Fifty years ago, Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate, injected a peace proposal into his hard-fought political campaign. Speaking before the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 21, 1956, Stevenson suggested halting H-bomb tests and challenging other nations to do the same. According to the Illinois Democrat, such actions would “reflect our determination never to plunge the world into nuclear holocaust” and “would reaffirm our purpose to act with humility and a decent concern for world opinion.”
Although sharp criticism in the press and from President Dwight Eisenhower led Stevenson to shelve the issue temporarily, he revived it on September 5. Addressing the American Legion, he warned that “there is not peace — real peace — while more than half of our federal budget goes into an armaments race . . . and the earth’s atmosphere is contaminated from week to week by exploding hydrogen bombs.” Thereafter, his proposal to halt the nuclear arms race by ending nuclear testing became a key component of his campaign. On October 15, in a nationwide TV broadcast focused entirely on the nuclear testing issue, he pledged that, as president of the United States, he would make a nuclear test ban his “first order of business.”
Why did this proposal become a central issue in Stevenson’s campaign? There is little doubt that Stevenson, a humane individual with a genuine concern for human survival, sincerely believed in it.
In addition, however, making a peace proposal could be useful politically. Having lost the 1952 presidential race to Eisenhower, Stevenson recognized that his 1956 presidential campaign provided his last practicable chance to reach the White House. In the early 1950s, millions of Americans longed for peace, and Eisenhower had won the 1952 race in large part thanks to the fact that he had promised to end the Korean War, a bloody, unpopular conflict for which the Democrats received most of the blame. After his election, Eisenhower had ended the war, and now the Republicans, gearing up for his 1956 re-election campaign, were trumpeting “Peace, Progress, and Prosperity” as their campaign themes.
Stevenson and his campaign strategists were well aware of these facts. In 1955, responding to Stevenson’s question about “how to seize the peace initiative” from the Republicans, Thomas Finletter, a top aide, suggested that he attack the Eisenhower administration for bringing the nation twice “to the brink of total atomic war” and that he strongly make “the case for disarmament.” Stevenson’s willingness to adopt this approach was reinforced by a growing number of pleas for nuclear disarmament from religious groups and leaders, distinguished scientists, and the one Democratic holdover on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Although some campaign staffers feared that a critique of nuclear testing would damage Stevenson’s 1956 campaign, others were enthusiastic about it, in part because it generated enthusiastic applause at his campaign rallies.
In addition, there was growing criticism of nuclear testing by peace and disarmament activists. One of the most prominent of them — Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature — had warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons since their public debut in 1945, brought the “Hiroshima Maidens” to the United States for plastic and reconstructive surgery, and had recently taken up the nuclear testing issue as the key to halting the nuclear arms race. Stevenson had a close relationship with Cousins, and repeatedly drew on him for political advice and campaign speeches. According to Stevenson, Cousins was his “constant counselor and conscience.”
Not surprisingly, the Republicans — as keen proponents of nuclear weapons for their new national security policy of “massive retaliation” — lashed back furiously at Stevenson’s nuclear test ban proposal. Vice President Richard Nixon denounced it as “catastrophic nonsense.” Publicly, Eisenhower assailed Stevenson for his antinuclear stand, while privately he dismissed him contemptuously as “that monkey.” Determined to “nail” Stevenson, AEC chair Lewis Strauss lined up prominent scientists to condemn the Democratic candidate and to endorse the president’s nuclear weapons policy.
The attack on Stevenson gained momentum after October 18, 1956, when Soviet premier Nikolai Bulganin sent a letter to Eisenhower criticizing the administration’s position on nuclear testing. Strauss viewed this as “a windfall in view of the headway which Stevenson had made with the issue during the campaign,” and suggested that “if carefully handled, the note could be turned to considerable advantage.” Working with Dulles and, later, with Eisenhower and other officials, Strauss helped produce a withering public response. Delivered by Eisenhower, it attacked the Soviet Union for interfering in U.S. politics. Together with Bulganin’s letter, it certainly helped to undermine Stevenson’s campaign momentum. Meanwhile, Eisenhower continued to attack Stevenson’s nuclear arms control proposal, arguing that it was vital for the United States to maintain “the most advanced military weapons.”
The upshot seems to have been that, although Stevenson’s call for a ban on nuclear testing added new interest and energy to his campaign, it did not deliver any substantial bloc of votes to him, either. Given Eisenhower’s immense personal popularity, plus his ability to point to “Peace, Progress, and Prosperity,” the Republican president won the 1956 election handily and went on to serve another four years in the White House.
Even so, in the following years, Stevenson and the Democrats could take some satisfaction in their test ban proposal. Public opposition to nuclear testing continued to grow. In 1957, Cousins organized the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, an organization that, with Cousins at its helm, spurred popular demands for nuclear arms control and disarmament. In 1958, faced with massive public pressure, at home and abroad, the Eisenhower administration accepted a Soviet-initiated moratorium on nuclear testing and began negotiations for a test ban treaty. By 1960, every major candidate for the presidency publicly supported a nuclear test ban, including Nixon. Although Stevenson was edged out for the Democratic presidential nod that year, he was appointed by the victorious Democrat, John F. Kennedy, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In 1963, with the help of Stevenson and Cousins, the Kennedy administration negotiated and secured the ratification of the Partial Test Ban Treaty — one of its most popular measures.
This brief story provides a lesson for contemporary Democrats, now going into the 2006 midterm congressional elections. If the Soviet government had not undermined Stevenson’s call for a test ban with its clumsy behavior and if Eisenhower had not enjoyed immense personal popularity and been able to point to his own record as a “Peace” leader, Stevenson might well have profited politically from his 1956 peace proposal. Furthermore, in the following years the test ban issue grew increasingly popular, with the Democrats using it to help them win office, continue in power, and secure a more peaceful world. Perhaps the time has come for contemporary Democrats to stake out a peace proposal of their own and to use it just as effectively.
Lawrence S. Wittner [send him mail] is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).
This article originally appeared on the History News Network.