In 1950, during rising fears of communist infiltration, Senator Margaret Chase Smith delivered a speech to the U.S. Senate, speaking out against the political smear tactics of fellow senator Joseph McCarthy. This story is produced by NBC Learn in partnership with Pearson.
Margaret Chase Smith, a Declaration of Conscience
NINA TERRERO reporting:
After World War II, many Americans feared that the spread of communism was threatening freedom and democracy. The countries of Eastern Europe had turned to communism, and Communist forces were advancing in East Asia. In the United States, hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and espionage cases in the courts increased fears that communism was spreading at home.
On June 1, 1950, as another "red scare" was sweeping the nation, Margaret Chase Smith, a freshman Senator from Maine, stood alone on the Senate floor to protest the smear tactics being used against American citizens in the fight against communism.
MARGARET CHASE SMITH (U.S. Senator): I am not proud of the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle. I don’t want a democratic administration "whitewash" or "coverup" any more than i want a republican smear or witch hunt.
TERRERO: Smith's "Declaration of Conscience" speech was aimed at fellow Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had recently claimed he held a list of communists working in the State Department. And his accusations continued.
JOSEPH P. McCARTHY (U.S. Senator): Communists in defense plants, communists who are there as of this moment.
TERRERO: As McCarthy ignored requests for evidence to back his claims, Smith urged caution.
SMITH: I believe with all my heart that we must not become a nation of mental mutes, blindly following demagogues.
TERRERO: Smith spoke out at a time when few dared to publicly speak against McCarthy's tactics. In a 1991 interview, Smith recounted a conversation she had with McCarthy before making her speech.
SMITH: He asked what I was up to and I told him I'm going to make a speech and you're not going to like it.
TERRERO: In her speech, Smith blamed both parties for the "national feeling of fear and frustration." She criticized President Truman's Democratic administration for "its complacency to the threat of communism" and "lack of effective leadership." She admonished the Republican Party's hopes for political "victory through the selfish political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance and intolerance."
SMITH: It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as republicans and democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom.
TERRERO: Smith stated that accusers "who shout the loudest about Americanism ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism, the right to criticize, to hold unpopular beliefs, to protest, the right of independent thought."
SMITH: It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques, techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.
TERRERO: Six Republican senators also signed the declaration, but it didn't get a warm reception from others. Although Smith faced political retaliation from McCarthy, she held her Senate seat until 1972. In a long, distinguished career, Smith's "Declaration of Conscience" is a lasting testimony to her courage and independence at a time of fear and injustice.
Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the communist party?
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