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Ideas | Ted Widmer

How Margaret Chase Smith stood up to Joseph McCarthy — and won

Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine, addresses the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington on April 18, 1964. Henry Burroughs/AP/Associated Press

It wasn’t much of a sound bite by 2016 standards — way too many syllables. But when a Republican senator, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, stood up to Joseph McCarthy in 1950, attacking him for his shameful reliance on “the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear,” it caused a sensation. Smith’s blast of Northern New England air cooled down a country that had become dangerously overheated and eventually led to McCarthy’s demise.

Sixty-six years later, many of the same toxins have resurfaced in our politics. Ethnic slurs routinely bubble up to the surface, whether it’s Donald Trump on Mexicans, Ben Carson on Muslims, or Ted Cruz on “New York values.” Loudness, innuendo, and snark seem to be the metric for winning debates.

In 1950, Margaret Chase Smith was an unlikely warrior against these powerful forces, much in the ascendant. Americans were frightened by financial trouble at home and depressing events abroad, such as the so-called loss of China and Russia’s success in building an atomic weapon. General disillusionment with the feckless Truman administration had opened the door to a new politics of opportunism, skillfully exploited by rising young Republicans — and none was more opportunistic than Wisconsin’s junior senator. A former Democrat, Joseph McCarthy had switched his affiliation and was elected in the Republican landslide of 1946, the same year that many returning veterans sought office for the first time, including Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

By 1950, McCarthy was a national figure with momentum on his side, largely thanks to a sensational speech in which he claimed to know the names of a huge number of subversive employees at the State Department. The exact number — sometimes 57 or 81 or 205 — did not seem to matter. The media did little at first to slow him down. Indeed, national columnists played no small part in stoking the fears that made McCarthy popular, and their syndicates profitable. For a few years, McCarthy’s scare tactics created an entire industry, helping to explain why the United States seemed to be losing ground against shadowy forces around the world. McCarthy had many political gifts, including a powerful oratorical presence, which he leavened with a biting wit, effective at lacerating opponents. No one in the Senate had dared to take him on.


No one, that is, except Margaret Chase Smith. She was the shortest member of the Senate, and its only woman, but on June 1, 1950, she stood up. She had many reasons not to. Smith was a more junior senator than McCarthy, having been elected in 1948 after a career in the House that began when she was appointed to fill the seat of her late husband. She had worked with McCarthy on committees, and she was a Republican loyalist, hesitant to take on a powerful senator in her own party. It was a daunting step to take politically, as well, for McCarthy was popular throughout New England.


But Smith was not like other senators. She was a stickler for detail, a straight shooter, and proud of every privilege that she earned in the extremely male sanctuary of the Senate. She had grown up in the small town of Skowhegan, with both English and French-Canadian ancestry, and had begun working at the age of 12, in a five-and-dime store. After graduating from the local high school, she worked as a telephone operator, a school teacher, a small-town journalist, and a bookkeeper for the local mill before marrying a Skowhegan businessman who was elected to Congress in 1937. Upon his death in 1940, she took over, and never looked back. She loved the political life and campaigned actively across northern Maine, driving thousands of miles by herself, keeping track of every promise.

In 1950, when Smith asked McCarthy to show the evidence for his sensational accusations, she was disturbed at how thin it was. Then, as she began to ask questions, he violated her sense of protocol as well as her sense of ethics by stripping her of committee assignments without informing her and treating her dismissively within the cloakrooms of the Senate. Smith was no liberal; indeed, she was fiercely anticommunist. But her moral compass and her reverence for the Senate demanded better answers than that. Over Memorial Day weekend, she went to Skowhegan and wrote out the speech that she would call her “Declaration of Conscience.”


On June 1, the day of the speech, she had the uncomfortable experience of riding in the Senate train to the Capitol with McCarthy. He sat three rows behind her while she gave her speech. But she never flinched. She criticized the Democrats as well as the Republicans and lamented the general lack of leadership in Washington. But then she went into special detail about “selfish political opportunism” and all it was doing to desecrate the edifice of democracy. With powerful, short statements, she began, “I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States senator. I speak as an American.” Then she went on to criticize the new politics of insinuation that McCarthy had perfected, with its reckless charges and mocking derision. Those who “shout the loudest about Americanism” are invariably the ones who forgot the core principles of the rights set forth by America’s founders, Smith noted, including “the right to hold unpopular beliefs.” Exercising that right “should not cost anyone his or her job or reputation.”


As the word “her” would suggest in that sentence, Smith was always conscious of her role as the Senate’s unique woman. As McCarthy began his inevitable counterattack, he predictably took the low road. Frequent derisive comments were soon lodged, by himself or through proxies, about how “there are too damn many women in the Senate!” Of course, there was exactly one. After seven Republican senators signed a statement in support of Smith, McCarthy called them “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” When Smith was up for reelection in 1954, McCarthy did everything he could to unseat her, but she beat back the challenge.

That failure hurt McCarthy even more than her Declaration of Conscience, and showed that he was no longer a political mastermind. Other senators began to speak out, at long last, having suddenly found their backbones.

Smith did not emerge entirely unscathed from the fracas — she had been widely mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate for Dwight Eisenhower, and Eisenhower instead chose someone with more acceptable anticommunist credentials, Richard Nixon.

Still, she continued to make progress in her own, utterly unique way. In 1960, she defeated a strong female Democrat, the first time two women had run against each other for the Senate. Four years later, she became the first woman from a major party to declare herself a candidate for the presidency. Despite her proximity to New Hampshire, she couldn’t get much traction. It’s almost quaint to read her entire budget for the New Hampshire primary was $250.


It must have been gratifying also to offend actual communists as much as she offended the anticommunists. Smith was an ardent defender of the US military, and in 1961, she was so opposed to reductions in defense spending that the Kremlin called her “that bloodthirsty little woman” and “an Amazon warmonger hiding behind a rose.” Smith’s laconic response was classic Maine: “Some Amazon. I’m five foot three.”

Ted Widmer is the Saunders Fellow for Public Engagement at Brown University and a senior fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is also a trustee of the Massachusetts Historical Society.