McCarthyism, Democracy, and Margaret Smith
The American experiment was founded on the idea of a democracy where the people hold the ultimate power over the government. It takes someone with true courage to stand up for the America public. In the last century during the Cold War from 1947 to 1991, the Capitalist United States (US) and the Communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) clashed in a series of escalating economic and political tensions. In the midst of this tumultuous period, US government officials became concerned that communist sympathizer would collude with Soviet spies and endanger national security. The most vocal advocate for the “Red Scare” was Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. McCarthy came under the national spotlight during his speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, when he claimed that 205 State Department employees were known communist infiltrators (Achter). Although he lacked definitive evidence to back his claim, McCarthy continued a long string of accusations against celebrities, politicians, and nearly anyone who disagreed with him. McCarthy’s campaign to “expose” communist infiltrators caused innocent Americans to lose their careers and reputations, and fueled McCarthy’s rise to power. This period of mass, unsubstantiated paranoia eventually became known as “McCarthyism” (Achter). Few dared to challenge him, for fear of becoming his next target; At least not until a woman by the name of Margaret Chase Smith stepped into the political fray.
U.S. House Representative Margaret Chase Smith
Margaret Smith first entered the world of politics in 1936 when she helped her husband Clyde Smith win a seat in the US House of Representatives. After Clyde passed away in 1940, Margaret took over his seat. After serving four terms in the House, she was elected to the Senate in 1948 (Widmer). She was the only woman in the US Senate at the time and the first woman have served in both the House and the Senate (Sherman). Despite her strong aversion to communism, she was out spoken in her disapproval of Senator McCarthy’s seemingly unjust persecution of suspected communist sympathizers. McCarthy had built an entire industry on fear mongering, and the media only served to propel his scare tactics. His fame and influence made him a figurehead of the Republican party. As a Republican loyalist who had worked with McCarthy before, Smith hesitated to take on a popular, senior politician from her party. There was no doubt that quietly supporting her fellow party member would have been a far easier route. But unable to ignore the lack of evidence in his seemingly baseless accusations, Margaret Chase Smith stood on the Senate floor. On June 1, 1951, the only woman in a room full of the country’s most powerful men delivered one of the most influential speeches of the twentieth century, condemning McCarthy’s hateful rhetoric. (Widmer).
Margaret Smith’s Speech “The Declaration of Conscience”
McCarthy sat only three rows behind Margaret Smith when she delivered “The
Declaration of Conscience” to the Senate, but Smith did not waver (Widmer). In her speech, she criticized the “know nothing, suspect everything attitudes” of the Senate, and declared that “the American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as Communists or Fascists by their opponents”(Smith). Without mentioning McCarthy by name, Smith condemned the “witch hunt” to smear innocent people in the interest of political gain (Smith). Not only did she denounce the Democratic party’s poor leadership, Smith also warned the Republican party not to “ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny –
Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear”(Smith). The senator urged her constituents to not ignore the “basic principles of Americanism – the right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; The right to protest; the right of independent thought”(Smith). In this single speech, Margaret Smith portrayed a country at war with itself- a war started by the representatives who had been elected to unite the country against an external enemy, no less. “The Declaration of Conscience” was a powerful reminder to public officials that they must “weigh [their] conscience… on the manner in which [they] are using or abusing [their] individual powers and privileges” (Smith). Four years later in December 1954, the Senate finally followed Smith’s advice by formally censuring Joseph McCarthy (Kruse).
Margaret Smith faced severe repercussions following her speech. Outraged over his
humiliation on the Senate floor, McCarthy struck back. He mocked Smith and the seven other Republicans who supported her, calling them “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and complained that there were “too damn many women in the Senate!”(Burroughs). Of course, there was only one at the time. In 1951, McCarthy finally succeeded in kicking Smith off the permanent investigations subcommittee and replaced her with California Senator Richard Nixon (Fitzpatrick). While Senator Smith had been widely considered a possible running mate for Presidential Candidate Dwight Eisenhower, Eisenhower chose a Senator seen as having a more anti- communist rhetoric: Washington’s rising politician Richard Nixon (Burroughs). Despite these political setbacks, Smith forged her own path and managed to win her reelection to the Senate, a slap in the face to McCarthy, who had given financial support to a Republican challenger (Widmer).
John F. Kennedy and Margaret Chase Smith
Margaret Sandler even earned the respect of President John F. Kennedy. When reporters asked Kennedy what he thought of Smith as a potential candidate for the 1964 Presidential race, he responded, “I would think if I were a Republican candidate, I would not look forward to campaigning against Margaret Chase Smith… She is a very formidable political figure.” (Fitzpatrick). No doubt, he was thinking back to Smith’s speech, by then more than a decade old, but no less impactful. On that day, Margaret Smith took the first step away McCarthy’s bandwagon of public exploitation and towards a strong and united country.
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