai E. Stevenson spoke 60 years ago. His challenge to America – to embrace a patriotism anchored in love and vigilance, not hate and convenience – rings as true today as it did in some of the darkest moments of our history. Here, indeed, was a true American patriot.
9:56 AM PT: Wow! Thank you to everyone who's recommended the article so far. I'm so proud to see it at the top of the Community Spotlight section. :)
I just got back from a local Independence Day parade, where I marched with the Democratic Party group. In a town carried by McCain, we got a lot more cheers than boos/heckling - it was a great feeling!
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