How Margaret Chase Smith stood up to Joseph McCarthy — and won

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tags: Joseph McCarthy, Margaret Chase Smith



Ted Widmer is the Saunders Fellow for Public Engagement at Brown University and a senior fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is also a trustee of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

It wasn't much of a sound bite by 2016 standards — way too many syllables. But when a Republican senator, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, stood up to Joseph McCarthy in 1950, attacking him for his shameful reliance on “the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear,” it caused a sensation. Smith’s blast of Northern New England air cooled down a country that had become dangerously overheated and eventually led to McCarthy’s demise. 

Sixty-six years later, many of the same toxins have resurfaced in our politics. Ethnic slurs routinely bubble up to the surface, whether it’s Donald Trump on Mexicans, Ben Carson on Muslims, or Ted Cruz on “New York values.” Loudness, innuendo, and snark seem to be the metric for winning debates. 

In 1950, Margaret Chase Smith was an unlikely warrior against these powerful forces, much in the ascendant. Americans were frightened by financial trouble at home and depressing events abroad, such as the so-called loss of China and Russia’s success in building an atomic weapon. General disillusionment with the feckless Truman administration had opened the door to a new politics of opportunism, skillfully exploited by rising young Republicans — and none was more opportunistic than Wisconsin’s junior senator. A former Democrat, Joseph McCarthy had switched his affiliation and was elected in the Republican landslide of 1946, the same year that many returning veterans sought office for the first time, including Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. 

By 1950, McCarthy was a national figure with momentum on his side, largely thanks to a sensational speech in which he claimed to know the names of a huge number of subversive employees at the State Department. The exact number — sometimes 57 or 81 or 205 — did not seem to matter. The media did little at first to slow him down. Indeed, national columnists played no small part in stoking the fears that made McCarthy popular, and their syndicates profitable. For a few years, McCarthy’s scare tactics created an entire industry, helping to explain why the United States seemed to be losing ground against shadowy forces around the world. McCarthy had many political gifts, including a powerful oratorical presence, which he leavened with a biting wit, effective at lacerating opponents. No one in the Senate had dared to take him on. 

No one, that is, except Margaret Chase Smith. She was the shortest member of the Senate, and its only woman, but on June 1, 1950, she stood up. She had many reasons not to. Smith was a more junior senator than McCarthy, having been elected in 1948 after a career in the House that began when she was appointed to fill the seat of her late husband. She had worked with McCarthy on committees, and she was a Republican loyalist, hesitant to take on a powerful senator in her own party. It was a daunting step to take politically, as well, for McCarthy was popular throughout New England. ...




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