Most Mainers today remember Margaret Chase Smith as the senator with a conscience who stood up to McCarthyism, an exemplar of old-style, rock-ribbed New England Republicanism and a woman who held her own in the most powerful legislative body in the world.

Margaret Chase Smith’s official portrait U.S. Senate Historical Office photo

Seventy years after she first entered the U.S. Senate, Smith, the first woman to seek a presidential nomination from a major party, is recalled as a white-haired hero with a red rose, a symbol of the rugged independence of Maine.

Her “Declaration of Conscience,” delivered at the height of the Red Scare, is still widely read and her courage in taking on communist-hunting U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy almost universally admired.

But there is another Smith, one largely forgotten, who cheered on the Vietnam War, pushed for more nuclear weapons and, driven by her loathing of communism, came perilously close to urging war against the Soviet Union.

Outraged by her rhetoric, Nikita Khrushchev, a former leader of the Soviet Union, once called her “a devil in a disguise” while his wife criticized her for threatening to have “war fire” rain down on the communist empire competing for global supremacy with the United States.

Russian propaganda in the Cold War tagged Smith as “that cannibalistic little woman” and described her as “an amazon warmonger hiding behind a rose.”

“Some Amazon. I’m five-foot-three,” Smith countered in her autobiography.

Cover of a controversial 1951 issue of Collier’s about a fictional nuclear war with Russia. Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith contributed a fictional essay about Russia after the war. Collier’s

Smith, a senator through the height of the Cold War, shrugged off the insults as a byproduct of her tenacious support for American military might.

But Russian leaders weren’t the only ones who thought Smith sometimes went too far.

Consider her role in one of the more controversial publications of the 1950s, an issue of the popular magazine Collier’s devoted entirely to a fictional account of what might happen if a nuclear war broke out between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Smith joined a group of political and journalistic luminaries for the 1951 issue that sought to provide perspectives on a war that never happened.

Among other contributors to the issue were newsmen Edward R. Murrow and Lowell Thomas, union chief Walter Reuther, historian Allan Nevins and gossip columnist Walter Winchell.

In stunning detail, all fictional, they described how the U.S. liberated grateful Russians with a barrage of nuclear bombs and atomic artillery that left the Soviet Union, quite literally, on the ash heap of history, its survivors happy to embrace the American way of life after watching their country’s devastation.

An illustration from a 1951 Collier’s magazine article about a fictional nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union that touted an outcome that left the U.S. victorious despite seeing American cities leveled. Collier’s

Smith’s contribution, “Russia’s Rebirth,” focused on her views of what Russian women might think once the bombs stopped falling.

Pretending to have finished a three-month tour of a war-ravaged Russia, Smith wrote, “Everywhere I saw and felt a great sense of relief on the part of Russian women that this war was over. True, the bombs of the free forces destroyed many of their homes, killed many of their loved ones — but they also smashed the chains of slavery which bound Russia’s womenfolk.”

Almost immediately, the novel-length issue came under fire from critics who argued that it sought to egg on war. The Nation, a left-wing magazine, published harsh responses but also solicited comments from the authors of the pieces in Collier’s.

Feeling the sting of criticism, some of the Collier’s writers were chagrined at their involvement in the issue. Smith, though, had no qualms.

“I wrote the article for Collier’s as I felt it might contribute to discouraging Russia from starting a third world war,” she wrote back to The Nation, the most straightforward and least defensive reply it got.

W.E.B. Du Bois, an African-American intellectual, saw no merit in her fictional account.

Photo of W.E.B. Du Bois, an African-American scholar, taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1947. Library of Congress

In an unpublished paper, Du Bois called the Collier’s issue extraordinary and insisted it “broke all rules of international decency, told lies and spread misinformation” and yet received “applause in most quarters and unforgivable silence in others.”

He wrote that Smith in particular pictured Russia’s renaissance “as being accomplished by American soldiers presumably like those then raping Korean women and burning Korean children alive and dropping disease germs on China,” a controversial take on the then-ongoing Korean War.

Manfred Lachs, the Polish representative to a United Nations session in Paris in 1951, said the imagined war in Collier’s showed the aggressive aims of the United States, going so far as to question whether the magazine’s editors had inspired Yugoslavian rebellion against the Soviets.

His complaint would not have bothered Smith, who made no secret of her wish to see the Soviet Union crushed.

Even so, Smith hadn’t been in the Senate long when she rose to denounce McCarthy for his almost completely fictitious assault on supposed Communists within the federal government.

In one of the most famous speeches in American history, Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience” assailed McCarthy’s “irresponsible sensationalism” and declared “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

An illustration of American paratroopers invading the Urals as part of a fictional nuclear war depicted in a 1951 issue of Collier’s magazine. Newsman Lowell Thomas wrote a fictional story about the invasion from the air. Collier’s

Her fictitious account of post-nuclear war Russia is not as eloquent. The 630-word piece was billed as a report on what she saw during a visit to America’s vanquished enemy.

“For the past three months I have seen, touched and smelled indescribable destruction — the chaos and desolation that is Russia today,” Smith began. “Yet in that destruction — the greatest in the world’s history — I saw real assurance of a permanent peace.”

Written just half a dozen years after the end of World War II, which left Europe and much else in ruins, Chase aimed to capture the perspective of a woman roaming the post-nuclear-war landscape.

“Perhaps I can describe my feelings as a woman in this way: like a mother dying in childbirth, the last war has produced a sprawling, vigorous infant of peace; a child which has a better chance to grow into full maturity than his predecessors not only because the last of the evil dictatorships has disappeared, but also because Russia’s women for the first time are free.”

“As the bearers of children, women are the producers of life, the inherent protectors of life and the greatest opponents of war and bloodshed. Today, with the man power of Russia drained by the demands of World War III, Russia’s women, by sheer weight of numbers alone, can influence and help to shape the future of their great nation.”

Controversial as her take might appear, it was less remarkable at the height of the Cold War, a time when the prospect of nuclear war appeared far more ominous and perhaps even likely.

Smith took the position that it was best to be ready to use nuclear weapons.

During the Korean War, when truce talks were faltering, Smith wrote that “if the current negotiations don’t produce peace but do break down and war is resumed, then drop the atomic bomb on these barbarians who obviously in their past atrocities have proved that they have no concept of a desire for decency.”

She said that “maybe the atomic bomb will bring the Red barbarians to their senses as it did the Japanese.”

Smith recognized that her zeal might seem extreme and that “some will protest that the atomic bomb is an immoral weapon. I agree that it is. But so are all other man-killing weapons of war. War itself is immoral because it is nothing less than organized murder. Yet when we are attacked we do not refuse to fight simply because we know that war is immoral.”

Her rhetoric turned some heads in Maine.

In 1954, her Democratic opponent, Paul Fullam, said she was unfit to serve in the Senate because she would not preserve the nation from the horrors of atomic destruction. Smith won re-election easily.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

Blasting President John F. Kennedy in 1961 for failing to stand up to the Soviets with nuclear weapons if necessary, she said in a major address that “we do not have the will to use that one power with which to stop” the Russians.

In response, Khrushchev wrote to British Labor Party leaders that Smith was “blinded by savage hatred.”

He told them he found it hard to believe that a woman, if she is not “the devil in a disguise of a woman, can make such a malicious man-hating call.”

The Soviet leader’s critique didn’t faze Smith.

“Khrushchev isn’t really mad at me. I’m not that important,” she said. “He is angry because American officials have grown more firm because of my speech.”

She kept at it, trying to convince the young president to stand his ground.

“I know of nothing in political or military history which supports a thesis that it is safer to be weak than to be strong,” Smith later declared in a speech chastising Kennedy for his stance against the Soviets.

Kennedy refused to comment on her criticism, but, according to a story in Look magazine, he privately smarted, calling her ignorant and wondering why she seemed so cavalier at the prospect of 30 or 40 million dead Americans after a nuclear exchange.

U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, left, with President John F. Kennedy and Maine’s senior senator at the time, Margaret Chase Smith. White House photo

Smith was one of 18 senators to oppose Kennedy’s 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. Every other GOP vote against the treaty came from members west of the Mississippi River.

Despite their differences, they kept talking to one another, with both gradually coming to respect the other’s stance.

The day after Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963, Smith slipped into the Senate chambers early and left a lone red rose on his former desk.

For her entire career, she fought for more military spending and more attention to the nation’s defense.

She never wavered in her support for an increasingly controversial war in Vietnam, even during her final campaign in 1972 when it was clear that Mainers no longer stood with her on the issue, one reason she lost.

Back home in Maine, she oversaw construction of the Margaret Chase Smith Library Center in Skowhegan, her hometown. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Smith died at the age of 97 in 1995, four years after the Soviet Union collapsed, its hammer and sickle flag consigned to history in part by steadfast opposition from the United States.

Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to be placed in nomination for the presidency at a major political party’s convention in 1964, losing out on the nomination to a Senate colleague from Arizona, Barry Goldwater. U.S. Senate Historical Office


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