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June 1, 1950
A Declaration of Conscience

Photo of Margaret Chase Smith
Margaret Chase Smith

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy encountered Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith in the Capitol subway. He asked her why she looked so serious. Smith responded that she was on her way to the Senate Chamber to make a speech, and that he would not like what she had to say. McCarthy followed her into the chamber and watched as she began her remarks—her "Declaration of Conscience"—in a soft and trembling voice. As the freshman Republican proceeded, the color drained from McCarthy's face.

"Mr. President," she said on June 1, 1950, "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." She continued, "The United States Senate has long enjoyed the worldwide respect as the greatest deliberative body in the world. But recently that deliberative character has too often been debased to the level of a forum of hate and character assassination sheltered by the shield of congressional immunity."

When Smith completed her 15-minute address, McCarthy silently left the chamber. He explained his silence to an associate, "I don't fight with women senators." In a characteristically scornful manner, he privately referred to Smith and the six other senators who had endorsed her "Declaration" as "Snow White and her Six Dwarfs."

Less than four months earlier, McCarthy had rocketed to national attention with a speech to a Republican women's club in Wheeling, West Virginia. In his remarks, the Wisconsin senator charged that he had obtained the names of 205 "card-carrying" Communist Party members employed in the State Department. Initially, Smith had shared McCarthy's concerns, but she grew angry at the ferocity of his attacks and his subsequent defamation of those whom she knew to be above suspicion. Without mentioning McCarthy by name, she decided to take a stand against her colleague and his tactics.

The speech triggered a public explosion of support and outrage. Newsweek ran her photo on its cover and touted her as a possible vice-presidential candidate. Within weeks, however, the nation's attention shifted to the invasion of South Korea that launched the United States into a hot war against Communist aggression. For the time being, her remarks were forgotten. Four years would pass before Smith gained the satisfaction of voting with the Senate to censure McCarthy, thereby ending his campaign of falsehood and intimidation.

Reference Items:

Sherman, Janann.  No Place for a Woman: A Life of Senator Margaret Chase Smith.  New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000.


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