50 years ago: Vermonter stands up to McCarthy

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(Host) Fifty years ago on Tuesday, a soft spoken U.S. senator from Vermont stood before a nearly empty Senate chamber and made a speech that set in motion a chain of events that would end a troubled era in American politics.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, Ralph Flanders was an unlikely figure to stand up to a powerful Wisconsin Senator named Joseph McCarthy.

(Secretary of State Dulles in a radio broadcast) “…A few hours ago, Dien Bien Phu has fallen. Its defense of 57 days and nights will go down in history as one of the most heroic of all time…”

(Zind) In the early 1950s, Americans were alarmed by the spread of communism. The Soviet Union had consolidated power behind the Iron Curtain. Communism ruled China. Wars were being fought in Korea and Southeast Asia. And there was a growing fear that communists were infiltrating our own government. Vigilance turned to paranoia.

(Kendall Wild) “It’s difficult to describe the feeling. There hasn’t been any feeling like it since.”

(Zind) Kendall Wild was a correspondent for the Rutland Herald in the early 1950s. It was an era of blacklists and loyalty oaths – and fear that anyone critical of efforts to ferret out communists might come under suspicion.

(Wild) “There was an atmosphere of feeling as though, whatever you said in criticism, you were going to be considered a traitor, a communist. It was just an atmosphere that was very pervasive.”

(Zind) Into that atmosphere stepped Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy made mostly unsubstantiated charges that communists had infiltrated the government and academia. He badgered witnesses who came before his Senate subcommittee:

(McCarthy) “…I don’t think you have any conception of the danger of the Communist Party. I think you are unknowingly aiding it when you try to burlesque this hearing in which we are attempting to bring out the facts…”

(Zind) McCarthy’s efforts won him a national following. By 1954, few in Washington were willing to take him on publicly. Members of his own party were largely silent.

But Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders was becoming increasingly concerned that McCarthy was damaging the country. On a visit to Flanders’ home in Springfield, Kendall Wild asked the Senator about McCarthy.

(Wild) “‘Oh,’ he said, ‘thanks for asking. I’m working on a speech that I’m going to give tomorrow when I go back to Washington.'”

(Zind) Flanders’ speech that March signaled a turning point in the McCarthy era. His audience included only a handful of Senators – there were no television cameras or tape recorders. But his comments were widely reported in the newspapers.

In a passage from the speech, read here by Flanders’ grand-niece, Naomi Flanders of East Montpelier, the senator argued that McCarthy was diverting attention from the global fight against communism:

(Naomi Flanders) “…In this battle of the age-long war, what is the part played by the junior senator from Wisconsin? He dons his war paint. He goes into his war dance. He emits his war whoops…”

(Zind) Beyond his concern over McCarthy’s aims, friends say Flanders was deeply troubled by McCarthy’s methods – using innuendo and unproven claims to launch personal attacks. William Moeser of Springfield was a close friend of Flanders.

(Moeser) “He could see that McCarthy was unfair. He had a strong moral view and McCarthy didn’t fit that.”

(Zind) Historian Sam Hand says Flanders speech gave momentum to a movement to stop McCarthy.

(Hand) “It was very significant, because it really set the wheels in motion.”

(Zind) Hand says it was difficult for McCarthy’s allies to attack Flanders. The balding, bespectacled Vermont senator was considered a staunch anti-communist and a conservative.

(Hand) “But he’s conservative in a very traditional sense – he believes in freedom of speech.”

(Zind) Not everyone was happy about Flanders’ opposition to McCarthy. Naomi Flanders says her parents feared for his safety.

(Naomi Flanders) “I remember that they mentioned death threats and my mother, in particular, being worried about him.”

(Zind) Flanders didn’t simply make his speech and sit back. He persisted into the summer.

(Sound of a gavel) “Committee will please come to order…”

In another famous moment, Flanders walked into the Senate caucus room where the Army-McCarthy hearings were in progress. Squinting into the bright television lights, the Vermonter informed McCarthy that he would introduce a resolution stripping him of his committee chairmanship. On a ship in the Mediterranean, 20-year old midshipman James Jeffords watched Flanders on television as he handed McCarthy the notice of his resolution.

(Jeffords) “He had the courage to strut right down into that Senate hearing room and take him on.”

(Zind) By then public opinion was beginning to turn against McCarthy. During the unprecedented six weeks of live coverage of the hearings, the American people had taken McCarthy’s measure. In June of 1954, Flanders introduced a motion to censure McCarthy which ultimately brought an end to McCarthy’s power.

After 50 years, Flanders’ example still inspires. Fifteen-year-old Joshua Boylan heard about Flanders from a teacher and wrote an award-winning paper on the Vermont senator’s fight against McCarthyism.

(Boylan) “It taught me that you need to know what you think is right and then stand up for it. And that you shouldn’t allow undue considerations to influence you, that you should always keep in mind that your actions affect other people.”

(Zind) Flanders served only two terms in the Senate. In a speech to the people of Vermont, he announced he would not run for reelection in 1958.

(Flanders) “There is satisfaction in facing the greatest legislative problems the world has ever known. There have been frustrations also…”

(Zind) Flanders said he chose retirement so that he and his wife, folklorist Helen Hartness Flanders, could have time to enjoy life. He said he was stepping down for selfish reasons – an admission that seems almost out of character, for a man who put himself at odds with his party and many Americans for taking a principled stand.

(Flanders) “The privilege of overwhelming responsibility is one which comes to few men, and you have given it to me. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

(Zind) Ralph Flanders died in 1970. For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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