Today, with the radical right the most loyal voting bloc in the party, Republican leaders refuse to call out even the most extreme statements from their followers. But once upon a time, Republican politicians were the champions of reason and compromise. Famously, on June 1, 1950, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, stood up against Republican Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin and his supporters, who were running roughshod over American democracy.
Born in Skowhegan in 1897, the oldest child of a barber and a waitress, Smith was a teacher and a reporter who got into politics through her husband, Clyde Smith, who was a state legislator and newspaperman. Soon after they married in 1930, she was elected to the Maine Republican State Committee and served until 1936, when Maine voters elected Clyde to Congress.
Once in Washington, Margaret worked as her husband’s researcher, speechwriter, and press secretary. When Clyde died of a heart attack in April 1940, voters elected Margaret to finish his term, then reelected her to Congress in her own right. They did so three more times, always with more than sixty percent of the vote. In 1948, they elected her to the Senate with a 71% majority.
When she was elected to Congress, the U.S. was still getting used to the New Deal government that Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt had ushered in first to combat the Great Depression and then to fight for victory in World War II. Smith’s party was divided between those who thought the new system was a proper adjustment to the modern world and those determined to destroy that new government.
Those who wanted to slash the government back to the form it had in the 1920s, when businessmen ran it, had a problem. American voters liked the business regulation, basic social safety net, and infrastructure construction of the new system. To combat that popularity, the anti–New Deal Republicans insisted that the U.S. government was sliding toward communism. With the success of the People’s Liberation Army and the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, Americans were willing to entertain the idea that communism was spreading across the globe and would soon take over the U.S.
Republican politicians eager to reclaim control of the government for the first time since 1933 fanned the flames of that fear. On February 9, 1950, during a speech to a group gathered in Wheeling, West Virginia, to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, an undistinguished senator from Wisconsin named Joe McCarthy claimed that he had a list of 205 communists working for the State Department and that the Democrats refused to investigate these “traitors in the government.”
The anti–New Deal faction of the party jumped on board. Sympathetic newspapers trumpeted McCarthy’s charges—which kept changing, and for which he never offered proof—and his colleagues cheered him on while congress members from the Republican faction that had signed onto the liberal consensus kept their heads down to avoid becoming the target of his attacks.
All but one of them did, that is. Senator Smith recognized the damage McCarthy and his ilk were doing to the nation.
On June 1, 1950, only four months after McCarthy made his infamous speech in Wheeling, Smith stood up in the Senate to make a short speech.
She began: “I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition. It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear…. I speak as a Republican, I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American.”
Referring to Senator McCarthy, who was sitting two rows behind her, Senator Smith condemned the leaders in her party who were destroying lives with wild accusations. “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism,” she pointed out. Americans have the right to criticize, to hold unpopular beliefs, to protest, and to think for themselves. But attacks that cost people their reputations and jobs were stifling these basic American principles. “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America,” Senator Smith said. “It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.”
Senator Smith wanted a Republican victory in the upcoming elections, she explained, but to replace President Harry Truman’s Democratic administration—for which she had plenty of harsh words—with a Republican regime “that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation.”
“I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”
“I doubt if the Republican Party could do so,” she added, “simply because I do not believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. Surely we Republicans are not that desperate for victory.”
“I do not want to see the Republican Party win that way,” she said. “While it might be a fleeting victory for the Republican [P]arty, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people. Surely it would ultimately be suicide for the Republican [P]arty and the two-party system that has protected our American liberties from the dictatorship of a one-party system.”
“As an American, I condemn a Republican Fascist just as much as I condemn a Democrat Communist,” she said. “They are equally dangerous to you and me and to our country. As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.”
Smith presented a “Declaration of Conscience,” listing five principles she hoped her party would adopt. It ended with a warning: “It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques—techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.”
Six other Republican senators signed onto Senator Smith’s declaration.
There were two reactions to the speech within the party. McCarthy sneered at “Snow White and the Six Dwarves.” Other Republicans quietly applauded Smith’s courage but refused to show similar courage themselves with public support. In the short term, Senator Smith’s voice was largely ignored in the public arena and then, when the Korean War broke out, forgotten.
But she was, of course, right. Four years later, the Senate condemned McCarthy. And while Senator Smith was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, McCarthy has gone down in history as a disgrace to the Senate and to the United States of America.
[Photo from U.S. Senate Historical Office.]
Thank you for reminding us of Margaret Chase Smith’s legacy. How I wish that there was a Republican with the courage shown by Liz Cheney (and Margaret Chase Smith) along with the wish to protect voting rights and the social safety net.
I'm old enough to remember Margaret Chase Smith, given my early-age interest in government and politics. She was among several highly principled stalwart Republicans in the Senate, whom today's Republicans would brand as antifa-loving socialists. This account of her standing up to McCarthy is a timely study in courage, which among the GOP is as rare as rain in much of the tinder-dry West. He certainly was a harbinger of Trump.