The Senator Who Stood Up to Joseph McCarthy When No One Else Would
Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to serve both the House and the Senate and always defended her values, even when it meant opposing her party!
“It is high time we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom.”
Those words, spoken by Margaret Chase Smith, freshman senator from Maine, never mentioned Joseph McCarthy by name, but it was abundantly clear to all who listened that her criticisms were leveled directly at him. Her speech represented a highlight for the congressional maverick with a career full of similar moments of bipartisanship.
Earlier that day, June 1, 1950, Smith had bumped into the bombastic Wisconsin senator as they made their way to work. Only four months earlier, McCarthy had delivered an inflammatory speech claiming 205 people working in the State Department were secretly communists. Since then, Smith had been closely following his words and actions, meant to undermine the Democratic party and seed suspicion everywhere.
According to journalist Marvin Kalb, the senators’ interaction that morning was a prelude of what was to come. McCarthy regarded Smith and noted, “Margaret, you look very serious. Are you going to make a speech?”
“Yes, and you will not like it,” she responded.
After passing out copies of the speech to the press gallery, Smith approached the Senate floor and began her “Declaration of Conscience.” In it, she addressed what she saw as McCarthy’s dangerous accusations and the partisan bickering it resulted in.
“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,” Smith said, in another thinly veiled jab at McCarthy’s tactics. Importantly, she was also quick to point out the Truman administration had failed to do enough to prevent the spread of communism at home and abroad. But her conclusion called on all politicians, regardless of party affiliation, to stand for the defense of civil liberties.
“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,” said Smith.
It was a remarkable moment, not only because Smith was a woman, or the first person to speak out against McCarthy, but because she was willing to speak out against her fellow Republicans. Again and again over the 32 years she spent in Congress, Smith defended her values, even when it meant opposing the GOP—and even when it cost her personally.
Smith’s political career began shortly after she married Clyde Harold Smith, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1936. Margaret traveled with her husband to Washington, D.C., where she managed his office, and, in 1940, before the end of his term, Clyde asked Margaret to run for his seat just before he died of a fatal heart condition. Not only did she win the special election to finish his term, she won her own full term in Congress by running on a platform of supporting pensions for the elderly and military expansion.
Over the next eight years, Smith repeatedly won reelection to the House as a Republican, though she mostly followed her own conscience and frequently voted across party lines. She sponsored legislation to make women recognized members of the military rather than volunteers and voted against making the House Select Committee on Un-American Activities (which investigated communism) a permanent committee. She would also support Democratic legislation like FDR’s Lend-Lease program.
When one of Maine’s senators chose not to return in 1947, she decided to run for his seat. According to a biography from the United States House of Representatives, “The state Republican Party, stung by Smith’s many votes across party lines, opposed her candidacy and supported Maine Governor Horace A. Hildreth in the four-way race.” But Smith earned far more votes than any of her opponents, becoming the first woman to serve in both the House and the Senate.
When McCarthy began his accusations of communism run amok in the American government, Smith, like many others, was initially concerned that he might be right. She had been a fervent anti-communist throughout her political career and introduced a bill to outlaw the Communist Party in 1953, three years after her speech against McCarthy. What she didn’t agree with were her colleague from Wisconsin’s tactics—the fearmongering, the smearing of reputations, and finding people guilty before they had a chance to defend themselves.
“She was worried that what [McCarthy] was doing was undermining the anti-communism movement, that his methods were going too far,” says historian Mary Brennan, author of Wives, Mothers, and the Red Menace.
It soon became clear that McCarthy had grossly exaggerated his claims. By the spring of 1950, Smith said, “Distrust became so widespread that many dared not accept dinner invitations lest at some future date McCarthy might level unproved charges against someone who had been at the same dinner party.” Smith decided to act, since no one else seemed willing to, and gave her speech with the support of only six other Republican senators.
McCarthy’s response was typical of his behavior to any critics: he dismissed her, nicknaming Smith and her colleagues “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.” Meanwhile, media outlets like the Saturday Evening Post shamed Smith and her co-signers for being communist-sympathizers, calling them “the soft underbelly of the Republican Party.”
Yet Smith received a large share of praise as well as censure. Newsweek pondered whether Smith might be the next vice president, while financier and statesman Bernard Baruch went even further, stating that if a man had given such a speech “he would be the next president.” Smith received campaign donations from across the country for the 1952 elections, Brennan says, all of which she politely returned, saying she was running in a state race, not a national one.
But for all the furor her speech produced, Smith quickly fell out of the limelight when North Korean forces invaded the South at the end of June. “The boiling intensity of the Cold War had the ironic effect of sidelining Smith and elevating McCarthy, whose anticommunist crusade only grew wider and stronger,” Kalb writes in Enemy of the People: Trump’s War on the Press, the New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy.
The one person who didn’t forget Smith’s speech was McCarthy himself. “Her support for the United Nations, New Deal programs, support for federal housing and social programs placed her high on the list of those against whom McCarthy and his supporters on local levels sought revenge,” writes Gregory Gallant in Hope and Fear in Margaret Chase Smith’s America. When McCarthy gained control of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (which monitored government affairs), he took advantage of the position to remove Smith from the group, replacing her with acolyte Richard Nixon, then a senator from California. Although she remained a member of the Republican party, party leaders never quite knew how to make sense of her, Brennan says.
“I don’t know that she would’ve felt a lot of loyalty to the Republican Party the way some others did. There was a sense that they didn’t like what McCarthy was doing, but he was attacking the Democrats and that was good. And she came along and said, that’s true, but he’s undermining our cause and that’s bad.”
Despite being briefly sidelined by McCarthy for standing her ground, Smith remained a savvy enough politician to survive. She held a record for casting 2,941 consecutive roll call votes between 1955 and 1968, which was interrupted only by her recovery from hip surgery. And in 1964, she announced she was running for President. Though she never made it past the primaries, she still became the first woman to have her name put in for nomination for the presidency by a major political party.
As for the incident with McCarthy, Smith wasn’t the one who to bring him down or spur others to action. He wouldn’t fall until 1954, after considerable damage had been done. But Smith did vote to censure him in 1954, and, Brennan says, she refused to sign a card from other Republicans apologizing for censuring him.
“That was the thing about her,” Brennan says. “She was very much what you’d think of when you think of a stereotypical Yankee. This is the principal, this is what I’m standing for, and I’m not deviating from this.”