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A Republican senator mourns the party’s lost honor

It was a time of fear and division, not unlike today.  North Korea was threatening war.  Russia had detonated its atomic bomb and China had fallen to the communists, lost, it was said, by President Truman and the Democrats.  The president was at odds with Congress and a Senate demagogue was feeding on all of this unease by lying his way to growing power and influence.

And some thoughtful Republicans were becoming disturbed at what was happening to their party.

It was the late spring of 1950, four months after an unknown and inconsequential Wisconsin senator told a gathering of West Virginia Republicans that the nation was being betrayed by homegrown communists and the government of President Truman was awash in subversion.  Joseph McCarthy waved sheets of paper at Wheeling’s Republican women and said they contained the names of 205 communists in the State Department alone, the tip of a Red iceberg.

Within days, McCarthy was famous.  It was the beginning of a political reign of terror conducted by a senator who would ruin many lives while never producing one of those 205 names.  

Among the first colleagues to question McCarthy was the strongly anticommunist junior senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith.  She sat with McCarthy on his committee investigating communists in government and after weeks of pressing him for proof of his serious charges, she discovered there was no proof.  

Smith had seen this before.  She was elected to the Senate after being accused by Republican primary opponents of being a communist sympathizer for having supported the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine.

Maine’s junior senator had served for just over a year but her reverence for the Senate was such that she didn’t hesitate to warn her colleagues that “the greatest deliberative body in the world” was in danger of “becoming debased” by the tactics of McCarthy, whom she never named.  

But her meaning was as clear then as the recent speeches by Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, John McCain and George W. Bush proved to be even though only Corker named the individual “debasing our nation.”

Smith wrote her warning while home in Skowhegan over the Memorial Day weekend and delivered it on the Senate floor on June 1.  

After first noting the threat of communism was real and criticizing the Truman administration for ineptly dealing with that threat, she warned that “a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation.

“I don’t want to see the ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear. “  She called on her colleagues in the Senate and House to re-examine the tactics of congressional anticommunist crusaders who threatened such basic American principles as “the right to criticize, hold unpopular beliefs, protest and hold independent thought.” 

Those who “shout the loudest about Americanism,” Smith told the Senate, are invariably those who forget these rights set forth by the nation’s founders.

The speech was later called “a declaration of conscience” and it can be found on most lists of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. Six other Republican senators, George Aiken of Vermont, Robert Hendrickson of New Jersey, Irving Ives of New York, Wayne Morse of Oregon, Edward Thye of Minnesota and Charles Tobey of Minnesota, endorsed the speech and added their signatures to the declaration.  

McCarthy dubbed Smith and the six cosigners — with his usual accuracy — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and let it be known on several occasions  that “there are too damn many women in the Senate.”  Smith was the only one.   He kicked her off his committee, replacing her with another first termer, Richard Nixon.

Just weeks after the speech, America was at war with North Korea’s communist regime and anticommunism became the fashion, the more fervent, the better.  Republicans and Democrats, who still found McCarthy’s tactics reprehensible, remained silent, fearing they’d be labeled fellow travelers.

McCarthy’s power would fade after the Korean armistice and his exposure by Edward R. Murrow.  Then, when he launched an investigation that questioned the loyalty of the U.S. Army, McCarthy was formally censured by his fellow senators in 1954.  He would die three years later of hepatitis, exacerbated by alcoholism.  He was 48.  

Smith would have a long Senate career, marked by courage and independence.  She was a strong supporter of defense and civil rights and an early advocate of government-funded medical care for the elderly.  

In 1964, she sought the Republican nomination for president but refused to campaign while the Senate was in session or advertise her candidacy.  Her campaign expenditures in the New Hampshire primary, which she lost along with every other she entered, was $250.  But she became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination at a party convention.

And now, we have not a senator, but a president whose conduct, in the words of a senator from his own party “debases” our nation.  We will see if a few declarations of conscience can make a difference this time. 

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.