By Jacob K. Friefeld
The night was comfortable for Chicago in August, but the smell of body odor must have hung thick over the throngs of sweating spectators at the 1956 Democratic National Convention. They had packed the International Amphitheater on the city’s South Side for this moment — Adlai Stevenson of Illinois was about address them.
As Stevenson looked out over the crowd, ready to accept his party’s nomination for the presidency, he might have reflected over the path that had led him there. His term as governor of Illinois and loss in the 1952 presidential race had made him a national figure. His 1953 tour of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East helped him better understand threats posed to American interests abroad. A primary battle with Tennessee’s Estes Kefauver, now his running mate, had prepared him for this campaign to unseat President Dwight Eisenhower.
He began his remarks to the Democratic Convention reflecting on their meeting four years earlier, when he did not seek his party’s nomination for the presidency but, nonetheless, left the convention as their nominee. “This time” Stevenson joked, the nomination “was not entirely unsolicited.” Stevenson promised his admirers that “this time we will win!”
Adlai Stevenson with President Harry Truman at the 1952 Democratic National Convention (ALPLM)
The lessons of the ‘52 campaign had stayed with Stevenson. In that race, he had made his case to the voters during televised, late-evening policy speeches, making intellectual appeals to voters. The Eisenhower campaign employed advertising experts to sell their candidate in prime-time television commercials with the catchy slogan “I Like Ike.” Stevenson bristled at this dumbing down of the American electoral process.
An Eisenhower campaign ad from 1952 portrayed Stevenson going the wrong way on his Democratic donkey. (Wikimedia Commons)
As he accepted the nomination in ’56, Stevenson told the voters that he believed they were on the “threshold of a new America”—an America of “great ideals and noble visions.” But, thinking back to 1952, he warned the nation that the Eisenhower campaign believed “the minds of Americans can be manipulated by shows, slogans and the art of advertising. And that conviction will be backed up by the greatest torrent of money ever poured out to influence an American election.” Stevenson besmirched the “idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal” as “the ultimate indignity of the democratic process.”
This Stevenson make-up compact in the style of a rotary telephone shows that while distrustful of campaign marketing, Stevenson found it inescapable. (ALPLM)
Stevenson would go on to lose the 1956 election to the popular Eisenhower. In the end, both men were looking toward a new America and the dangers that awaited it. In his farewell address, President Eisenhower would warn against the creation of a permanent military industrial complex. And on that summer night in 1956, Stevenson warned the nation about the political marketing complex.
Though delivered more than sixty years ago, both warnings remain timely—the United States’s $801 billion in defense spending in 2021 was more than the next nine countries combined, and the $14.4 billion spent during the 2020 presidential election was the most in history.
You can view a page from a draft copy of Stevenson’s 1956 speech on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum until December.
Jacob K. Friefeld is a Research Historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.