A Clarion Warning

Published: March 18, 2024

By Jim Lichtman
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Senator Margaret Chase Smith, ca. 1954 (Records of the U.S. Information Agency, National Archives)

At a time when trust in Washington leadership is at its lowest point, it’s more vital than ever to revisit the lessons from our past.

As a freshman Senator from Maine, a deeply republican state, Margaret Chase Smith had been concerned about Communism’s threat to the United States. However, she had become increasingly troubled about the extremist actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy and her Republican colleagues’ support or silence of his actions. The tipping point came when Smith asked to see McCarthy’s list of more than 200 Communists in the State Department.

In her biography of Smith, “Politics of Conscience,” Patricia Ward Wallace describes what happened.

“Margaret, you seem to be worried about what I’m doing,” McCarthy said.

“Yes, Joe, I want to see the proof.”

“Why? Don’t you believe me?”

McCarthy’s response became the prelude to one of American history’s most compelling and critical speeches. With the support and consultation of a handful of Republican colleagues, Smith prepared what would become her Declaration of Conscience speech.

Walking into the Senate chamber on June 1, 1950, McCarthy approached Smith. “Margaret, you look very serious. Are you going to make a speech?”

“Yes, and you will not like it.”

“Is it about me?”

“Yes, but I’m not going to mention your name.”

Despite her resolve, Smith trembled as she rose to read what would become one of the greatest moments of moral integrity in the U.S. Senate about a crisis that closely parallels the current dark cloud over Washington.

“Mr. President, I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition. It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear. It is a condition that comes from the lack of effective leadership either in the legislative branch or the executive branch of our government.

“I speak as briefly as possible because too much harm has already been done with irresponsible words of bitterness and selfish political opportunism. I speak as simply as possible because the issue is too great to be obscured by eloquence. I speak simply and briefly in the hope that my words will be taken to heart.

“We are Republicans. But we are Americans first. As Americans, we express our concern with the growing confusion that threatens the security and stability of our country. Democrats and Republicans alike have contributed to that confusion.

“Certain elements of the Republican Party have materially added to this confusion in the hopes of riding the Republican Party to victory through the selfish political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance. There are enough mistakes of the Democrats for Republicans to criticize constructively without resorting to political smears.

“To this extent, Democrats and Republicans alike have unwittingly, but undeniably, played directly into the Communist design of ‘confuse, divide, and conquer.’

“It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security . . . It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.”

Many had warned Smith that McCarthy would rise with an angry challenge. But it never happened. Instead, McCarthy left the chamber.

Republicans and Democrats hailed the speech: “Inspiring and thought-provoking,” “A clarion warning to which every one of us should pay heed.”

Democrat Millard Tydings of Maryland said that Smith had been “temperate, constructive, imaginative . . .  and fair.” In coining a new word, Tydings praised her “magnificent address” as “stateswomanship.”

It takes no stretch of imagination to see the comparisons in today’s Washington facing another critical low point in trust, one that threatens to cut deeply into everything America stands for.

Drawing on the wisdom of Margaret Chase Smith, on Friday I will attempt to motivate American leadership and all who believe in the Constitution to look to their conscience and make the right choices for themselves, their families, and the country.

Comments

  1. Lets follow the constitution and our conscience as we proceed and vote…

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