The Real 100 Days
Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering his inaugural address, March 4, 1933. Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, image 48224291.
The chronically insecure Richard Nixon appointed a Hundred Days Group to try to ensure passage of the requisite amount of legislation in his first hundred days.
Newt Gingrich declared one in 1995, pledging that the Contract with America would be passed in one hundred days.
In 2011 Andrew Cuomo congratulated himself on a successful first hundred days when the New York legislature passed an on-time budget for the first time in many years.
And so it has been for elected officials since 1933—many of them trying to evoke for themselves the warm glow of accomplishment that accrued to Franklin Roosevelt after his famous first hundred days, March 9 to June 16, 1933.
Much is being made today about the impending end of President Trump’s first hundred days and whether his record of accomplishment will live up to his promises. But it was the news media, not Franklin Roosevelt, who gave the benchmark its name. Its origins might give students of history pause.
The first “first hundred days” marked the period between Napoleon’s return from exile on the island of Elba on March 20, 1815, the turbulent battles including his defeat at Waterloo that ensued, and the second restoration of King Louis XVIII—under escort from the Duke of Wellington—on July 8, 1815. (It was actually a period of 111 days, but the French are not such sticklers for precision in the face of a grand pronouncement.) Thus it was the prefect of Paris, Gaspard, Comte de Chabrol, who first used the term “les Cent Jours” in welcoming the return of the king and the Bourbon monarchy. Were the newsmen of 1933 being ironic in dubbing the Roosevelt’s first months in office a modern-day “cent jours”?
We will never know, but it may be worth revisiting the historical context of the modern concept of the hundred days. Roosevelt took office at a time of unparalleled national despair. Trump may have described the country as beset by American “carnage” in his inaugural, but it is impossible for us to imagine the state of the nation when Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933.
A string of bank closings beginning on February 14 had sent the nation’s financial system into a new crisis. Most of the nation’s banks were closed. On inauguration morning the governors of Illinois and New York closed the Chicago and New York stock exchanges.
These were the final weeks of what historians have come to call the “interregnum,” the seemingly interminable four months between the election and inauguration of FDR. After this terrifying episode of presidential limbo, Inauguration Day was changed from March 4 to January 20.
But the conditions in 1933 were just the most recent in a series of economic disasters. Since 1929 the Great Depression—the deepest and longest in our history—had tested the endurance of Americans. Eighty years later the grim statistics of life in the United States in 1933 remain shocking.
Depression era breadline, New York City, 1932. Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, image 7420(244).
In a population of about 125 million, one in four workers was jobless. In industrial cities like Youngstown, Ohio, close to three-quarters were unemployed.
Nineteen million Americans depended upon meager relief payments to survive. There was no national safety net.
Those lucky enough to have jobs earned (on average) 30 percent less than three years earlier.
Over 1,300 municipalities—and many states—had defaulted on their obligations to creditors.
Two statistics, selected from thousands, capture the sense of paralysis that gripped the nation.
- In 1929 the US Steel Corporation—a cornerstone of the American economy—boasted 225,000 full-time employees. In 1933 it did not have a single full-time worker.
- The nation’s farmers were in even worse shape. Farm prices fell 53 percent from 1929 to 1932; farm income fell 70 percent. By early 1933, 45 percent of farmers were delinquent on their mortgages.
Violence erupted at farm foreclosure sales and the homeless gathered in tent cities called Hoovervilles.
Some voices, fired by desperation and fear, even called for a suspension of constitutional government and near-dictatorial powers for the president. Instead the new president famously declared in his first Inaugural Address:
This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
He called for “action, and action now.”
Immediately on taking office, the banking crisis consumed the president and his advisors. Columbia law professor Raymond Moley, head of Roosevelt’s Brain Trust, and the new Treasury Secretary William Woodin worked day and night with Hoover’s financial team, including former Secretary of the Treasury Ogden Mills and other holdovers from the previous administration.
The plan they adopted was essentially that of Hoover’s team, a conservative approach designed to save rather than subvert the capitalist system.
On his first full day in office, by executive order, Roosevelt declared a four-day national banking holiday effective Monday, March 6.
He then called Congress to Washington in special session. Their first task was to pass legislation under which the banks could be reorganized and reopened.
On March 8, to explain the banking plan, FDR held the first of the 997 press conferences of his twelve-year presidency.
On March 9, five days after his inauguration, he signed the Emergency Banking Relief Act. It gave him broad discretionary powers over banking and currency and was introduced, passed, and signed in less than eight hours.
Roosevelt’s advisors believed it was key to get people to deposit, not withdraw, their savings from the banks. To explain the plan to the public, the president delivered his first Fireside Chat, on banking, on March 12.
In plain language Roosevelt spoke to the America people as if speaking to a single family gathered around their firesides.
He calmly and clearly explained the reorganization. “My friends,” he said, “ I want to talk for a few minutes . . . about banking. . . . I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, and why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.” He explained the phased reopening of the banks, concluding by asking the public to return their savings to the reorganized banks. “My friends,” he assured them, “it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress.” Amazingly, people returned their precious savings to the re-opened banks.
The people also began a national conversation with their new president. In the week following his inauguration, more than 460,000 people wrote to FDR. He was forced to replace Hoover’s one mailroom clerk with a staff of fifty; over the course of his presidency, an average of six thousand people a day wrote to their president.
On March 16 Roosevelt decided to keep Congress in session to move forward on the relief and reform measures that would address systemic problems in the financial system, agriculture, and industry—and meet the immediate problems of food, shelter, and work for the suffering masses.
The list that follows is the standard of accomplishment that has proved an elusive benchmark for every president who followed.
March 20, Economy Act. Ironically, an attempt to reduce the budget—this act cut veterans’ pensions, reduced federal salaries by 15 percent, and reorganized several government agencies. It was the opening salvo of the New Deal. Like most Democrats, FDR believed a balanced budget would put the government on sound financial footing. So the regular federal budget actually contracted even as the new emergency spending skyrocketed. He believed the Economy Act would save $500 million; the actual saving was about $240 million. The real value was probably in terms of morale, a signal of the new administration’s determination to act decisively.
March 22, Beer–Wine Revenue Act. As the repeal of the Volstead Act of 1919 made its way through the states, the Beer–Wine Revenue Act legalized the sale of wine and beer that contained no more than 3.2 percent alcohol—and people rejoiced. The act went into effect on April 7. The 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, was enacted on December 5, ending the failed experiment of Prohibition.
March 31, Civilian Conservation Corps Reconstruction Relief Act. This act created 250,000 road construction, soil erosion, flood control, national park, and reforestation jobs for young men on relief between the ages of 18 and 25. Those employed received $30.00 weekly, $25.00 of which was sent to their families. The CCC employed more than two million young men (referred to as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army”) by the end of 1941 and is credited by some historians with a vital role in preparing young men for the war effort.
April 19, Abandonment of Gold Standard (executive order). This brought about a decline in the dollar value abroad, but commodity, stock, and silver prices increased on American exchanges.
May 12, Federal Emergency Relief Act. This act vastly enlarged and reorganized Hoover’s Emergency Relief Act. It was administrated by Harry L. Hopkins and was replaced by the WPA in 1935. Half of the $500 million appropriation was allotted to the states.
May 13, Agricultural Adjustment Act. At the time about 30 percent of the American workforce was agricultural. The AAA was designed to raise farm prices by cash subsidies or rental payments to farmers in exchange for curtailment of production and by establishing parity prices for certain basic commodities. Funds came from taxes levied on farm product processors. This feature of the AAA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1936.
May 18, Tennessee Valley Authority Act. This act authorized the TVA to construct dams and power plants and to produce and sell electric power and nitrogen fertilizers in a seven-state region. It inaugurated Roosevelt’s vision for progressive land and social reform, model communities, and resettlement, reforestation, and agricultural educational programs. It also provided the basis for the Sunbelt, the industrial development of the Tennessee Valley. Between 1933 and 1945, electrification grew from about 2 percent to 75 percent of the population in the Tennessee Valley.
May 27, Federal Securities Act. This act required most new securities issued to be registered with the Federal Trade Commission and established the Securities and Exchange Commission.
June 5, Abandonment of Gold Standard. FDR signed the gold repeal joint resolution—which canceled the gold clause in all federal and private obligations—making all debts and contractual agreements payable in legal tender.
June 13, Home Owners Refinancing Act. This act authorized the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) to refinance nonfarm mortgage debts. HOLC made loans on about one million mortgages by June 1936, or about 20 percent of the nation’s mortgages.
June 16, National Industrial Recovery Act. This act created the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and established regulatory codes for control of numerous industries. Employers were exempted from antitrust action; employees were guaranteed collective bargaining and minimum wages and maximum hours. The second section of the act established the Public Works Administration (PWA), which provided employment by public works construction. The PWA spent more than $4 billion on 34,000 public works projects. In 1935 the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional.
June 16, Glass–Steagall Act. The Glass–Steagall Act created the Federal Bank Deposit Insurance Corporation, which guaranteed bank deposits, separated investment from commercial banking to halt speculation with deposits, and widened the powers of the Federal Reserve Board. The Graham–Leach Act of 1999 repealed important provisions of this act, leading—many observers say—to the abuses that resulted in the recession that started in 2008.
June 16, Farm Credit Act. This act reorganized agricultural credit activities and agencies.
June 16, Emergency Railroad Transportation Act. This act created the office of federal coordinator of transportation and gave the Interstate Commerce Commission supervision over railroad holding companies. It tried to smooth out operating duplications and inefficiencies and required national railroads to limit layoffs due to consolidation.
And then — and only then — Franklin Roosevelt took a vacation. He left Washington for a sailing vacation and returned to the family vacation home on Campobello Island, for the first time since contracting polio there in 1921.
Adlai & Eleanor: Progressives Who Shaped the World
Adlai Stevenson II
It’s one of the great ironies of history that Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in April 1945, less than a month before the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. Despite FDR’s strong leadership and immeasurable contributions to that success, his ultimate but unrealized dream was to participate in the creation of a new world body that would bring nations together to build a lasting peace. That dream could well have died with him in the devastated aftermath of the Second World War. Instead the United Nations was brought to life in 1945 by the selfless, dedicated work of many people, but perhaps most importantly by the tireless efforts and contributions of two gifted individuals who became political allies and close friends, the President’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Adlai Stevenson.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s public service background particularly her selfless, decades long efforts as “the President’s eyes and ears” is generally well known to the American public. However, it was her important post-war efforts that perhaps gave her the most pleasure, particularly her work in the foundation and development of the United Nations, as well as what became a close personal friendship – indeed an alliance – with Adlai Stevenson. In fact, by 1948 their relationship had developed to the point that Mrs. Roosevelt played a key role in convincing Mr. Stevenson to run for Governor of Illinois and later to twice seek the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination – in 1952 and 1956.
Like Mrs. Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson was the product of a wealthy, well connected and politically active family. Mr. Stevenson’s maternal great grandfather, Republican Jesse Fell, had been a close friend of Abraham Lincoln and served as the future President’s campaign manager in 1858. His paternal grandfather and namesake had been vice president during Democrat Grover Cleveland’s second term. In 1900 the elder Stevenson again ran for vice president with the renowned orator, William Jennings Bryan, this time unsuccessfully. In that same year, Adlai Stevenson II was born.
Young Stevenson attended Choate, a well-regarded boarding school in Connecticut, and then Princeton University, editing the undergraduate newspapers at both schools. He attended Harvard Law briefly, but found his studies “uninteresting.” After failing several classes, he withdrew. He returned to his Bloomington, Illinois home, and began working for the family-owned newspaper, The Daily Pantagraph, which has been founded by his grandfather and was the source of much of the family wealth. After a chance meeting with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, his interest in the law was rekindled. Stevenson entered Northwestern University and eventually became a lawyer practicing law in Chicago. In 1928 he had married – and 20 years later divorced – Ellen Borden, a wealthy socialite who gave him three sons he adored: Adlai III, Borden and John Fell.
In 1933, Stevenson was one of the bright, young lawyers who emigrated to Washington to participate in the newly elected president’s efforts in structuring what became known as the New Deal, designed to bring America out of the Great Depression. Stevenson’s first two years in the Capitol were spent as Special Counsel to the recently formed Agricultural Adjustment Administration organized to help the country’s struggling farmers. After two years, Mr. Stevenson returned to Chicago to practice law. His strong interest in America’s future led him to serve a one-year term as president of the Chicago Counsel of Foreign Relations. He also became the Chicago chairman of the William Allen White Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. At the start of World War II, Mr. Stevenson returned to Washington to serve as Special Assistant to President Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox. In 1945, then Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, appointed Mr. Stevenson as Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary of State Archibald MacLeish to work on the establishment of the United Nations.
The United Nations shield, which shows a polar view of the globe, was chosen by FDR as he felt it better represented a non-western biased view of the world
Upon President Roosevelt’s death in April, vice president Harry Truman became his successor and soon invited Mrs. Roosevelt to join the U.S. delegation at the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to be held in February, 1946 in London. Mr. Stevenson also became an early participant in the organization of the UN – attending the new institution’s first organizational meeting in San Francisco in 1945. He later played a key-role in the workings of a “preparatory commission” which met in London in the fall of 1945 and early 1946. Mr. Stevenson’s early involvement with the UN is important to understanding his lifetime commitment to his country’s position in a changing and increasingly dangerous world.
On September 4, 1945 Mr. Stevenson sailed for England to assume an important role in the organization’s first organizational meetings. Adlai Stevenson was in impressive company – Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, Former Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, and Charles “Chip” Bohlen, the State Department’s Russian expert who had served as President Roosevelt’s translator at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. In the fall of 1945, however, he spent a good deal of time with Mr. Stevenson on the voyage across the Atlantic discussing U.S. – Soviet relations. Bohlen was deeply impressed by his new colleague, especially by “the freshness and sensitivity of his mind and his civilized approach to world problems”.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson (to her immediate right) at the United Nations, 1946
Mr. Stevenson’s work at the New World body after his organizing efforts was initially devoted during the U.N.’s first General Assembly in early 1946, helping to pass its first 103 resolutions. During the formative period in London, Mr. Stevenson began to know Mrs. Roosevelt, first at evening social events, then professionally during the General Assembly’s second session in October, 1946. As Mr. Stevenson noted in his diary on October 2nd:
“[we] discussed politics, languages, and education. Everything confirms [my] convictions that she is one of the few really great people to have known.”
Despite their evolving bond, they sometimes underwent lengthy periods out of touch with each other due to their respective schedules and commitments. For example, one of Mrs. Roosevelt’s most demanding efforts was her position as a Chairlady of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which she held for several years. From the perspective she gained from working together, Mrs. Roosevelt believed Mr. Stevenson possessed the same qualifications as her late husband…urbane, articulate and highly intelligent.
In 1947, Mrs. Roosevelt encouraged Mr. Stevenson to run for Governor of Illinois. Once again, Mr. Stevenson chose public service over his law practice. Stevenson was also the chosen candidate of Jacob Avery, the leader of the powerful Chicago Democratic political organization. His opponent was incumbent Republican Dwight Green who had presided over a state administration that was widely viewed as corrupt. Mr. Stevenson upset Green by 572,067 votes, a record margin over all previous gubernatorial elections in Illinois.
Governor Stevenson’s “clean-up” administration was highly effective and propelled him to national recognition among Democrats. As noted in the papers of Eleanor Roosevelt –
“He attacked political corruption in the state…reorganized the Illinois government, improved infrastructure, fought organized crime and drew additional [national] attention when he resoundingly vetoed the Broyles loyalty ‘oath bill’.”
During his four-year term (1948-1952), Mr. Stevenson called “Gov” by many, demonstrated his very unique sense of humor. When the Illinois legislature passed a bill dealing with roaming cats declaring they were a public nuisance, Governor Stevenson vetoed the bill and publicly stated:
“It is in the nature of cats to do a certain amount of un-escorted roaming, the problem of cat versus bird is as old as time. If we attempt to solve it by legislation who knows but what we will be called upon to take sides in the age old problem of dog versus cat, bird versus bird or even bird versus worm. In my opinion, the state of Illinois and its local governing leaders already have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency. For these reasons, and not because I love birds the less or cats the more, I veto and withhold my approval from Senate Bill Nol. 931.”
Stevenson’s strong term as governor, together with his intelligent and engaging speaking skills, had generated a national following. In early 1952, while Governor Stevenson was still in office, President Truman announced he would not seek the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1952. Mrs. Roosevelt urged Governor Stevenson to run for the nomination. President Truman, after considering several other potential candidates, met with Mr. Stevenson in Washington and suggested the soon to be ex-Governor run with his support. A “draft Stevenson” movement had begun in the spring of 1952 led by friends like George Ball, a banker and eventual long time diplomat. Ball would later write of Stevenson –
“He lighted up the sky like a flaming arrow, lifting political discussion to a level of literacy, eloquence, candor and honor that tapped unsuspected responses in the American electorate.”
But it was his friend and political soulmate, Eleanor Roosevelt that in looking back put the Governor’s candidacy in bold perspective.
“In 1952, it was my opinion that Governor Stevenson would probably make one of the best Presidents’ we ever had.”
Stevenson, however, continued to insist into the summer of 1952 that he intended to run for re-election as Governor of Illinois and “no other office.” The pro-Stevenson sentiment within the Democratic Party carried the day and in late July the Governor of Illinois was nominated to run against President Eisenhower in the fall. He had not run in any State primaries. Accordingly, the well-respected New York Times columnist Arthur Kroch told Mr. Stevenson “I think you may be one of the true drafts in our political history.”
Mrs. Roosevelt acknowledged after the fact that Governor Stevenson’s victory was virtually impossible due to the American public’s hero worship of General Eisenhower who represented “Victory in Europe.” Although he was beaten badly by the General in the 1952 election, Stevenson pulled 3 million more votes than President Truman had over his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, in 1948. Governor Stevenson never came even close to losing his sense of humor. When the powerful Connecticut Republican Stewart Alsop called him an “egg head” based on his baldness and his intellectual, academic air, Stevenson joked “Eggheads of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your yolks.” Following another speech in the 1952 campaign, a lady came up to him and offered:
Truman campaigning for Stevenson, 1952
“Oh, Mr. Stevenson, your speech was positively superfluous.” To which he replied, “Thank you madam, I’ve been thinking about having it published posthumously.” “Oh, that will be nice. The sooner the better.”
Impervious to defeat, in 1953 Stevenson undertook an ambitious but exhausting world trip, reminiscent of Wendell Willkie’s One World journey after losing the 1940 election to President Roosevelt. Mr. Stevenson traveled through Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Stevenson arguably enjoyed a greater success than Willkie, because he spent a considerable amount of his time listening to the ordinary people of the countries he visited. Listening was one of Ambassador Stevenson’s greatest attributes. On the world stage democracy faced an enormous and threatening challenge from the rise of communism in the 1950’s. Stevenson, always listening, talked of America’s strengths and the future promise the United States offered for the world. He almost always spoke to large crowds of cheering ordinary citizens of the countries he visited. Upon his return, Stevenson, although exhausted, told a group of his supporters “we carried all of Asia”. He also spoke to many leaders with persuasive yet diplomatic understanding of the delicate position they were in at the time due to the largely forgotten struggle between democracy and communism in the 1950’s.
Notwithstanding his 1952 loss to Eisenhower, Mr. Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt essentially became the inspirational – if not the de facto – leaders of the Democratic Party in the 1950’s. It seems Stevenson felt that he needed to share his world view — perhaps to strengthen a potential run against President Eisenhower in 1956. In any event, he campaigned vigorously for the party’s candidates in the 1954 mid-term elections despite having undergone kidney surgery in April of that year. On the campaign trail, he hammered three issues which strongly resound in today’s politics: foreign policy, the domestic economy and internal security. Ambassador Stevenson’s leadership and hard work produced Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, as well as 9 new governorships. He also was able to wipe out his party’s $800,000 debt – a significant amount at the time. His party leadership in 1954 certainly helped and appeared to assure his nomination two years later.
The two friends didn’t always agree however. In May of 1954 the United States Supreme Court handed down a unanimous landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education arising out of segregation in the public school system of Topeka, Kansas. The Court’s opinion held the “separate but equal” doctrine the Court had established in 1886 was unconstitutional. Mrs. Roosevelt was one of the country’s strongest advocates for civil rights. In 1945, she had accepted an invitation to serve on the Board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“the NAACP”) and was elected the co-chair of the organization. When the NAACP moved for defunding non-compliant school districts, Mr. Stevenson took a significantly different approach urging “gradual implementation of the Court’s decision.” His position was regarded as less than satisfactory for the Democratic Party’s liberal standard bearer. Despite the Governor’s strong commitment to minority rights throughout his career, some thought Stevenson’s muted reaction was influenced by his view that a strong negative response to the Court’s decision in the Southern States could lead to the breakup of the Democratic Party. Fortunately, Stevenson’s tepid stance and mild estrangement from Mrs. Roosevelt was short lived. On her forthcoming birthday he wrote her:
“Personally, I am not sure we should celebrate your birthday or that we should be reminded that time passes for you as for the rest of us. There are some people for whom time seems to stand still and who can bridge all the generations by their interval on earth, but they are very rare. You are one, and for me, you will always be the same age, and no age”.
While Stevenson and Mrs. Roosevelt were invigorating the Democratic Party, a junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, was leading a well-publicized campaign to rid the Federal Government and American society of so-called “subversives” or “communists”. Mr. Stevenson regarded McCarthy’s reckless statements and actions as highly corrosive and irresponsible both in the United States and abroad. Accordingly, Stevenson attacked McCarthy’s vitriol with what many regarded and supported as uncharacteristically strong force while President Eisenhower again remained relatively silent and “above the fray” — presumably thinking that McCarthy’s nasty program would help the Republican cause. But “McCarthyism” finally was censored by the House of Representatives in December, 1964 although its hateful activities would linger.
Stevenson Running for President in 1956
In 1956 Mr. Stevenson was again his party’s nominee to run against President Eisenhower’s pursuit of a second term. Eisenhower, notwithstanding the President’s preoccupation with the Soviet Union and the intensifying Cold War, won reelection by an even larger margin than he had in 1952. Mr. Stevenson had clearly, once again, not lost any of his trademark sense of humor when he responded to reporters: “The President was so far ahead of me that I was lucky to come in second.”
Despite two successive presidential losses, Stevenson was initially interested in the possibility of a third attempt in 1960. While Mrs. Roosevelt initially supported him in the early days, his close friend eventually threw her considerable assistance to Massachusetts Senator, John F. Kennedy.
After Jack Kennedy won the 1960 election, he felt he should offer Governor Stevenson a significant position in the new administration. Over the objections of his brother, Robert Kennedy, the President however offered Mr. Stevenson his choice of Attorney General, Secretary of State or Ambassador to the United Nations. Despite his earlier expression of a desire to be Secretary of State, Mr. Stevenson chose the United Nations position where he distinguished himself by diligently working on international cooperation while diplomatically maintaining America’s interests. President Kennedy assured his new Ambassador that he would play an important role in all major policy decisions, but that turned out not always to be the case.
After the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco (about which Stevenson was not consulted), Soviet Premier Khrushchev offered to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. When American U-2 surveillance aircraft confirmed the expedited construction of missile launch sites and the presence of a quantity of intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba in October of 1962, President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island. This time Ambassador Stevenson was fully informed and prepared. At an emergency meeting of the Security Council, Ambassador Stevenson forcefully asked the Soviet representative Valerian Zorin if Russia was installing missiles in Cuba, concluding with the now famous demand “Don’t wait for the translation, answer yes or no!” When Zorin appeared to refuse to answer the question, Stevenson strongly retorted: “Sir, I am prepared to wait for my answer until Hell freezes over.” Ambassador Stevenson then showed U-2 photographs that proved the existence of the missiles in Cuba. The Soviets reluctantly honored the blockade as several of their warships approached Cuban waters. The warships turned around rather than challenge the blockade. They went on to withdraw their missiles, preventing a nuclear confrontation.
Adlai Stevenson discussing his recent European trip with President Kennedy 3 August 1961.
Ambassador Stevenson’s exemplary statesmanship at the United Nations was followed by a succession of tragedies – the first coming immediately after the Cuban missile crisis. Eleanor Roosevelt died in November 1962 following multiple complications after being struck by a car while walking in Manhattan in November 1960. At her memorial service at the United Nations, Mr. Stevenson eulogized his beloved partner by sadly saying he had lost more than a friend, He had “lost an inspiration: for she would rather light candles than curse the darkness and her glow had warmed the world.” At the end of his heartfelt and moving words he quoted a phrase used years before by President Truman: “the passing of this great and gallant human being who was called ‘The First Lady of the World’.”
Cora Ferguson, with tongue sticking out, hits Ambassador Stevens with a protest sign, Dallas October 25, 1963
The death of Eleanor Roosevelt was followed a short year later by the shocking assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963. Dallas had become what many called the “City of Hate” largely due to the anti-United Nations, anti-Washington vituperative bias generated by a far right group known as the John Birch Society headquartered in Dallas and founded by a retired Army General Edwin Walker.
Ambassador Stevenson was in Dallas at the time to speak about the United Nations. While he was used to the hostile crowds, one particular appearance was both beyond shocking as well as personally dangerous. Mr. Stevenson was shouted down and had to be escorted off the stage by Dallas policemen. In the riotous confusion a woman screamed at him “who elected you Adlai” and hit him over the head with a sign. When a policeman was getting ready to arrest the woman, Ambassador Stevenson calmly and with his characteristic grace said: “I don’t want her to go to jail; I want her to go to school!” Several days later, Mr. Stevenson was visiting his son, John Fell, in San Francisco and called the White House to warn the Secret Service that the atmosphere in Dallas was ugly, frightening and dangerous. He strongly advised the President’s advisors and the Secret Service that President Kennedy should forego the trip. The President went anyway, with tragic results.
Stevenson sitting under an oak at his Illinois farm.
A little over a year later, America lost another of its greatest statesmen when Adlai Stevenson died of a massive heart attack while walking in London with his friend Marietta Tree. Only days before his death, the Ambassador had a long conversation with journalist Eric Sevareid at the US Embassy. They discussed Stevenson’s frustrations with Vietnam and other foreign entanglements. He told Sevareid that longed to resign, and return to his farm in Libertyville and “sit in the shade under that tree with a glass of wine in my hand and watch the people dance.”
Hopefully this great man has been joined under that tree by his equally great and dear friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, where they can watch the dancing together.