The Moment That Presaged a Maine Senator’s Downfall

Margaret Chase Smith was a bipartisan hero — until suddenly she wasn't.

Margaret Chase Smith at the 1972 Republican National Convention
Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Library
By Rachel Slade

On Sunday morning, May 10, 1970, the cars and buses began pulling up to Colby College in droves. At the base of the college green, doors opened and thousands of somber young men and women stepped out. Squinting into the sunshine, they plodded up the grassy expanse toward Miller Library, a staid neoclassical building with a white steeple, where an empty podium stood before the library entrance, facing the crowd.

By noon, some 3,000 people sat on the great lawn to listen over loudspeakers to anti-war speeches by student leaders and professors. The crowd bristled with tension. Just six days prior, at Kent State University, in Ohio, the National Guard had fired on a protest against U.S. troops’ invasion of Cambodia. Four students had been shot dead.

Shocked by the horror of it all, Colby junior and student government president Stephen Orlov had spent the previous week contacting his fellow student representatives at colleges across Maine, convincing 16 of them to endorse a telegram inviting the state’s two senators to an all-Maine student event. Its wording was more command than invitation: “Return home and address yourself to the people whom you represent.”

“We were so angry,” remembers Orlov, now 70 and a successful playwright. “We didn’t ask the senators to come. We summoned them. We wrote, ‘Give the students of Maine the opportunity to confront you.’”

Edmund Muskie, the Democratic senator and soon-to-be presidential candidate, who had previously spoken out against the Vietnam War, responded first. Hoping to set the tone for the day, he wrote that he was expecting a “positive dialogue aimed at developing a constructive course of action.”

Maine’s other senator, the complex and contradictory Margaret Chase Smith, took longer to reply.

Since 1940, Margaret Chase Smith had represented Maine on Capitol Hill — first, in the House, as congresswoman for Maine’s 2nd District, and then as a senator. The first woman elected to both houses of Congress, she was an independent-minded Republican whose pro-military, anti-Communist stance had ingratiated her to her party. Handicapped by her gender in a fiercely misogynistic Washington, she fought all attempts to pigeonhole her as someone only capable of legislating ladies’ affairs, instead maneuvering herself onto several high-profile defense committees, where she used her position to bring military bases and defense contracts to Maine.

Margaret Chase Smith took tremendous pride in her voting record, which she felt reflected her particular brand of Maine pragmatism, as well as her conscience. Today, she is best remembered for taking to the Senate floor to condemn the smear tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee and of red-baiting Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy. In early 1950, McCarthy had set off a panic in Washington by claiming to know of hundreds of communists and sympathizers who’d infiltrated the executive branch, and he’d started naming names (without evidence) in the first of the Senate hearings for which he would become infamous. Colleagues suggested to Smith that, even though she was a freshman senator, her nonpartisan, straight-shooting reputation put her in a position to rebuke McCarthy. In one of the most moving speeches delivered on the Senate floor, she denounced McCarthy’s means, though without naming him.

“Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations,” she said, “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 of independent thought.”

She was seen by all of us as part of the problem, part of the establishment, part of those who were conducting the war.

Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” landed her on magazine covers and earned her much clout (and some rancor) from fellow legislators. She was Maine’s darling and the pride of the moderate wing of the Republican Party, reelected to the Senate three times despite spending next to nothing on her campaigns.

And yet throughout her 32 years in Congress, Margaret Chase Smith was a vocal, even rabid anti-communist. She saw the Russians and Red China as duplicitous, underhanded, and hell-bent on destroying the U.S. According to biographer Patricia Ward Wallace, when the anti-war movement blossomed in the mid-’60s, Smith — who’d cut her political teeth at the outset of the Cold War — first suspected that Soviet-backed communist infiltrators were sowing discord among impressionable young Americans. Later, she came to see the threat as homegrown: the pearl-clad, prim-and-proper New Englander felt there was something inherently despicable about this new generation of “misguided youth” and “smart aleck draft-card burners.” Rather than arrest the protestors, Wallace writes, she wanted them all drafted and forced to fight alongside their patriotic brethren.

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By 1970, the elder stateswoman’s positions had hardened into a hunk of lead that would ultimately sink her. During her fourth term, the bulk of her mail came from Mainers protesting the U.S. presence in Vietnam. Many questioned the wisdom of fighting in a civil war halfway across the world when there was so much to be done at home. Conservative interests had hacked away at the FDR-era labor and civil-rights protections that Smith had once supported, leaving many of her constituents frustrated and angry. But Smith dismissed such anti-war letters as outliers, maintaining that she represented a “silent majority” — people who agreed with her pro-Vietnam stance but didn’t have the time or burning desire to applaud her anti-communist zeal.

Too caught up in Washington politics to read her changing constituency, Smith remained fixed in her belief that the U.S. was only devouring itself by failing to commit all of its firepower to destroying the “communist enemy” in Vietnam. As the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, however, she supported President Nixon’s strategy: withdrawal from Vietnam while attempting to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail in neighboring Laos and Cambodia. Even when reports broke in 1969 of secret U.S. bombing raids in Cambodia (followed by rumors about Laos), Smith remained stubbornly hawkish.

“If bombing supply lines is what they’re doing in Laos,” she told the Maine Sunday Telegram in March 1970, “it’s all right by me.”

After receiving Orlov’s telegram, Smith may well have been reluctant to face the college-age protestors she so summarily dismissed. Nonetheless, she replied to Orlov late Friday evening that she would fly from DC to attend his event. She would come in defense of the war and her president, and perhaps set these kids straight.

Orlov and his fellow student leaders were well versed in the language of protest. They’d spent the past year staging strikes and teach-ins at Colby, Bowdoin, Bates, and the University of Maine and rallying fellow students to organize against the injustices they saw everywhere. “It’s hard to compartmentalize this event as just an anti-war strike,” Orlov says of that May day. “It coalesced many social movements that were going on right across America.”

Muskie arrived at Colby first and addressed the crowd at 2:30 p.m. Reading from an eight-page script, he criticized President Nixon’s tactics and announced that he would submit a resolution in the Senate requiring the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Cambodia. The crowd thrilled to his message.

Senator Smith arrived shortly before 4 p.m., accompanied by her longtime aide, retired Air Force General William Lewis. In her prime, Smith had stood about 5-foot-2. In 1970, at 72 and recovering from hip-replacement surgery, she was smaller and walked with the aid of a cane. To Ken Eisen, a Colby freshman at the time, she seemed downright ancient.

“She was seen by all of us as part of the problem, part of the establishment, part of those who were conducting the war,” Eisen recalls. “So I would not say that the crowd was a friendly one. . . . The mood was pretty serious.”

Orlov shook hands with Smith when she arrived, although out of decorum rather than respect.

The Moment That Presaged a Maine Senator's Downfall
Courtesy of the Margaret Chase Smith Library.

“I didn’t feel any sense of deference to this U.S. senator,” he says. “I knew she was in favor of the war. I felt this tremendous sense of responsibility that these people had to be held accountable to what was going on. I remember thinking when I met her: It’s time you heard what we’re saying. It’s time for you to take a stand against this war.”

Instead of reading a prepared talk, as Muskie had, Smith solicited questions, with Lewis standing by her side. It proved unwise. Colby college historian Earl Smith, then a young dean on campus, later wrote about the proceedings in a book about the history of the college: “Asked about Cambodia, [Smith] defended Nixon’s decision, adding she was confident he would keep his promise to withdraw troops by June. Students howled. Someone asked if the nation’s youth had been consulted in the making of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. She said the question should be directed to former President Johnson. Asked to comment on the treatment of the Black Panthers, she said she didn’t like the Black Panthers or the Minutemen.”

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Things weren’t going well for Smith. Witnesses observed with some embarrassment how heavily the senator seemed to rely on Lewis for answers she should have known herself. “She wasn’t on very firm footing,” says Orlov, who shared the podium with the pair. “Considering the number of times she deferred to Lewis, getting his answer, which we could all hear over the loudspeakers, and which she would then repeat verbatim. To me, it indicated a high degree of insecurity about the day and the confrontations she’d been forced into.”

The confrontational session reached its climax when a student came forward to ask whether the U.S. had any troops in neutral Laos. Smith once again turned to Lewis for the answer.

“No,” he replied.

“No,” the senator parroted.

According some accounts, the student retorted that there was someone in the crowd who could say otherwise. As many in the audience jeered at Smith, several students stepped aside to allow a tall young man to approach the podium. His name was Everett Carson, nicknamed “Brownie,” a sophomore at Bowdoin who’d driven to Colby that morning.

“I don’t know who invited me up to the mic,” Carson recalls, “but I walked from where I was sitting to the microphone and said, ‘I was in the Marines. I was an infantry platoon commander. I was operating from maps issued to me by the Marine Corps, and we were on a search and destroy operation called Dewey Canyon, out on the Laotian border. We were running patrols into the country of Laos.’”

In fact, Carson had been wounded in Laos on February 27, 1969.

I remember her just kind of crumpling. I remember the crowd going crazy. . . We’d been raised on Frank Capra, on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But we knew it was a fairy tale.

Addressing Smith, he said, “How can you, as ranking member of the Republican Armed Services Committee, not know that? And if you do know it, why not acknowledge it to the students gathered here today? You’re either lying to us, or you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Smith turned to Lewis “obviously very frustrated,” Carson says, “and I just stood there waiting for an answer.”

Embarrassed, caught in a lie, or merely uninformed, Smith beat a hasty exit. “I remember her just kind of crumpling,” Eisen says. “I remember the crowd going crazy, yelling and screaming and hooting at her. What can you say to that? Except, ‘You’re right and I’m going to go back and vote against the board.’ We’d been raised on Frank Capra, on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But we knew it was a fairy tale.”

“After she left,” Orlov says, “the general takeaway was that she was not able or willing to acknowledge our demands. She wasn’t listening to us, hearing us.”

“It made me angry that someone in a position of responsibility wasn’t aware of [the U.S. presence in Laos],” says Carson, now 72, a state senator from Harpswell and a former longtime executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “She was poorly advised and ill-informed.”

Eisen, now the codirector of the Maine International Film Festival, is a bit more charitable.

“She couldn’t imagine the president lying,” he says. “These days, that seems anachronistic, but at the time, I found her performance a bit pitiful, to be honest, and quite touching. But also awful, because horrible things were happening — this acquiescence to policy that was disastrous, horrible, unspeakable.”

In the spring of 1972, Margaret Chase Smith ran once more for reelection, but this time, the formerly unbeatable “Lady from Maine” was vulnerable. Shortly before Thanksgiving 1970, Lewis suffered a heart attack, and Smith abandoned her perfect attendance in the Senate for several weeks to nurse him back to health. Politically, she found herself beset on several fronts. She had maintained allegiance to a party that, over the decade, had drifted steadily to the right. Her pragmatic voting record — pro-labor, pro-integration, pro–Equal Rights Amendment — earned her little favor or support from a Republican party increasingly dominated by Southern segregationists and small-government zealots in the mold of Barry Goldwater. Meanwhile, the increasingly powerful women’s movement saw no friend in Smith and endorsed her competitor. Nixon won Maine in a landslide in ’72, but Smith fell mightily, losing her seat in an upset to Democratic congressman Bill Hathaway.

After losing the race, Margaret Chase Smith and William Lewis vanished from the public eye, limping back to DC to clear out their offices, then spending the next few months boxing up 32 years worth of constituent letters, meticulous reports, and obsessively cataloged press clippings. Political observers came to see the Colby incident as a memorable bellwether, a rare public indicator of Smith’s vulnerability. Interviewed by the New York Times for a profile in 1971, Smith referred to it as “the most unpleasant experience in my entire career.” When she died in 1995, at age 97, it was acknowledged in her Los Angeles Times obituary.

“She was just irrelevant,” Eisen says of the Senator Smith he saw that day. “She had nothing to do with anything, that’s what it felt like. Her time taking a stand against McCarthy was clearly long past.”