Remembering Margaret Chase Smith–And More

A recent post from Heather Cox Richardson reminded me that–despite my personal experience with a once-responsible Republican Party–this isn’t the first time the GOP has gone off the rails. In my defense, I was very young when the United States went through the period known as MCarthyism.

As Richardson reminds us, the Republican response to FDR’s New Deal was divided between those who understood the new approach as a “proper adjustment to the modern world” and those who were determined to destroy that adjustment.

Those who wanted to slash the government back to the form it had in the 1920s, when businessmen ran it, had a problem. American voters liked the business regulation, basic social safety net, and infrastructure construction of the new system. To combat that popularity, the anti–New Deal Republicans insisted that the U.S. government was sliding toward communism. With the success of the People’s Liberation Army and the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, Americans were willing to entertain the idea that communism was spreading across the globe and would soon take over the U.S.

One of those who wanted to return to the “good old days” (aka “Make America Great Again”…) was an “undistinguished senator from Wisconsin named Joe McCarthy.” McCarthy famously proclaimed that he had “a list” of communists working for the State Department,  and that the Democrats–“fellow travelers”– refused to investigate these traitors in the government.

It was a previous version of the Big Lie.

The anti–New Deal faction of the party jumped on board. Sympathetic newspapers trumpeted McCarthy’s charges—which kept changing, and for which he never offered proof—and his colleagues cheered him on while congress members from the Republican faction that had signed onto the liberal consensus kept their heads down to avoid becoming the target of his attacks.

These forerunners to today’s spineless Republican officeholders weren’t willing to speak up about the damage being done to American principles. One who did speak up–memorably, and on the Senate floor–was Margaret Chase Smith.

Referring to Senator McCarthy, who was sitting two rows behind her, Senator Smith condemned the leaders in her party who were destroying lives with wild accusations. “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism,” she pointed out. Americans have the right to criticize, to hold unpopular beliefs, to protest, and to think for themselves. But attacks that cost people their reputations and jobs were stifling these basic American principles. “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America,” Senator Smith said. “It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.”

Senator Smith wanted a Republican victory in the upcoming elections, she explained, but to replace President Harry Truman’s Democratic administration—for which she had plenty of harsh words—with a Republican regime “that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation.”

“I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

The parallels to our current situation are blindingly obvious, and those of us (me very much included) who had forgotten this dangerous time from America’s past should recall Santayana’s admonition that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Today’s GOP is using the McCarthy playbook–repeating Smith’s all-too-accurate appraisal. They are appealing to fear and ignorance with bigotry and smear. And with exception of a very few like Liz Cheney and Adam Kitzinger, elected Republicans who know better, who understand the threat posed by these tactics, remain silent.

That silence is acquiescence.

Smith’s attack on Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear has often been quoted (although it would be inaccurate to say it remains well-known), but America would do well to ponder another part of her speech, which Richardson quotes.

“As an American, I condemn a Republican Fascist just as much as I condemn a Democrat Communist,” she said. “They are equally dangerous to you and me and to our country. As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.”

Smith authored a “Declaration of Conscience,” enumerating five principles she hoped (vainly) that her party would adopt. That declaration ended with a warning:

“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.”

History may not repeat itself, but as Twain observed, it often rhymes.


  1. This is all scary as hell. Perhaps this weeks hearings will be a turning point. Maybe a new John Dean will emerge and blow the conspiracy up. Fingers crossed. Here we go.

  2. There may have been a day when one single Senator could stand up and give a speech that would dramatically persuade his or her fellow Senators to change their position, but I am sad to say that those days have gone. Also long gone are the days of a President being able to rally the vast majority of the population of the country to follow his lead. The last time that came close to happening is right after 9-11. It didn’t last, of course, because Little Bush lied his way into a war in the Middle East that dragged on into the following decade. And while various political leaders spoke out their voices could not be heard due to the power of the media hellbent on stirring up controversy in order to up the ratings. We’ve been traveling that road ever since.
    We have become a sorry lot indeed.

  3. “These forerunners to today’s spineless Republican officeholders weren’t willing to speak up about the damage being done to American principles.” Today; they have gone far beyond “damage”, their own term for their goal was and is “deconstruction” of our government. Trump spread it beyond our borders to losing the trust of our allies by destroying diplomatic relations which have not yet been fully restored.

    I was in grade school when the McCarthy hearings were televised live daily. My parents had the biggest TV, maybe 19 inch, in the neighborhood and the mothers gathered in our living room to watch every minute. They put peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk on our kitchen table for our lunch break from school, but moved all chairs to the living room so we all ate standing up. The movie “Trumbo” gives a good picture of the destruction of Dalton Trumbo’s screenwriting career and that of other big names in Hollywood. Like J. Edgar Hoover; McCarthy and Trump’s friend and attorney, Roy Cohn, they saw a communist behind every bush in government, business and the entertainment world. Those of us who remember or later learned the extent of McCarthyism, understand the dangers of Trump’s repeated calling “Where is my Roy Cohn?” Rudy Giuliani was a poor replacement for Cohn but caused his own brand of destruction leading to the failure of TWO Trump impeachments and the January 6th Insurrection.

    Where is our Margaret Chase Smith today; can she be Liz Cheney who is sitting at the head of the January 6th Committee. Maybe we will find the answers beginning tonight at the hearings.

  4. What Theresa Bowers said. Let’s also hope that Liz Cheney is indeed the second coming of Senator Smith. That said, Cheney’s party’s audience seems more bereft of thinking people who wish to govern than Smith had. Today’s Republican party has too many Mo Brookses and too few of anything even approaching rationality.

    Why, for example, is Mitt Romney so silent? Why isn’t he siding with Cheney to renounce the utter idiocy of creatures like Hawley, Cruz and McCarthy (Not that one, the one kissing Trump’s ring)? Nope. No spine there. No spine anywhere in the GOP. Was there ever one? Maybe Smith. Maybe Goldwater. But mostly it’s GOP, LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate/banking America. THAT is the problem. Thank you Citizens United v. FEC.

  5. During Trump we saw too many loosening of regulations or deregulations. Now under Biden total scapegoating for incompetence

  6. I would like to give props to Senator Smith, Joseph Welch, and Edward R. Murrow. It takes more than one person standing up to the bully in the room to bring him down. Note that neither Welch nor Murrow were elected officials, but it does indeed take a village, not just to raise the children, but to make the grown ups actually grow up. Kudos to Cheney and Kinzinger for standing up to the bully and his mob. It’s just too bad we don’t have a journalist with the credibility that Murrow had to speak out.

  7. John S; that is nonsense. Trump may have loosened regulations for energy donors, but the financial regulations were loosened long before Trump arrived.

    The last I checked, it was the Clinton campaign (Mook & Podesta) who were the modern-day McCarthyites. They blamed everything on the Russians because they couldn’t stand the fact they lost an election to a TV reality star. An idiot of epic failures in business. A racist. A sexist.

    Oh, Hillary lost her anointed presidency. She was supposed to be the first woman president. It was already etched in stone. She lost to Donald J. Trump. How embarrassing that must have been to lose to the worst president in our history.

    Mueller and the Democratic Party pulled down McCarthy’s book and used every page. The massive media concoction was called the Mueller Report. It was the birth of blaming everything wrong with the USA on Vladimir Putin.

    The problem is it was all a delusion or bad dream. Dorothy woke up and she was still in Kansas and here comes the tornado. Actually, it’s more like a tsunami. Who we gonna blame?

  8. The right suspects that almost all government actions are an affront to their personal freedom.

    The left recognizes that the government not only can legislate and enforce and adjudicate laws but has a responsibility to mitigate actions by specific citizens that benefit themselves at the expense of others.

    Margaret Chase Smith’s putdown of Joseph McCarthy on the Senate floor is even more apropos today than it was when it was delivered.

    “But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”

    Both then and now it has been the Republican Party that put themselves into the position of not having left themselves any choice but to ride into calumny.

  9. Champagne and cheese at my house…..come on over! I can’t wait and am hoping for hours of truth and revelation! Even if they only convince 10% of the MAGA people…it’ll be important! They might not express that view publicly, but they’ll think about it.

  10. When I heard on NPR this morning that the hearings would be showing on a big screen at the Capital building itself and spectators would get free ice cream, I believe we are already lost. We, the People, are so marginalized and disconnected from those who truly own the power, that we have become the spectators in the Circus Maximus, kept fed and entertained with blood sports and sweet treats of short term benefit.

  11. This confirms why Margaret Chase Smith is still spoken about up here in Maine with almost a reverent tone. Truly, she was loved a for good reason! Too bad these days we have Susan Collins, but Angus King, our “Independent” senator is a true old-style statesman. Maine is an interesting, but not right wing place for me to live, so I am glad I fled Indiana!

  12. JD – couldn’t agree more – in case you haven’t, read “Entertaining Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman (1984 – just the right year).

    Ted – your note suggests why/how our county will actually split going forward. It is already happening…

  13. When I read that Sheila writes that she was “very young” and JoAnn writes that she was in grade school during the McCarthy hearings I am reminded of just how ancient I really am. When the McCarthy hearings were going on I was “back from the war,” had graduated from college and was starting out in law school where we New Deal Democrats had many spirited discussions with Republican McCarthy followers who saw a communist under every bush.

    McCarthy, an alcoholic, found fame with his Red Scare stuff that drew the disdain of both Truman and Margaret Chase Smith, who took no prisoners from either party and was one Republican we Democrats liked when she was putting McCarthy down but didn’t like when she was putting us down – a political response to her call for an added dimension of principles and institutions beyond mere politics and a voice we needed to hear then – and now.

    I married while in law school and my new wife’s family were Republican McCarthyites who were fearful that the State Department was overrun by communists who were plotting our downfall. They were also anti-union and thought labor was overpaid. Somehow the marriage survived the introduction of a New Dealer into the family compound.

    Margaret Chase Smith was first an American and then a Republican, the exact opposite of the Trumpers today who have fashioned that “party” to fit their greedy authoritarian bent via the Big Lie and delusion, and if she were around today I have no doubt that she would be on their case – vociferously.

  14. Gerald Stinson – I always appreciate your comments and outlook. You may be ancient, but you are on top of things…more so than this 72 year old!

  15. Belafonte, respected by many but not Brietbart/Bush and their ilk.
    Mr Todd don’t ever forget Ms Clinton won with the people but the corrupted ec killed that win.

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