The election of 1956 saw Adlai Stevenson again tasked with the unenviable duty of an electoral contest against Dwight D. Eisenhower, which, it will come as no surprise, did not end in Stevenson’s favor. Eisenhower is well known to students of history and government, Stevenson, a one-term governor of Illinois, barely garners a mention in most books on the Cold War. Despite his loss, Stevenson was an important bridge between the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt administration and the Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson. He articulated a progressive platform that would guide the Democratic Party for the coming decades in regards to domestic policy. Electoral defeat is quite common for ideologues and intellectuals on both ends of the ideological spectrum, but part and parcel with his intellectual bend came a truly unique rhetoric for the role of government in society.
The years leading up to the 1956 election saw the Eisenhower administration embroiled in a world vastly different from the one in which the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were forced to defend the United States. A battered Europe gave way to a world in which there emerged a bipolar system, with the United States and NATO on one side, and the Soviet Union and China on the other. As battle lines were drawn, both sides developed terrifying new weapons, and space programs from which to deliver them.
Domestically, the American people saw a president who sought to keep America out of unnecessary wars, and only use force when necessary. An aloof leader, who would rather spend time golfing, presided over a growing economy, and an era of relative peace. As documented in Fred Greenstein’s major work, “The Hidden-Hand Presidency,” Eisenhower was anything but aloof, and a cursory look at histories of the CIA and State Department shows that the world was anything but peaceful. 1953 saw the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and peace negotiations to end the bitter and unpopular conflict in Korea. The Cold War was anything but for Eisenhower, as he wrestled with how to support the French and their quagmire in Indochina, with their greatest defeat coming in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. 1953 and ’54 saw CIA-sponsored coups in Iran and Guatemala, actions which displayed an active American hand in foreign affairs. Shortly before the election in 1956, Great Britain and France seized the Suez Canal, and an attempted uprising against Communist rule in Hungary was mercilessly crushed by the Soviets.
In this maelstrom, Stevenson attempted to challenge Eisenhower for the Presidency. As historian Walter LaFeber points out, Stevenson’s initial attempts to challenge Eisenhower on foreign policy were done in a “curiously paradoxical manner…” at times favoring disarmament, questioning the draft, and later arguing the Eisenhower administration was too weak on Russia and looked weak after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the establishment of a communist North Vietnam. However, as the campaign proceeded, Stevenson focused on domestic policy. It was too late, however, as Eisenhower received 57% of the vote with a large majority of Americans supporting Eisenhower’s foreign policy (a smaller majority approved of Stevenson’s domestic agenda). According to Gallup, Eisenhower’s approval rating only a month after the election was an incredible 79%.
Despite being handily defeated, Stevenson would go on to serve as ambassador to the United Nations and a voice for a progressive domestic agenda in the United States. That voice is perhaps best heard, and vision best articulated, in his August 17, 1956 nomination acceptance speech, referred to as his “New America” speech. The speech is striking not just in its similarities to modern progressive rhetoric, or in the observation of a cold war consensus on foreign policy and New Deal programs, but for its rhetoric of virtue and higher purpose for an America.
One of the first features of Stevenson’s New America is his call for racial equality. Almost immediately he notes “the current problems in the relations between the races who comprise America, problems which have so often tormented our national life…” He acknowledges, though, that “there is disagreement in the Democratic Party… If all of us are not wholly satisfied with what we have said on this explosive subject it is because we have only spoken the only way a truly national party can — by understanding accommodation of conflicting views.” Here, Stevenson seems to acknowledge that a divide between Northern and Southern Democrats remained in order to prioritize “national unity,” but to acknowledge segregation in an address is an important step towards desegregation. He further states his administration would act “toward the fuller freedom for all.”
Perhaps more familiar to modern ears, Stevenson was committed to greater income inequality throughout the country. America’s economy rebounded from the Great Depression with GDP in 1940 at 1.27 trillion dollars, 1950 at 2.27 trillion, and 1955 at 2.78 trillion. This growth, however, was not enjoyed in all corners of the nation. He contended that it was the role of the federal government to ensure some level of economic parity, regardless of individual profession. Stevenson believed that “everyone is not prosperous. The truth is that the farmer, especially the family farmer who matters most, has not had his fair share of the national income…” He continued that too many families lived on too little money, “that thirty million Americans live today in families trying to make ends meet on less than $2,000 a year.” All of this manifested in a government dominated by what we would today refer to as special interests, and that the party of Eisenhower was deepest in their pockets, “The truth is that in this government of the big men — big financially — no one speaks for the little man.”
A final aspect of Stevenson’s New America address is his frequent use of virtuous language. He believed that America was gripped with a “spiritual hunger.” From where will this hunger be sated? For Stevenson, the answer comes in the form of the White House. He asks rhetorically “Has the Eisenhower administration used this opportunity to elevate us? To inspire us? … Did it, in short, give men and women a glimpse of the nobility and vision without which peoples and nations perish? … What we need is a rebirth of leadership — leadership which will give us a glimpse of the nobility and vision without which peoples and nations perish.” The office of the Presidency, no less, is responsible for somehow solving this crisis not merely of leadership, but to give inspiration to the American people.
This is a far cry from the vision of the office held by Madison, or Jefferson, and anathema to any proponents of a limited government, or, arguably, a government of laws, not of men. Jefferson in his July 12, 1801 Letter to the New Haven Merchants, contends that one of the greatest and most difficult tasks of the executive is not Stevenson’s imagined duty to impel the American people to nobility, rather, it is the appointment of capable public servants. Jefferson wrote, “Of the various Executive duties, no one excites more anxious concern than that of placing the interests of our fellow citizens in the hands of honest men, with understandings sufficient for their station.” The great duty of the executive was to be just that, the chief executive of the bureaucracy, to ensure the best possible candidates were hired to serve the public. He continued, after a long discussion on the difficulty of finding and installing qualified persons in a partisan environment, “This is a painful office; but it is made my duty, and I meet it as such. I proceed in the operation with deliberation & inquiry, that it may injure the best men least, and effect the purposes of justice & public utility with the least private distress.”
Whether you’re a strict constitutionalist, conservative, liberal or progressive, it is important to understand the philosophical background and political history of our major political ideologies. Stevenson gives us a glimpse, in one speech, into a progressive agenda that is coming to dominate current Democratic campaigns. Stevenson also gives us a glimpse into an era where there was still some art in speech making. An era where sincere belief, rather than cynicism and demagoguery, dominated what has become a 24-hour news cycle. Perhaps most importantly, Stevenson’s language of virtue and hope for an America, when he said “Once we were proud to confess that an American is a man who wants peace and believes in a better future and loves his fellow man,” illustrates a time when political opponents believed their rivals acted in good faith.
James Legee; Program Director at the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge (www.freedomsfoundation.org)