“Margaret Chase Smith follows in her husband’s footsteps. Washington, D.C., June 10, 1940. Margaret Chase Smith, wife of the late Rep. Clyde Smith, Republican, of Maine, was sworn in today to fill the vacancy left by her husband. Left to right in the picture: Margaret Chase Smith, Speaker William Bankhead, and Rep. James C. Oliver, Republican of Maine, who sponsored Mrs. Smith. Library of Congress”
In her own words, she was “no feminist”, but she was a significant pioneer for women. Doing the right thing is not easy. Finding courage when others are too afraid joins courage with character. Slight of build, barely 5′ 2″, the quiet and generally serious woman Margaret Chase Smith served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1940 to 1950 and was the first woman elected U.S. Senator. She was also the first woman elected, not appointed like others, to both the House and the Senate. She is not remembered for those achievements. Senator Smith is the first person to find enough courage to speak out against the powerful demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.
During the 1950 campaign, one Boston paper said this about Smith, “Maine is sending a housekeeper,” while a Congressman said, “she needs to go back to the pots and pans.” An ambitious woman, Smith had faced down bigotry and sexism before. It didn’t deter her.
In the weeks leading up to Smith’s blistering takedown of McCarthy, she was a leading contender for the Vice Presidential nomination. The elections of 1952 were right around the corner, and ironically, her staunchest supporter for the nomination had been fellow Republican Joseph McCarthy. Still, she had disdain for McCarthy’s ruthless tactics that he used in his crusade against Communism – fearmongering, smearing reputations, and finding people guilty before they had a chance to defend themselves, and most importantly, McCarthy’s willingness to spread blatant lies, which ultimately ruined the careers of innocent people. She was acutely aware that what she was about to do was a sensitive matter because they were both members of the Republican party, and it could also end her political career.
In 1950 America, her significance in the Senate mattered little. Even though she was an elected U.S. Senator against a male Senator, a woman’s attack was political suicide. However, Margaret Chase Smith had a strong sense of right and wrong, and many times that outweighed partisan politics. Her speech, later known as the “Declaration of Conscience,” would be her first speech in the United States Senate.
By chance, they had ridden on the Senate subway together that morning. “You look serious, Margaret. Are you going to give a speech today? “McCarthy asked. “Yes, and you will not like it,” she said. As she nervously rose to speak, the knowledge that six Republican Senators had already endorsed her charges against McCarthy terror tactics was comforting to her. She hoped this would be the first step in ending Joseph McCarthy’s career and the hysteria known as “McCarthyism.”
Her speech never mentioned him by name. Her words clearly described him,
“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 felt McCarthy’s crusade was a dangerous one, one full of outrageous accusations directed at innocent people, not based on facts or proof, and many times, just made up to fit the moment. Upon hearing Smith’s speech, the New York Times described McCarthy as “white and silent, hardly three feet behind her.” He left the Senate without saying a word. Smith’s stinging rebuke of the Senator was in sharp contrast to the silence of the rest of the Senate chamber.
The day after her speech, the assault began upon Margaret Chase Smith. “After what happened in the Senate Thursday, it is doubtful that Senator Magaret Chase Smith of Maine is still the favorite Vice-Presidential candidate of Senator McCarthy of Wisconsin,” stated the Milwaukee Journal, June 2, 1950. The article dismissed the credibility of Senator Smith’s accusations. Instead, it attacked her, saying, “there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that Mrs. Smith’s seething indictment of the way the Senate has been “debased” into a “forum of hate and publicity platform for irresponsible sensationalism” was directly aimed at McCarthy. It is interesting to note how the article addressed Senator Smith as ‘Mrs. Smith’, while references to Joseph McCarthy were ‘Senator McCarthy’. The Saturday Evening Post attacked Smith, too, accusing Smith and her co-signers of being communist sympathizers, calling them “the soft underbelly of the Republican Party.” Joseph McCarthy began to mock Smith and the six Republican signers of her “Declaration of Conscience,” referring to them as “Snow White and the six dwarfs”. The nationally recognized columnist Westbrook Pegler called Smith “a Moses in nylons” who “took advantage… of her sex.” Others, who were likely McCarthy supporters, tried smearing her reputation by suggesting that the two were involved romantically. It was suggested that He had broken off the relationship, and the speech was her revenge. McCarthy, the Senate’s Subcommittee on Investigations’ chairman, dumped her from the committee to which he had named her. McCarthy intended to destroy Smith, saying that she was a “puny politician” and a “thief” of taxpayer money. Outside of her home state of Maine, she was indeed on her own.
Within one week of her speech, all six male supporters had signed statements recanting their support of Senator Smith’s address. Three weeks after her speech, the war with communist Korea broke out, and McCarthy’s crusade began to pick up more support from frightened Americans. Senator McCarthy became a popular speaker at various public events expanding his notion that the “enemies were within”, which included Congress members. Other political opponents, especially those who had criticized McCarthy, were beaten at the polls because of McCarthy’s influence. Four-term U.S. Senator Millard Tydings was defeated in a close race due primarily to McCarthy’s false claims that Tydings might be a communist sympathizer.
Joseph McCarthy was an opportunist. In the early 1950s, Americans were afraid; Communism was spreading. Many suspected Russian spies were everywhere – state and federal government, news media, and even Hollywood people. McCarthy’s first few years in the Senate were quiet and uneventful. In February 1950, he surprised the nation when he addressed a women’s club in West Virginia and said that he had a list of 205 “known communists,” all of whom were employed by the State Department. To add theatre, McCarthy held papers that supposedly contained the names. Many political leaders were alarmed and at first believed what he claimed, including Margaret Chase Smith, “It looked as though Joe was onto something disturbing and frightening,” she said. Later that year, McCarthy made additional charges, claiming that the Communists were members of President Truman’s administration, the Voice of America, and even the United States Army, all of which was nonsense. McCarthy even suggested that members of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were Communist sympathizers referring to those years as “twenty years of treason,” and that Truman was “soft on Communism.” President Harry Truman curtly responded that the “best asset the Kremlin has is Joseph McCarthy.”
As with more recent demagogues, McCarthy’s evidence was non-existent, and the majority of Congressmen, in time, grew to understand that he was lying. While much of the public bought into McCarthy’s lies, many Congress members remained silent, afraid that they too could suddenly be on Joseph McCarthy’s hit list. “It became evident that Joe had the Senate paralyzed with fear,” Smith would later say.
In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower was elected President, the first Republican since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although Eisenhower was popular, Congressional support was split evenly between Eisenhower supporters and those who supported Senator Joseph McCarthy. Privately, Eisenhower held McCarthy in great disdain; publicly, he never denounced McCarthy or even mentioned his name in a speech. He knew that if he had launched an attack, much like the one Margaret Chase Smith had done, it would have split the Republican party in deciding which leader they would support, Ike or McCarthy. Walking a fine political line, Eisenhower never signaled Senator Smith’s support, nor did he embrace McCarthy’s menacing attacks on innocent people.
During the next couple of years, Joseph McCarthy continued his witch hunts destroying lives and tearing families apart, all in the name of hunting down Communists. Margaret Chase Smith became a lonely figure in Washington, shunned by many in her party. As McCarthy grilled one accused Communist after another, Smith continued to speak out. Now she was targeting McCarthy by name, “I say to the members of the Senate that Senator McCarthy has made false accusations that he cannot and has not dared even to try to back up with proof.” “The American people”, she wrote in her nationally syndicated column, need “written evidence in black and white instead of conflicting oral outbursts in nebulous hues of red and pink.” The truth had little place in the reckless mission of Joseph McCarthy. Smith continued to work diligently at her job in the Senate, and when asked about McCarthy, she responded, “I have said my piece.”
By 1953 things began to change. The war in Korea was ending. Americans began enjoying the prosperity of the time – full employment, the growth of urban areas, more recreational and family time. The fear of Communism was replaced with the fascination of going to the movies, and televisions began appearing in nearly every home.
“See it Now” was a popular weekly news show with an even more popular and respected journalist. Edward R. Murrow took on subjects that he felt the public needed to know about and, other journalists wanted to ignore. In one episode, Murrow showed footage of McCarthy badgering and making false charges against innocent witnesses. Murrow presented numerous film clips of McCarthy’s ruthless bullying. The viewers were horrified. The public was finally starting to understand what Margaret Chase Smith warned about three years earlier.
McCarthy’s final mistake was targeting the U.S. Army. In televised Senate hearings, the Senator accused Army officers, including the Army’s Secretary Robert Stevens, of being Communists, again using his fine-tuned skills of bullying, badgering, and terrorizing the witnesses, and without providing any credible evidence of wrongdoing. As with Murrow’s film clips of McCarthy’s brutality with witnesses, a live audience of television viewers quickly realized that Joseph McCarthy was nothing more than a street thug, full of hot air and lies. Toward the end of a long day, the Senator interrogated a witness for the Army when, finally, the Army’s chief attorney, Joseph Welch, challenged the Senator. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?” The live hearings went on for 36 days, and by the end, Americans saw the monster McCarthy and understood the terrible sham referred to as McCarthyism.
While the hearings were going on, Smith was busy with her Senate re-election in Maine. McCarthy’s rage against Margaret Chase Smith extended to even recruiting a McCarthy-like protegé candidate to challenge her. It didn’t work, and she won easily. Many interpreted the 5 to 1 margin as a landslide defeat against McCarthyism.
By the end of 1954, Joseph McCarthy’s fall from grace was complete. The U.S. Senate voted to denounce McCarthy and his abuse of power in December, which effectively ended his career. A broken man, he died in office in 1957 at the age of 48.
Smith took little pleasure in the humiliating collapse of a once-powerful man. Other Senators, who had held their silence for years, came forward with their assaults against McCarthy. President Dwight Eisenhower, bursting with enthusiasm, announced that “Margaret Chase Smith is my favorite Senator.” When asked about Joseph McCarthy, Smith said little, but smiled and occasionally referred back to “I’ve said my piece.”
She was re-elected several more times as Senator to Maine, retiring in 1973 after serving a total of 33 years of distinguished service in Congress.
“Moral cowardice that keeps us from speaking our minds is as dangerous to this country as irresponsible talk.” Margaret Chase Smith.
New York Times, various articles between 1950 to 1954.
Milwaukee Journal, various articles during June 1950.
Washington Post, articles between 1950 and 1954.
Evening Star, articles written in 1954.