Watching the people dance – Adlai Stevenson, the last great loser, por David F. Nogueira da Silva

It’s been fifty years this year since Adlai Stevenson, “the respectable loser”  had his last fall, there in the cold cement o Upper Grosvenor Street, London. The two times defeated presidential candidate, former governor of Illinois and ambassador of the United States to the United Nations may very well have been one of the most important and yet unremembered American politicians of the twentieth century. His thinking on foreign and domestic policies, in many ways, differed from the common sense of the democratic and republican parties. When he fell dead in the pavement while strolling with Mrs. Marietta Tree, delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, he was 65, it was a warm afternoon of July, 14th, and Stevenson was tired, very tired of politics. In the words of Eric Sevareid, “governor Stevenson died of exhaustion; he just wore himself out” (Johnson, 1979). So, what was Stevenson so tired of?

Stevenson was born on February 5th in Los Angeles. Although his place of birth was the West coast, his infancy and political life were established in the Midwest, more precisely in the state of Illinois. No wonder that only a few months after hi birth his pictured was already being published in the pages of the Chicago American. Well, the reason is that Adlai Stevenson’s family was one with very deep roots in the state of Illinois and in the American political scenario as well. The one holding little Adlai E. Stevenson I was his grandfather Adlai E. Stevenson, once vice president of the United States under Grover Cleveland and, at the time when the photo was taken, seeking for another term as vice president under William Jennings Bryan. The family’s roots went even deeper, since the first Stevenson arrived in Pennsylvania well before the Revolutionary War. Therefore, is right to say that Stevenson was a sort of an “American patrician”.

Stevenson had an unusual childhood, even considering as parameter the sons and daughters of the well-off American elite. There was constant traveling. His first trip to Europe was made when he was still eleven, and as his sister wrote years later, “We were losing our insular notion that people in foreign countries were peculiar if they seemed different from Americans. It was good for two Midwestern children to learn that no one is foreigner to friendship” (Broadwater, 1994). Indeed, it will be possible to recognise the echoes of this “not insular” thinking in Stevenson’s views on international affairs.

For instance, on October 17, at the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis, he wrote a letter to Kennedy reasoning that the president had to talk to Khrushchev whilst seeking support in the International Community “Because an attack would very likely result in Soviet reprisals somewhere – Turkey, Berlin, etc – it is most important that we have as much of the world with us as possible.” Then he continues, “We must be prepared for the widespread reaction that if we have a missile base in turkey and other places around the Soviet Union surely they have the right to one in Cuba. If we attack Cuba, an ally of the USSR, isn’t an attack on NATO bases equally justified. One could go on and on. While the explanation of our action may be clear to us it won’t be clear to many others.”   (Stevenson,1962).

This sense, of trying to understand that the American thinking on the affair may not be quite obvious to others, seems as one of the skills that only a traveled politician could have. To some of those chosen by the president to handle the most intense thirteen days of the Cold War in Kennedy’s administration, the United States view was clear and simple, and did not have to be explained. In reality Stevenson’s approach was regarded by many as weakness, as shown in a later article about the crisis published on the Saturday Evening Post on December 8. In this article, Stevenson was appointed as the only voice of dissent in the ExComm, the group gathered by the president to deal with the crisis.

It was not weakness. Stevenson truly believed in politics, diplomacy and on explaining reasons and motifs to others, not mattering if the “other” is a State Nation, a world leader or the American voter. By the way, concerning the American voter, here we probably have what many recognise as of the greatest legacies of the Illinois politician: raising the bar on political debates in the U.S. Still, a strange paradox emerges, for that might also have been, one of the causes of his defeats in the presidential elections of 1952 and 1956, both lost to Eisenhower.

It is true that it was a bit hard for governor Stevenson to win the 1952 elections. After a long democratic realm the wind of change was blowing and, in the context of the Cold War, a Word War hero like Eisenhower seemed to be perfect for the occasion. Still, Stevenson brought something new to the 1952 campaign. For, in his own words , it should be faced “not as a crusade to exterminate the opposition, but as great opportunity to educate and elevate a people whose destiny is leadership, not alone of a rich prosperous, contented country, but of a world in ferment.’ And because you cannot banish the evils of society by banishing reason or waving wands, I also said in the speech: “let’s talk sense to the American people. Let’s tell them the truth… Better we lose the election than mislead the people.” (Stevenson,1 953). Maybe because of his willingness to “talk sense” to the people, Stevenson gained the fame of being an egghead. That turned things harder for him in terms of votes in the national scenario, but he didn’t care much. As his obituary in the Times observed “…he had been in 1952 and 1956, the idol of the eggheads, men and women who were not ashamed to confess to a college education and to ideas more profound than those ordinarily passed at the bridge table”.

As an egghead, Stevenson was the friend of people like John Steinbeck, Arthur Schlesinger, Archibald MacLeish and many other intellectuals, artists and liberals of his time. He ran twice for president, almost ran a third time, aspired for an indication as Secretary of State under Kennedy, but was appointed as ambassador to the U.N instead, in the same U.N Stevenson helped to build in 1945.  And although the already quoted article on Saturday Post inferred a certain weakness in Stevenson during the Cuban crisis, one of his finest moments was exactly during the missile crisis, when he confronted the Soviet ambassador Zorin in the Security Council. The famous dialogue went as follows, “All right, sir, let me ask you one simple question: Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R. has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no, don’t wait for the translation, yes or no? When Zorin refused to answer, Stevenson snapped: “You can answer yes or no. You have denied they exist. I want to know if I understood you correctly. I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over if that’s your decision. And I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room.” Although that was probably one of his most “mediatic” moments, he considered the treaty banning all but underground testing of nuclear devices, and not the U.N debate, as one of his greatest victories. Stevenson was a member of the United States delegation that traveled to Moscow to sign the treaty, and was very proud of it.

But even being now a well-known politician, even being able to accomplish so much, in the eve of his death, in an informal talk with a jornalist a friend (that happened to be his last interview), Stevenson confessed: he was tired. The ways of Johnson administration towards the war in Vietnam, the thirty years as a government servant, his fours years in the U.N, all that had worn him out. He was ready to resign the U.N ambassadorship.  As Eric Severed reports, he said, “Ah, well, for a while I’d just like to sit in the shade with a glass of wine in my hand and watch the people dance”. (Johnson, 1979). Well, he didn’t have the time. Three days after this talk/interview he was there, lying in the cold pavement of Upper Grosvenor Street in London.

In the 50th anniversary of Mr. Stevenson’s death, it is time for us, in Brazil and also in the U.S.A, to remember and know a little better this strange loser. Or maybe he was no loser at all. As Robert Hutchins wrote in the Los Angeles Times forty-five days after his death, “The word I cannot tolerate in regard to Adlai Stevenson is ‘failure’. He failed of election the presidency. What of it? He succeeded in becoming what few presidents have been. He was a light to the world” (Johnson, 1979). That is it. The man could not be president. He could not watch the people dance. But he certainly tried to play a joyful song in his life.


  • BROADWATER, Jeff, Adlai Stevenson, the odyssey of a cold war liberal, New York, Twayne,1994.
  • JOHNSON, Walter, The papers of Adlai Stevenson, VOL VIII, , Boston,  Little, Brown and Company,1979.
  • STEVENSON, Adlai E.
  • ____________________Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963 Volume XI, Cuban missile crisis and aftermath, document 25 ” letter from the Representative to the United Nations (Stevenson) to president Kennedy.
  • ____________________Major Campaign Speeches of Adlai E. Stevenson 1952, New York, Random House, 1953.

David Fernando Nogueira da Silva – Programa de Pós-Graduação em História, Universidade de Brasília (


1 Comentário em Watching the people dance – Adlai Stevenson, the last great loser, por David F. Nogueira da Silva