Great thoughts: Ralph Flanders defies Joseph McCarthy

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(Host) Commentator Gregory Sanford says that the ideas of Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders greatly influenced how we conduct public discourse, and our notion of what it means to be an American.

(Sanford) Not within his memory could the speaker recall a similar attempt to “convert an honorable word into a slug of mud to be thrown at a political opponent.” The word was “liberal” and the speaker was Senator Ralph Flanders of Vermont. The year was 1954.

A global conflict with communism had unleashed domestic fears of “unAmerican” citizens. There were calls for increased domestic surveillance to meet internal threats. Suspicions centered on the liberals who had guided the national government since 1933. No one embodied our fears more completely than Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

Few voices were raised in protest. One that was came from an unlikely source, Ralph Flanders. An ardent Cold Warrior and successful businessman, a Republican from the most Republican state in the nation, Senator Flanders despised McCarthy’s tactics. In a March Senate speech Flanders set in motion the events that led to McCarthy’s political demise.

But Flanders knew that McCarthyism was more than McCarthy. It was a mindset that threatened the very underpinnings of our public discourse. So in the fall of 1954 he spoke out to the American people. “Let us be assured that the political attitudes which we call ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are both useful and necessary,” he told his audience. “Liberalism is more directly focused on people, while conservatism is concerned with preserving institutions…. Liberalism asserts that the purpose of legislation is the welfare of the people, not of institutions . It is the purpose of liberalism to preserve freedom in thought and action; it seeks opportunity for each to develop and use his native capacities… and finally, it asserts that government may assist this endeavor.”

“Conservatism,” Flanders continued, “can offer reasoned objections to foolish proposals. Every proposal for improving society should pass through the fire of conservative criticism. Were there no conservatives… we would have to invent them.”

Flanders displayed great personal and political courage challenging Senator McCarthy and the public mood. Flanders himself dismissed the idea he was particularly courageous. He later said, “I had done something which needed to be done when no one else offered himself.” And that willingness to give voice to basic truths when they are most threatened is a great Vermont tradition. Another Vermonter, the 19th Century lawyer Edward J. Phelps, once remarked: “You can find men that will face the batteries; you will find very few that will face majorities, few who will stand up against the pressure of an erroneous, an excited, and a deluded popular opinion; few that are not afraid to be left alone, like children in the dark….”

In Senator Flanders we celebrate not only the greatness of the thought, but also the courage to express it.

This is Gregory Sanford, from Marshfield, Vermont.

Gregory Sanford is the Vermont State Archivist.

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