Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Senator Margaret Chase Smith: A Hero for Our Time

In 1954 as the Army-McCarthy hearings on communist infiltration in the government riveted the nation, the voices against Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican-Wisconsin, were finally being raised.  Lawyer Joseph Welch called him out, famously asking, “Have you no sense of decency?”  It was the beginning of the end of the McCarthy fever; he was censured seven months later.

Few people remember that four years earlier a first-term senator from Maine, the only woman in the chamber, rose to deliver a rebuke to her colleague.  Senator Margaret Chase Smith, in her second year in the chamber, was one of the few Republicans who had the courage to rise above party and call attention to McCarthy’s hot rhetoric and wild accusations.  In the summer of 1950 Senator Smith became the conscience of her party.

She began her fifteen-minute speech by noting “a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything we Americans hold dear.”  She continued her introduction by saying, “I speak as briefly as possible because too much harm already has been done with irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism.”

Smith, a Republican, was critical of the Truman administration.  She spoke two years ahead of the next presidential election, but called for a change and that “a Republican victory is necessary to the security of this country.”

“Yet”—and this is the key paragraph of her speech—“to displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation.  The nation sorely needs a Republican victory.  But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”

Arguing that “I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest,” she believed that if such actions would bring political success,   “a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people.”

Smith ended with a five-point Declaration of Conscience, pleading for bipartisan leadership to solve the nation’s challenges, including whatever communist threat existed. She reiterated the need for the Republican party to return to principle, not attacks.  She was joined by six other senators in this appeal.

McCarthy, with his typical invective, called Smith and her six male colleagues “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.”  He retaliated against her, within the Senate and politically.  McCarthy’s day of reckoning finally came, and he died a broken man.  Margaret Chase Smith served two more decades in the Senate, and in 1964 was the first woman placed in nomination by a major political party. 

Smith was speaking out against an unhinged bully who incited national turmoil because he was exploiting the greatest fear of the time.  McCarthy, of course, was in the Senate, and making wild accusations about communism and communist infiltration in the United States.  His tactics:  Anger, paranoia, and a grand, unspecified effort to stamp out a national security threat.  Anyone who was seen as “weak,” was excoriated, including General George C. Marshall. 

It would be beneficial for all Americans to read the “Declaration of Conscience” speech, which is readily available on the Internet.  It is a speech as instructive as it was more than sixty years ago.

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