Senator Margaret Chase Smith delivered the “Declaration of Conscience” speech to the United States Senate on June 1, 1950. The political climate of the 1950s was tense and heavily partisan; Democrats and Republicans disagreed on how to address the rising threat of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy capitalized on the rampant fear of communist infiltration and weaponized it into a large-scale defamation campaign. He and his followers began accusing high-profile American celebrities, industry leaders, and politicians of leaking vital secrets to Russia. Senator Smith’s remarks are a condemnation of McCarthy’s divisive and “irresponsible” rhetoric. She encourages her fellow senators to reject fear and suspicion and instead embrace “unity and prudence” in order to present a united front against the spread of Communism.
Summary of the Speech
Smith begins her speech by emphasizing the gravity of the issue at hand and condemning the lack of effective national leadership. She asserts that the Democratic Truman administration has failed to adequately address McCarthy’s behavior and scolds Republicans for enabling the slanderous rhetoric. Smith reminds her colleagues that their responsibility to the American people is to uphold the “basic principles of Americanism,” such as freedom of speech. Instead, she claims that McCarthy’s tactics have created a sociopolitical climate where people are afraid to express their opinions lest they be accused of harboring communist sympathies. Between the Democratic administration’s complacency toward the threat of communism and the Republican party’s irresponsible rhetoric, the US government has “greatly lost the confidence of the American people.”
Smith then transitions into an address aimed primarily at her own Republican party. She maintains the importance of a Republican victory in the next election, but she cautions her party against “ride[ing] to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.” She makes the point that there is no point in obtaining victory for the Republican party if the people of the United States suffer in the process. Instead, Smith urges her Republican colleagues to reject McCarthyism and champion the anti-Communist cause by focusing their efforts on the real enemy: the USSR.