How the F.B.I. Gaybaited Stevenson

By Theoharis, Athan | The Nation, May 7, 1990 | Go to article overview

How the F.B.I. Gaybaited Stevenson

Theoharis, Athan, The Nation

Well before Adlai Stevenson agreed to run for President against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, vague rumors circulated that the Illinois Governor was gay. There was no public evidence that the rumors were true, and, in any case, Stevenson's sexuality was his own business. Nonetheless, in the intolerant atmosphere of the 1950s, J. Edgar Hoover saw the makings of a smear against the Illinois liberal. He placed one of the unsubstantiated reports-relayed to him by the head of the F.B.I.'s New York office, who had heard it from a detective - in one of the two secret files he kept in his office, and the bureau incorporated Stevenson's name in its special Sex Deviate' index-card file.

According to documents recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the report stated flatly that Stevenson and David Owen, then the president of Bradley University, were the 'two best known homosexuals" in the state of Illinois, that Stevenson was "well known as Adeline'" and that he would not run for President because of this."

The bureau's interest in Stevenson dated from the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the name of the young attorney and New Deal Democrat began appearing in reports that associated him with popular-front and other organizations engaged in what the bureau regarded as un-American pursuits. But now the F.B.I. had more than just the goods on his "subversive activities"; it

tie on us personal behavior that would grow with the years. In the repressive 1950s and early 1960s it gave Hoover the potential to ruin Stevenson.

At the time Stevenson entered the bureau's files, he had disavowed any interest in the 1952 Democratic presidential nomination (his name had been promoted after Harry Truman announced he would not run for re-election). But because no clear choice emerged from the ensuing primaries and state conventions, an open national convention was assured when the Democrats assembled in Chicago in July. Governor Stevenson gave an electrifying welcoming address, moving liberals as well as the Chicago Democratic machine to join in a campaign to draft him. On July 24 Stevenson allowed his name to be placed in nomination, and the next day he won the support of the delegates.

When Stevenson's name first surfaced as a possible Democratic presidential nominee in April, the F.B.I.-in what was standard practice - prepared a thirteen-page summary memorandum for Hoover listing whatever personal and political information it had compiled on the Governor. And on the very day in July that Stevenson announced his willingness to run, bureau officials prepared yet another memorandum, this time nineteen pages long and including the allegation of homosexuality.

Even after Stevenson lost the election in November, the file continued to burgeon. Later that month a former F.B.I. agent advised Hoover that Stevenson "was homosexual.' The director personally thanked him for this intelligence and placed a copy of the informant's letter in his private file. Stevenson again lost to Eisenhower in 1956, but the folder was still growing as late as December 1961, when an F.B.I. agent in South America reported that Stevenson, during a visit to Lima, Peru, had taken a particular interest in the Peruvian Museum of Archeology's "collection of highly pornographic Inca statuettes." Whether this panting fascination was homo- or heterosexual, the documents do not reveal.

The bureau's summary memorandums were, in essence, nonrecord records. They were not serialized in the F.B.I.'s central records system, nor were they labeled files" or "investigative reports.' This semantic distinction allowed the F.B.I. director to refute any charge that his agency investigated, maintained files on or prepared and disseminated reports about Stevenson- or any other prominent politician, for that matter. Thus Hoover could safely monitor the activities of anyone he chose and be assured of deniability.

This precaution proved helpful to the bureau at least twice, The FOIA documents disclose that in August 1952 Democratic National Committee officials suspected that Guy Hottel, the head of the bureau's Washington, D. …

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