MOODY — With a critical election coming this week, we’ve been bombarded by political ads, speeches and other ramblings from all sides. Much of it is vapid trash, exaggeration and downright lies that avoid dealing with the real and frightening issues that confront our nation. Instead, it aims to make us act out of anger rather than rational thought.

With our very future at stake, where can we look to history for a voice to emulate, a voice that at a similar time of danger spoke for all of us?

On a spring day more than 60 years ago in the nation’s capital, a taciturn woman from Maine delivered a speech that was the very essence of personal courage, and that could well serve as a clarion call in these troubled and frightening times.

U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine, spoke the historic words June 1, 1950. It was a day when the Japanese cherry trees were in blossom in Washington, D.C., maybe with warm breezes wafting across the Potomac River.


In those days an ugly plague had spread across America. People dared not speak out for fear of retribution. Paranoia ruled; neighbor distrusted neighbor. People, in order to save their own necks, were cajoled into accusing friends. It was, in short, a time of terror and shame.


At the source was an obscure U.S. senator, a man of bluster and self-certainty, who lied over and over to the American people, perverted the meaning of patriotism, demeaned the First Amendment, pitted group against group. This cowardly tyrant surrounded himself with a cadre of loathsome yes-men who secretly spied upon American citizens, pried into their personal lives, sought to destroy all opposing voices and made a mockery of constitutional protections.

Sound familiar? It should; we’re smack-dab in the middle of a similarly confounding situation.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin, held the nation in a hammerlock of suspicion and foreboding. Using the bogeyman that communism was overriding our public and private institutions, he smeared a host of innocent Americans, employing guilt by association, perversion of the Constitution and downright lies.

Kangaroo courts were set up, and innocent American citizens were hauled out of their homes, some in the middle of the night, to face unlawful inquisitions. Because of McCarthyism, fear ruled, careers were ended, lives were destroyed.

At the time of her historic speech, Sen. Smith stood just about alone speaking against McCarthyism. But her courage set off a torrent of dissent that brought down McCarthy. Here are some of her memorable words:

“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 – the right to criticize, the right to hold unpopular beliefs, the right to protest, the right of independent thought. The exercise of these rights should not cost one American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood, nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs . . . . Otherwise, none of us could call our souls our own.”


As a young U.S. Senate staff member 12 years later, I first saw Mrs. Smith stride into the Senate chamber. She had about her a look of dignity, of being at peace with herself. I joined the multitude who held her in admiration and respect.


What a magnificent credo Sen. Smith’s words are for our own times. What a call for us to speak up, to express our discontent at the secret trials, the wiretaps, the torture, the hiding of public documents, the lies to justify the initiation and continuance of war, the utter madness from the far right, the examples of cowardice on the left, the evil of ever-expanding poverty, the big-money corruption of the electoral process.

We are at a historic turning point. This nation’s seed corn, its future hopes for its children, is being consumed voraciously by the enormous costs – physical, moral and fiscal – of war without end, dismantling of public aid to citizens and the gigantic tax giveaways to the law-avoiding super-rich.

If ever there was a time to express our opposition to, even our outrage at, the current situation that threatens America’s future, that time is now. If ever there was a moment to revive the legacy and re-live the courage of Maine’s Sen. Smith, this is that moment.

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