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How Adlai Stevenson Stopped Russian Interference in the 1960 Election

The Soviets offered the former presidential candidate propaganda support if he ran in 1960, an offer he politely declined

Mikhael A. Menshikov, new Soviet ambassador, outside White House, going to visit with President Eisenhower (Library of Congress)
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One of the ongoing narratives in the aftermath of this year's election is the U.S. intelligence community's claim that Russia sought to influence the race through hacking and social media. While those stories continue to develop, historian Bruce W. Dearstyne writes at History News Network writes that it’s not the first time Russia—at that time the Soviet Union—tried to influence a presidential election.

Adlai Stevenson II was a popular governor of Illinois between 1949 and 1953, known as a witty, articulate and smart politician. He was the Democratic nominee for president in 1952 and 1956, losing both times to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. During the 1956 campaign, he advocated a ban on the testing of hydrogen bombs, a stance that led to accusations of Stevenson being “soft” on national security issues.

It also led the Soviets to believe that he might be someone they could work with, reports Dearstyne. Stevenson publically stated he would not seek the nomination again in 1960. But Soviet ambassador Mikhail A. Menshikov hoped he would reconsider. On January 16, 1960, Menshikov invited Stevenson to the embassy for caviar and drinks to thank him for helping negotiate Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev's visit to the U.S. But there was an ulterior motive. At one point, reports John Bartlow Martin at American Heritage, Menshikov pulled notes from his pocket and began delivering Stevenson a message he said came directly from his boss, encouraging him to seriously consider another run for president. In a memorandum dictated a week later, Stevenson recounted Menshikov’s speech:

“Before returning last week from Moscow, he [Menshikov] had spent considerable time alone with Premier Khrushchev. He [Khrushchev] wishes me [Menshikov] to convey the following: When you met in Moscow in August, 1958, he [Khrushchev] said to you that he had voted for you in his heart in 1956. He says now that he will vote for you in his heart again in 1960. We have made a beginning with President Eisenhower and Khrushchev’s visit to America toward better relations, but it is only a beginning. We are concerned with the future, and that America has the right President. All countries are concerned with the American election. It is impossible for us not to be concerned about our future and the American Presidency which is so important to everybody everywhere. 

“In Russia we know well Mr. Stevenson and his views regarding disarmament, nuclear testing, peaceful coexistence, and the conditions of a peaceful world. He has said many sober and correct things during his visit to Moscow and in his writings and speeches. When we compare all the possible candidates in the United States we feel that Mr. Stevenson is best for mutual understanding and progress toward peace. These are the views not only of myself—Khrushchev—but of the Presidium. We believe that Mr. Stevenson is more of a realist than others and is likely to understand Soviet anxieties and purposes. Friendly relations and cooperation between our countries are imperative for all. Sober realism and sensible talks are necessary to the settlement of international problems. Only on the basis of coexistence can we hope to really find proper solutions to our many problems.

“The Soviet Union wishes to develop relations with the United States on a basis which will forever exclude the possibility of conflict. We believe our system is best and will prevail. You, Mr. Stevenson, think the same about yours. So we both say, let the competition proceed, but excluding any possibility of conflict.

“Because we know the ideas of Mr. Stevenson, we in our hearts all favor him. And you Ambassador Menshikov must ask him which way we could be of assistance to those forces in the United States which favor friendly relations. We don’t know how we can help to make relations better and help those to succeed in political life who wish for better relations and more confidence. Could the Soviet press assist Mr. Stevenson’s personal success? How? Should the press praise him, and, if so, for what? Should it criticize him, and, if so, for what? (We can always find many things to criticize Mr. Stevenson for because he has said many harsh and critical things about the Soviet Union and Communism!) Mr. Stevenson will know best what would help him."

Dearstyne writes that the ambassador made it clear that the Russians were no fans of the likely Republican nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon, especially after the Kitchen Debate between Khruschev and Nixon in July 1959.

Stevenson was rattled by the conversation, though he politely declined the offer of help and repeated that he would not run for the nomination.

Dearstyne reports that Stevenson did not publically discuss the conversation and it was not revealed to the public until it was detailed in a 1977 book, 12 years after Stevenson’s death. He did, however, discuss the incident with New York Times Washington Bureau Chief James Reston, who published an article saying that the Russians were interested in the election and that Menshikov was making the Soviet’s views on the election known around town.

He also pointed out that the last time an ambassador publically supported a presidential candidate, he got the boot. According to another piece by Dearstyne, President Grover Cleveland expelled British Ambassador Sir Lionel Sackville-West during the 1888 U.S. election for a letter that was made public in which he said Cleveland had to be anti-British during the campaign, but would be friendlier after the election. In fact, the letter was part of a political trap set by Republicans who used to rally anti-English Irish immigrants. Cleveland kicked out the ambassador for spreading the rumor that he would change his stance, but he still lost to Benjamin Harrison.

Dearstyne reports that the Soviets quieted down their election opinions after the publication of Reston’s piece.

Stevenson did eventually face the Soviets again, and this time he was not quite as polite. After becoming U.N. ambassador under President Kennedy, the winner of the 1960 election, Stevenson was tasked with presenting the world evidence that the Soviets had placed nuclear weapons in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. His showdown with Soviet ambassador Zorin is one of the key moments of the Cold War. After asking the ambassador point blank whether Russia had missiles in Cuba, he pressed the issue whem the ambassador hesitated to answer, saying, “I am prepared to wait for an answer until Hell freezes over, if that is your decision."

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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