by Angela Zhong
The year is 1950. The air weighs heavy with panic as a Soviet nuclear threat brews on the horizon. McCarthyites, desperate to prove their allegiance against communism, rabidly accuse opponents as being traitors working against American liberty.
As desperate government officials distance themselves as far from communism as possible, the divide between liberalism and communism mirrors the modern-day gap between Republicans and Democrats.
In an era where the strength of a united nation was crucial, no one was free of suspicion.
The nation holds a breath.
Weeks have passed since McCarthy’s inflammatory “Wheeling Speech,” where he accuses sometimes 81, sometimes 205 members of the State Department as having an affiliation with the Communist Party - the actual number is disregarded (Widmer).
No politician dares whisper a word out of line (Meacham). In this time of cowardice, hundreds are unconstitutionally imprisoned through trial by an accusation, instead of trial by jury (Storrs). The only thing they have done wrong is to exercise their right to representation (Fitzgerald).
The nation gasps for air.
Amidst the frenzy of the Second Red Scare, Margaret Chase Smith, an ambitious Senator from Maine with dreams of the Republican nomination for vice president, rides the subway to the Capitol Building, passing Senator Joseph McCarthy himself (Congressional Records).
For four months, she has been living up to her namesake of “the quiet woman” as the only female in the Senate (Gutgold). Though the media urges for someone, anyone, to end to McCarthy’s totalitarian reign, Smith declines due to her position as a freshman Senator and ally of her fellow Republican (Congressional Records).
The nation sighs in defeat.
However, despite her support for the values underlying McCarthy’s message, she cannot help but feel a sense of uncertainty about McCarthy’s allegations. Smith discreetly requests information on the turncoats, only to discover how weak the evidence is. Appalled, she bombards McCarthy and his collaborators with questions, only to get dismissed for her gender. Suddenly, McCarthy’s committee assignments for her vanish into thin air (Widmer). Something is very wrong.
The nation’s founding fathers convulse in their graves. Foundational principles are dying.
McCarthy interrogates her on the subway, “Margaret, you look very serious, are you going to make a speech?” He leers at her, before adding, "Remember... I control Wisconsin's twenty-seven convention votes!"
The threat to her entire life’s work does not go unacknowledged (Meacham). Smith knows she must retain her strong stance against communism to be selected as Eisenhower’s Vice President running mate at the Republican Convention (Widmer).
With her frequent rejection of Republican-endorsed bills in favor of aligning herself with Maine’s voter base, she was already on thin ice – dubbed by the New York Times as a “party all by herself” (Fitzpatrick).
If McCarthy held true to his word, he could easily, but a powerful orator like McCarthy who had significant influence in the Northeast could entirely upend the progress she has made. (Severo)
Nevertheless, Senator Smith ducks her head down and clutches her speech tighter to her chest, whispering to herself what will go down in history as the Declaration of Conscience.
President John F. Kennedy (2006) once wrote,
“A man does what he must — in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers, and pressures — and that is the basis of all human morality” (p. 265).
Echoing his words, Margaret Chase Smith, the “Conscience of the Senate” herself, crosses the partisan Congress and rises to speak, a single trademark rose pinned to her suit (Severo). Senator McCarthy looms three rows behind her, but she not once does she look back (Widmer).
Her voice, as unwavering as her beliefs, begins with strength,
“Mr. President, I would like to speak briefly and simply about ... a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear” (Smith).
The nation hangs on to every word for dear life.
Her address does, in fifteen minutes, what her male colleagues would not do for four months. It denounces the exploitation of the tense political climate for opportunistic career advancement (Smith). Her declamation brings the cool Maine breeze into a political climate burning with unbridled manipulation of the truth.
The nation lets out a breath of relief.
Despite a silent, fearful, Senate, she amassed an eight to one ratio of support (Congressional Records). Because of her brave decision to denounce the actions of her political party, Americans can once again speak with the freedom the Bill of Rights promised.
The nation takes a deep breath.
McCarthy funds Smith’s district competitors during the reelection season. Richard Nixon is chosen as Vice President instead (Widmer). Media outlets like the Saturday Evening Post shame her as “the soft underbelly of the Republican Party” (Boissoneault).
Amazingly, she triumphs over the slander and continues her trailblazing path, allowing her record of advocating for her constituents’ needs to speak louder than empty campaign promises (Congressional Records).
Her sacrifices do not go unnoticed: Smith, the first woman in both the House and Senate, becomes the first woman to be nominated for the presidency by a major political party. “At that moment ‘in heaven,’ the Chicago Tribune surmised, ‘the first woman suffrage leaders of almost 100 years ago, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton must have smiled’” (Fitzpatrick).
But once again, the nation gasps for air.
The year is 2019. History seems to be repeating itself - the nation is suffocating. "[T]he Four Horsemen of Calumny--Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear” are pervasive.
Nationalism drives the nation to builds wasteful walls instead of bipartisan bridges, extremist gridlocks run rampant as legitimate objections are dismissed as “fake news”, and those “who shout loudest about Americanism… ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism… the right to independent thought” (Widmer; Smith).
Yet when it seems there is only darkness, Senator Smith’s memorable resolve to speak in the face of political suicide is a beacon of hope. The younger generations are becoming more civically involved (Rolnick). Congress demonstrates more diversity than ever before (Chappell).
In times like these, leaders must channel the power of Margaret Chase Smith’s act of courage to cross the floor and, together, champion a just system, not just a system.
Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The Senator Who Stood Up to Joseph McCarthy When No One Else Would.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 13 Sept. 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/senator-who-stood-joseph-mccarthy-when-no-one-else-would-180970279/.
Chappell, Carmin. “The Next Congress Will Be One of the Most Diverse Ever. Now Critics Demand More Diversity on Staff.” CNBC, CNBC, 7 Dec. 2018, www.cnbc.com/2018/12/07/next-congress-is-diverse-but-critics-demand-more-diversity-on-staff.html.
Fitzpatrick, Ellen F. The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency. Harvard University Press, 2016.
Gutgold, Nichola D. Paving the Way for Madam President. Lexington Books, 2006. Print.
Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.
McBrayer, Victoria E. "Margaret Chase Smith’s 1950 Declaration of Conscience Senate Speech: A Stance Against the Exploitation of Fear," The Corinthian: Vol. 18 , Article 9., Georgia College and State University, Jun. 2017, https://kb.gcsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1113&context=thecorinthian
Meacham, Jon. Soul of America: the Battle for Our Better Angels. Random House Large Print, 2018.
Roth, Kenneth. “World Report: The Dangerous Rise of Populism | Global Attacks on Human Rights Values.” Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch, 19 Jan. 2017, www.hrw.org/world-report/2017/country-chapters/dangerous-rise-of-populism.
Severo, Richard. “Margaret Chase Smith Is Dead at 97; Maine Republican Made History Twice.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 May 1995, www.nytimes.com/1995/05/30/obituaries/margaret-chase-smith-is-dead-at-97-maine-republican-made-history-twice.html?mtrref=www.google.com.
Smith, Margaret Chase. "Declaration of Conscience." Gleeditions, 17 Mar. 2011, www.gleeditions.com/remarkstothesenate/students/pages.asp?lid=411&pg=4. Originally published on Margaret Chase Smith Library, U of Maine, www.mcslibrary.org/bio.
Smith, Margaret et. al "Declaration of Conscience", Congressional Record, 82nd Congress. 1st Session, June 1, 1950
Rolnick, Jillian. “CIRCLE Finds Young People More Civically Engaged than Ever.” The Tufts Daily, 25 Oct. 2018, tuftsdaily.com/news/2018/10/24/circle-finds-young-people-civically-engaged-ever/.
Storrs, Landon R. Y. “McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, 8 June 2017, oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-6.
Widmer, Ted. “How Margaret Chase Smith stood up to Joseph McCarthy — and won” BostonGlobe.com, The Boston Globe, 7 Feb. 2016, www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2016/02/07/mccarthy-foil/09B9JdJauoywd9uwswUGyH/story.html