It was known as “Red Baiting:” labeling as “Communists” Americans of good conscience who empathized with the less fortunate. In the early 1950s, in the midst of the Cold War and thirty-five years after the Bolshevik Revolution in the Soviet Union, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin went on what was somewhat politely called a “witch hunt.” Whether he had serious concerns about a real international threat to the United States or whether he had a paranoid obsession with imaginary conspiracies is debatable. Whatever his motivations, he used his power to degrade the good standing of a unique and remarkable Republican,
Senator Margaret Chase Smith.
Senator Smith, a Republican from Maine, was the first woman elected to both the House and the Senate. As with the case with most of the first women who went to Congress, she was elected following the death of her husband. She served in the House for nearly ten years. Then, in November 1948, she was elected to her first of four terms in the U.S. Senate (24 years).
Whereas many women who serve in Congress now have resumes similar to their male counterparts (attorneys, business owners, career politicians), Senator Smith had taught school in a one-room schoolhouse, actually worked as a telephone operator, and served as an office worker in a local textile mill. Her husband, Clyde, was a respected political leader in Maine who was elected to the House in 1936 and served on the influential Labor Committee during the New Deal.
When Joseph McCarthy relentlessly pursued a few Communists and many imaginary ones, most in Washington chose not to challenge him. It is sometimes forgotten that Robert Kennedy was a staff member of the committee for six months and brother Jack maintained a friendship with McCarthy; the two of them being among the few Catholics in the Senate.
Senator Smith was not bothered by the fact that Joseph McCarthy was a fellow Republican (perhaps a lesson that Maine’s current senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe could learn about their fellow members of the GOP). On June 1, 1950 Smith gave her Declaration of Conscience speech on the floor of the Senate, earning McCarthy’s permanent ire and the nickname “Moscow Maggie” from his staff. And what was it that Senator Smith said that caused him to tag her with the “Moscow Maggie” moniker?
To be specific, she stated that the basic principles of “Americanism” were:
- The right to criticize
- The right to hold unpopular beliefs
- The right to protest
- The right to independent thought
In other words, she was reaffirming the words of Thomas Paine in “Common Sense,” Madison, Hamilton and John Jay in the Federalist Papers, Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, and the “founding fathers” in the very Constitution McCarthy purported to be protecting. Maybe McCarthy was shaken by the similarity of Smith’s principles to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a 1948 United Nations document largely authored by Eleanor Roosevelt, which stands as the document that best describes the values that Americans wish to protect from threats of aggression, terrorism, illiteracy, poverty, environmental degradation, and religious fundamentalism.
To show how progressive Senator Chase was (and we remind you that she was a Republican), there were only six other senators who joined her in signing the Declaration. One of them was Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of two senators to vote against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, President Lyndon Johnson’s fabricated reason for escalating the American presence in Vietnam.
Senator Smith demonstrated her independence from progressives by supporting the Vietnam War. But she bolted from Republican Party ranks by opposing President Richard Nixon’s two failed Supreme Court nominees, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell.
In 1964, when conservative Senator Barry Goldwater was steamrolling to the Republican nomination for President, the progressive wing of the party was represented by Margaret Chase Smith, who became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination at a major party’s convention. She represented the “Rockefeller Republicans” after the governor of New York dropped out of the campaign earlier in the year. To grasp the significance of Senator Chase’s willingness to be a candidate in 1964, contrast it to the eight white males who contended for the Republican nomination forty-four years later in 2008, each trying to “out-conservative” the others.
Could a Margaret Chase Smith serve in the House or Senate now as a Republican? There is no evidence that she could. Again, it’s not “your father or grandfather’s GOP.” Her record is all the more reason to appreciate Senator Margaret Chase Smith and all of her accomplishments.