This article was last modified on March 17, 2011.

Empire Strikes First: Adlai Stevenson III

“The Republic, Not the Empire”. This was the campaign slogan of Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and his running mate, Adlai Stevenson, in 1900 against incumbent William McKinley and new vice presidential candidate Teddy Roosevelt. America had recently taken the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and the Democrats scoffed when President McKinley said, “The American flag has not been planted in foreign soil to acquire more territory but for humanity’s sake.” The natives of Hawaii and Puerto Rico, territories now recognized as American, may disagree.

Politics ran in the family. Stevenson’s grandson, Adlai Stevenson II, was the governor of Illinois and Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956. He said, “We must thread our way between imperialism and isolationism, between the disavowal of the responsibilities of our power and the assertion of our power beyond our resources.” In other words, American power and influence are great things, but a terrible vice when abused. Today those who criticize American foreign policy are caricatured as the “blame America first” crowd. Not long ago, it was a civic duty to question and there was an understanding that no one is “blaming” anyone, but merely asking for people, businesses and governments — no matter how powerful — to be responsible for their actions.

Adlai II’s son, Adlai Stevenson III, an Illinois senator who heard that same call to law and politics that his forefathers did, understands the fragile balance between empire and republic. In his new memoir, “The Black Book”, he collects the thoughts of himself and his family dating back to the days of Lincoln. He recalls the “old” politics of purpose and reason, where Republicans and Democrats were friends even when they disagreed. Stevenson despairs at the thought of the “new” politics, where the goals are power and fund-raising, regardless of party, and the ability to engage in civil discourse has all but disappeared. And he is non-too-subtle about pointing out the adventurism America has taken part in since the 1950s, overthrowing democratic regimes and engaging in endless land wars in Asia. Adlai III served in one such war, the Korea conflict, while his father was on the campaign trail. This connection between politics and war did not go unnoticed. “The marine corps exploited it — my platoon was forced to go over the obstacle course, double time with full packs, etc. until the press had all the pics they wanted.”

Perhaps due in part to his role in Korea, the Vietnam conflict was seen by Adlai III as a tragic mistake. Stevenson’s sentiment toward the war made him ineligible to run for office because the Democratic Party had forced its candidates to pledge support of the war, and he refused on principle. His father was the ambassador to the UN at the time, and allegedly supported the war because of his loyalty to President Johnson, not because of any personal conviction.

Adlai II’s true views on Vietnam are a matter of debate. The Democratic Party as a whole, of which he was a member, became more militaristic after Eisenhower’s push for reduced security spending following Korea — the famous “military-industrial complex” speech. Eisenhower suggested that overspending on the military actually reduced American security by placing us in economic peril. Kennedy, today thought of as a “dove”, pushed hard to enter Vietnam and increased the defense budget. If Adlai II was opposed to these policies, he was in a key position to do something about them. His silence speaks volumes.

In his book, Adlai III points out the failure of our representatives to represent America. He had once introduced measure to distance the US from the settlements policy of the newly elected Likud government of Israel, and to cut foreign aid to Israel by $200 million. Stevenson “aimed to demonstrate that given a choice between supporting the Israeli lobby and US policy, the Congress would support the lobby.” Any tough talk on Israel about their oppressive policies was — and is — just that: talk.

Moving from the Middle East to the Middle West, fondly remembered is Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, coincidentally the son of Stevenson’s childhood dentist. “Bill was a loner, preached economy in government, never missed a session. He was more interested in domestic issues while I focused on international ones. But we had a very good relationship.” Stevenson also had great respect for Senator Gaylord Nelson, who he says followed in the progressive tradition of Wisconsin Governor “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, though they were never placed on the same committees.

The big issue these days in Wisconsin, and the country, is organized labor. Stevenson’s policies on labor have been surprising for a man who comes across as a liberal Democrat. In 1982, he campaigned for governor on a platform opposing trade protection and supporting competition. Union support was “lukewarm”. He “opposed collective bargaining for public employees on the grounds that public officials had no incentive to ‘bargain’ and every incentive to accommodate labor.” But he thinks differently about the situation in Madison today, supporting the unions. He believes “this dispute is more about politics and power than collective bargaining. Another symptom of a sick politics.”

No one is immune from catching the “sick politics” virus. Adlai III criticizes both Republicans and Democrats, whom he says have all fallen into the trap of power, corruption and greed. On the Democratic side, President Carter was a “thoroughly decent man but not in my opinion a visionary”, a man of “limited vision and purpose.” President Obama has the illness far more seriously. “I am disappointed by him but not altogether surprised,” says Stevenson. He thinks favorably of the early Republicans, notably Lincoln, but none today can be awarded his approval. His words for President George W. Bush are not kind, and not worth repeating here due to our having heard more than enough complaints over the past decade.

What would an Adlai Stevenson III Administration look like? Militarily, it would support the UN, address the roots of terrorism, including Israel’s treatment of Palestine, and use war only as a last resort. Strategic weapon systems such as “Star Wars” and the Eastern European defense shield are not pursued and nuclear proliferation is halted. Internationally, his America “defends the global commons and atmosphere”, ratifies the Kyoto Protocol and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and joins the International Criminal Court. Domestically, the “citadels of corporate corruption” are attacked along with oligopoly and exploitation. And bravest of all, a Stevenson Administration would fight the root of society’s greatest ills, the growing gap between haves and have-nots.

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