Margaret Chase Smith:
A Declaration of Conscience
June 1, 1950
One of the most noted early challenges to Joseph R. McCarthy's charges of Communists in government was made by Margaret Chase Smith of Maine in her "Declaration of Conscience" speech in June 1950.
In the controversial aftermath of Joseph R. McCarthy's speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith was initially impressed with McCarthy's accusations about subversives in the State Department. "It looked as if Joe was onto something disturbing and frightening," she decided, refusing to join with those senators taking issue with McCarthy. But then she asked to see the documents he was citing as evidence. Reading through McCarthy's materials, she failed to see their relevance to his charges. The more she read, and the more she listened to McCarthy, the less comfortable she felt. Smith began to question the "validity, accuracy, credibility, and fairness" of his charges and came to believe that McCarthy was creating an atmosphere of political fear in Washington, particularly among federal employees.
Smith had succeeded her late husband, Clyde H. Smith, in the House of Representatives in June 1940 and was reelected four times. Then, in 1948, she won election to the Senate. As a freshman, a fellow Republican who considered herself a friend of McCarthy's, and the only woman member of the Senate at the time, Smith felt reluctant to speak out publicly. However, friends in the media, including the eminent newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann, encouraged her to take a stand, and Senator Smith and her administrative assistant William Lewis began drafting her "Declaration of Conscience." She circulated the draft among a half dozen other liberal Republicans and collected their endorsements. As Smith headed to the Senate chamber on June 1, 1950, they encountered Senator McCarthy at the subway to the Capitol. "Margaret, you look very serious," he said, "are you going to make a speech?" "Yes, and you will not like it," Smith replied. "Remember Margaret, I control Wisconsin's twenty-seven convention votes!" he rebutted. Smith took this as an unsubtle threat that he would block her chances of receiving the Republican vice presidential nomination in 1952.
When Smith rose to deliver her fifteen-minute speech in the Senate chamber, McCarthy sat two rows behind her. Smith began her brief remarks by denouncing the fact that some members were turning the Senate into "a forum of hate and character assassination." She called for a renewal of "the right to independent thought" and a return to the principles of the Republican party as "the champion of unity and prudence." Her party should base its opposition to the Democrats on "proved cases" rather than "unproved charges." Smith concluded with a five-point "Declaration of Conscience," in which she was joined by six Republican colleagues.
After Smith finished, although she had not mentioned McCarthy by name, she fully expected him to respond. Instead, McCarthy quietly left the chamber. A few senators spoke in praise of her remarks, but for the most part the Senate remained silent, fearing to engage McCarthy in further recriminations. The mail, however, showed an eight-to-one approval for Smith's stand. Newspaper editorials endorsed her position, and numerous organizations awarded her recognition for her courageous stand in favor of civil liberties against the politics of fear. The next time that President Truman came to the Capitol for lunch, he invited Margaret Chase Smith to join him. "Mrs. Smith," he told her, "your Declaration of Conscience was one of the finest things that has happened here in Washington in all my years in the Senate and the White House."
McCarthy saw things differently. He ridiculed Smith and her cosigners as "Snow White and the Six Dwarfs." He violated Senate custom to remove her as a member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and gave her place to the new senator from California, Richard M. Nixon. McCarthy's allies took every occasion to smear Senator Smith. But in 1954 she had the satisfaction of casting a vote for McCarthy's censure and effectively ending his campaign of falsehood and intimidation--what she had so effectively denounced as a political attempt to ride "the Four Horsemen of Calumny--Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear."
Reprinted from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994.
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