Sunday, June 4, 2023

Declaration of Conscience

Margaret Chase Smith (1897–1995)
From American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton

Arthur H. Vandenberg (R-MI), President pro tempore of the United States Senate, swears in newly elected senators Lester C. Hunt (D-WY), Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME), Robert C. Hendrickson (R-NJ), and Andrew F. Schoeppel (R-KS), on January 3, 1949. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Margaret Chase Smith Library.
       Near the end of his term, Hunt would kill himself with a rifle in his Senate office. Senator Joseph McCarthy and his associates had blackmailed him into agreeing to never again run for office or they would expose the arrest of Hunt’s 25-year-old son for soliciting an undercover D.C. policeman in Lafayette Park. Although the reasons for the suicide and McCarthy’s role were kept from the public, Hunt’s death was one of numerous unsavory incidents that brought about McCarthy’s downfall.
“Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity,” Senator Joseph McCarthy told a startled audience at the annual Lincoln Day dinner of the Ohio County Republican Women's Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950. “While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as active members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.”

McCarthy had won election to the Senate less than four years earlier, after switching his party affiliation and narrowly defeating incumbent senator Robert M. La Follette Jr. in the Republican primary. A Marine veteran who went by the name “Tail Gunner Joe,” he had “a reputation as a scofflaw,” writes cultural historian Louis Menand in a New Yorker essay. “He had exaggerated his war record. He first ran for Senate (and lost) while he was still in uniform, which was against Army regulations, and he ran his second Senate campaign while he was a sitting judge, a violation of his oath.” The first half of his Senate term had been entirely undistinguished, and party leaders raised doubts as to whether he would even win reelection; he was sent to a relatively minor event precisely because he was unremarkable. “The expectation was that McCarthy was going to give a standard boilerplate speech that you give to a Republican constituency,” says journalist and author Jelani Cobb. “They really weren’t sending him there to make headlines.”

Yet make headlines he did. Frank Desmond, a local reporter for the Wheeling Intelligencer, trumpeted his account under the banner, “McCarthy Charges Reds Hold U.S. Jobs,” the Associated Press picked up the story, and soon the Senator was delivering versions of his speech in various cities—and on the Senate floor. Tellingly, on a radio program the very next day, he lowered the number of Communists in his secret file to 57, a number he repeated in a speech from the Senate floor on February 20—although shortly afterward he told his fellow lawmakers he had information on 81 Communist employees.

Margaret Chase Smith, the new Republican Senator from Maine, had been sworn into office the previous year. The only woman in the Senate at the time, she had become eight years earlier the first woman from Maine elected to Congress. Her husband, Clyde Smith, had suffered a serious heart attack early in his fourth year in the House of Representatives, and he urged his wife to run in his place for the next term. When he died months before the 1940 election, she won the special election to fill the vacancy, as well as the subsequent elections for four full terms.

At first, Smith didn’t quite know what to make of McCarthy’s accusations, the evidence for which he kept secret because, he claimed, he didn’t want to endanger his sources. “When several liberals, one after another, came to me, they urged me very earnestly, even emotionally, to take issue with McCarthy, I frankly told them that I thought he had something in his charges,” Smith recalled in a memoir. After listening to more of his tirades, however, she began to have doubts, which increased after he allowed her a rare glance at the materials in his closely guarded folder. As she later wrote in a memoir:
       One day Joe said, “Margaret, you seem to be worried about what I am doing.”
       I said, “Yes, Joe. I want to see the proof. I have been waiting a long time now for you to produce proof.”
       “But I have shown you the photostatic copies, Margaret.”
       “Perhaps I’m stupid, Joe. But they don’t prove a thing to me that backs up your charges.”
Her concerns increased as, emboldened by the attention, McCarthy began to target individuals. “Dozens of State Department employees were pilloried by McCarthy under the cloak of senatorial immunity with unproved accusations and smeared with guilt-by-association and guilt-by-accusation tactics,” she wrote.

On June 1, 1950, Smith headed to the Senate floor to deliver a speech. On the subway between the Senate office building and the Capitol, she ran into McCarthy.
       “Margaret,” he said, “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.”
McCarthy sat quietly behind Smith for the duration of her fifteen-minute “Declaration of Conscience” speech. She had expected him to deliver a response, but instead he simply left the Senate floor. Smith describes how she became one of McCarthy’s targets during the following months:
Senator McCarthy’s first tactic in retaliation was not the usual heavy-handed approach. Instead he applied a deft touch of ridicule, which he then spoiled by overuse. He labeled me and my cosigners as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” There were really only six cosigners but he included H. Alexander Smith of New Jersey because he was one of those who had arisen on the Senate Floor to state that he was in agreement with my speech.
Although Margaret Chase Smith’s speech received national attention and accolades (and some hostile criticism by McCarthy’s supporters), it receded into the background when, on June 25, North Korea invaded South Korea and helped to amplify the Red Scare. McCarthy ramped up his rhetoric. “Distrust became so widespread that many dared not accept dinner invitations lest at some future date McCarthy might level unproved charges against someone who had been at the same dinner party,” Smith remembered. “I was also to become one of his targets because subsequent to my Declaration of Conscience I met for the first time, and had no subsequent contact with, a State Department official against whom he leveled unfounded and unproved charges.” McCarthy bided his time for political revenge against Smith; seven months after she delivered her speech, he arranged to have her removed from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and replaced with Richard Nixon, who had just been elected to the Senate.

Four years later, in the fall of 1954, Smith embarked on a tour of Europe (made at her own expense with cooperation from the State Department) to evaluate the severity of the “Communist threat.” Before the trip, reporters asked Smith what she would do if, while she was away, the Senate took up the proposed censure of McCarthy that had just been recommended by a select committee. “I certainly would not miss that session,” she replied. On November 8, the Senate reconvened for a post-election session to take up the case, and Smith returned from Europe. On December 7, she was one of the 67 votes that “condemned” McCarthy for his failure “to cooperate with the Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration in clearing up matters referred to that subcommittee which concerned his conduct as a Senator.” Only 22 votes were cast against the resolution.

McCarthy’s power in the Senate imploded; he was ignored by his colleagues and the press, and his health deteriorated, probably exacerbated by alcoholism. McCarthy and Smith would often travel at the same time on the Senate subway; the last time Smith remembered running into him on the train, McCarthy said, “Margaret, we seem to be following each other and riding together.” “Yes, Joe,” she responded. “If you don’t watch out, people will say that we are fellow travellers.” He died in 1957. Smith would serve as a Senator for four terms and, in 1964, she became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency at the convention of a major party. She died in 1995 at the age of 97.

Notes: In her speech, Smith lists four alleged espionage incidents. Amerasia: Six persons, including two State Department employees, a naval officer, and the co-editors of Amerasia, a magazine sympathetic to the Chinese Communists, were arrested in June 1945 in connection with the unauthorized disclosure of government documents. Four of the accused were never indicted or prosecuted, and the remaining two entered pleas and paid fines. Hiss: Alger Hiss, an employee of the State Department from 1936 to 1946, was accused of espionage for the Soviet Union in 1948 and convicted of perjury in January 1950. (Hiss was not charged with espionage because the statute of limitations had expired.) Coplon: Judith Coplon, an employee of the Justice Department, was arrested in March 1949 while meeting with a Soviet intelligence officer. She was convicted of stealing classified documents in 1949 and of conspiracy to commit espionage in March 1950; both convictions were later overturned on appeal. Gold: Harry Gold was arrested on May 22, 1950, and immediately confessed to having served as a courier for Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British physicist who spied for the Soviets while working at Los Alamos. He received a thirty-year sentence but was paroled for good behavior in 1965.

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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. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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