It was conscience that compelled a freshman U.S. senator from Maine to deliver perhaps her most noteworthy speech 50 years ago today. A half-century later, Margaret Chase Smith’s Declaration of Conscience still resonates.
In 1948, the veteran U.S. representative had shattered the notion that the Senate was no place for a woman with a landslide election victory that made her the first woman to be elected to both houses of Congress.
Then, a mere five years after the conclusion of World War II, Smith gave voice to concerns held by colleagues and constituents alike that politics were overshadowing national security.
The looming specter of communism was spooking a nation still recovering from the war. Americans had watched the Soviets develop an atomic bomb and push their “iron curtain” across Europe. They also had witnessed communism gain strongholds in China, France and Italy.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican, capitalized on the country’s anxieties as he levied a barrage of charges, innuendos and smears against President Harry Truman, and against anyone he considered to be a communist sympathizer. Those alleged sympathizers included several congressional Democrats and many celebrities in the motion picture industry.
His ostensible goal — which became an obsession — was to reinvest power in the GOP and recapture the presidency for the party. McCarthy’s anti-communist speeches spared none, and put both Democrats and Republicans on the defensive to demonstrate their tough stance against communism.
Smith grew increasingly uneasy about the unfettered growth of what became known as McCarthyism, his trampling of citizens’ civil liberties, and his use of a legitimate issue for political gain. While senators on both sides of the aisle concurred with Smith’s sentiments, none dared challenge McCarthy.
Though she recognized her standing as a junior senator who was expected to be seen, not heard, a frustrated Smith consulted her longtime friend and adviser, Bill Lewis. Together they drafted a statement and met surreptitiously with a half-dozen moderates who signed on. Smith and Lewis returned to Maine with the draft for the Memorial Day weekend, and, despite her initial reticence, Lewis convinced Smith to rework it into what is considered to be the most important speech of her career.
Returning to Washington, Smith directed Lewis to prepare 200 copies of the speech, which he was not to distribute until after she had begun speaking. McCarthy — whom she declined to mention by name based on professional protocol — was seated two rows behind Smith as she addressed the Senate president:
“I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition … too much harm has already been done with irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism. … As an American, I condemn a Republican `Fascist’ just as much as I condemn a Democrat `Communist.’ … As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.”
Silence marked the end of Smith’s impassioned address in the Senate. Not so in the press. The Bangor Daily Commercial praised her “statesmanship of the highest order.” She made the cover of Newsweek tagged with the caption, “Senator Smith: A Woman Vice President?” The Washington Post labeled the speech a “seething indictment” of the intentionally unnamed Sen. McCarthy.
A half-century after its delivery, Smith’s Declaration of Conscience still gives rise to public discourse on keeping politics in perspective. Gregory Gallant, director of the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, in a recent telephone interview said he believes that Smith, who died in 1995, would be “both thrilled by the lasting impact of her speech and dismayed by widespread lack of civic engagement. The senator worried that many in society do not participate or are excluded from participation,” he said. “She was concerned that people don’t see a direct relationship of government to themselves.”
The Smith Library commemorates the anniversary today with a special 2000 Maine Town Meeting. The event is titled “Consent of the Governed: Distrust and Civil Participation.” The day will be packed with noteworthy speeches delivered by Smith friend and adviser Merton G. Henry, and by colleague Kathryn Monahan Ainsworth.
Harvard University professor Theda Skocpol will speak on “Civic Engagement in American Democracy.” Rep. Shirley K. Richard, D-Madison, will re-enact delivery of Smith’s speech, and professor Nancy Cott of Yale University’s Center for Advanced Studies will speak on “Conscience in Public Life.”
For more information, call the library at 474-7133.