May 15, 2020

Udall Celebrates Legacy of Senator Dennis Chávez in Senate Floor Speech Honoring 70th Anniversary of ‘El Senador’s’ Speech Defending American Values from McCarthyism

Udall: “Now - more than ever - we must aspire to the courage of Senator Chávez. History will be the judge - by rewarding courage and exposing cowardice.”

WASHINGTON—Yesterday, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) spoke on the Senate floor and submitted a speech for the Congressional Record honoring the legacy of U.S. Senator Dennis Chávez (D-N.M.), the first American-born Hispanic U.S. Senator. In the speech, Udall highlighted Chávez’s principled stance on the 70th anniversary of Chávez becoming the first sitting senator to deliver a speech on the Senate floor denouncing then-Senator Joseph McCarthy’s smear campaign against American government officials and members of civil society. 

McCarthy repeatedly alleged, without evidence, that prominent U.S. government officials, intellectuals and American civil society had been infiltrated by communists and Soviet spies. He was censured by the full U.S. Senate in 1954, four and a half years after Chávez spoke out against the chilling effect of McCarthy’s conduct.

“In 1917, a newly elected Democratic Senator from New Mexico took Dennis to Washington where he worked for the clerk of the Senate,” Udall said. “Dennis took and passed the entrance examination for and eventually graduated from Georgetown University Law School – all with less than a seventh-grade education.

“In 1935, he was appointed to a Senate seat that had become vacant, and was elected in his own right the next year. Senator Chávez served in the Senate until his death in November 1962,” Udall continued.

“In so many ways, he was far ahead of his time. In the 1940s, he fought for civil rights legislation,” Udall continued, highlighting Chávez’s groundbreaking service for New Mexico and the nation. ‘El Senador’, as we call him in New Mexico, was the first American-born Hispanic elected to the Senate and, at 27 years, remains the longest serving Hispanic senator in history.

“Joseph McCarthy began his reign of terror on February 9, 1950 in a speech charging, without proof, that there were 205 card carrying members of the Communist Party working in the U.S. State Department.

“But Senator Chávez took his chances against Joe McCarthy – in the name of what was right,” Udall continued. “He told the Senate that day, ‘I would like to be remembered as the man who raised a voice – and I devoutly hope not a voice in the wilderness – at a time in the history of this body when we seem bent upon placing limitations on the freedom of the individual. I would consider all of the legislation which I have supported meaningless if I were to sit idly by, silent, during a period which may go down in history as an era where we are permitted curtailments of our liberties, a period when we quietly shackled the growth of men’s minds.”

Udall drew parallels between Chávez’s principled stance and the current political climate. “The similarities between Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump, between McCarthyism and Trumpism, are chilling. Both are demagogues. Both lie to the American people. Both try to destroy reputations and lives based on falsehoods.  

“But the lessons learned from that dark period in our history are lessons we can all learn from today,” Udall continued.

“Seventy years ago, Senator Chávez said: ‘It matters little if the Congress appropriates hundreds of millions of dollars to check the erosion of soil if we permit the erosion of our civil liberties, free institutions, and the untrammeled pursuit of truth.’

“Members of Congress, of this body – must not permit the erosion of our constitutional institutions, must not permit the erosion of truth,” Udall concluded. “Now – more than ever – we must aspire to the courage of Senator Chávez. History will be the judge – by rewarding courage and exposing cowardice.”

Udall’s full remarks as submitted to the Congressional Record are below:

Mr. President. This week marks the 70th anniversary of a courageous address to this body. Seventy years ago, on May 12, 1950, the senior senator from New Mexico – Dennis Chávez – was the first to call out the unfairness of Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.

In May of 1950, it was still four and one-half years before the Senate would vote to “condemn” the senator from Wisconsin. But, even at that time, early in McCarthy’s crusade, Senator Chávez recognized the present danger.

That day, Senator Chávez took to the floor, with 77 other Senators in attendance. That was a time when Senators engaged in genuine, spontaneous debate in this chamber. Senator Chávez counseled his colleagues: “. . . a man is ultimately remembered by what he does in relation to his times, and the fact that we do our assigned duty my not be enough; sometimes we must step out and sound the alarm.”

And sound the alarm against McCarthy, he did.

Dennis Chávez – born Dionisio on April 4, 1888 – came from humble and honorable beginnings. He came from generations who had farmed in Los Chávez – a small community along the Rio Grande, south of Albuquerque, in territorial New Mexico. When he was seven, his family moved to Albuquerque in search of better opportunities. He learned English in school but, at age 13, when he was in 7th grade, he had to leave school to help support his family. 

Dennis, however, never left his education. He studied engineering, American history, and    great political leaders at the Albuquerque Public Library. In his early 20’s, he worked for the City of Albuquerque Engineering Department, and also became active in Democratic politics. He joined the Democratic Party, even though most Hispanics at that time in New Mexico were Republicans. He saw in the “Democratic party a political philosophy that placed human rights above property rights.” 

In 1917, a newly elected Democratic Senator from New Mexico took Dennis to Washington where he worked for the clerk of the Senate. Dennis took and passed the entrance examination for and eventually graduated from Georgetown University Law School – all with less than a 7th grade education.

He returned to New Mexico to practice law, and was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives – representing New Mexico’s one at-large district – in 1930. In 1935, he was appointed to a Senate seat that had become vacant, and was elected in his own right the next year. Senator Chávez served in the Senate until his death in November 1962. 

In so many ways, he was far ahead of his time. In the 1940s, he fought for civil rights legislation. In the 1950s, he chaired the Public Works Committee and sat on the Appropriations Committee, and helped usher in major infrastructure projects all over the nation, including water and military projects critical to New Mexico’s development. 

“El Senador”, as we call him in New Mexico, was the first American-born Hispanic elected to the Senate and, at 27 years, remains the longest serving Hispanic senator in history.

Joseph McCarthy began his reign of terror on February 9, 1950 in a speech charging, without proof, that there were 205 card carrying members of the Communist Party working in the U.S. State Department.

By March of that year, McCarthy had accused American scholar Owen Lattimore, among many others, of being a communist. That accusation, again without evidence, was too much for Senator Chávez and it gave rise to his denunciation on the floor of the Senate.

At that time, in 1950, Republicans held the presidency and both houses in Congress. And no matter one’s party – bucking any anti-communist sentiment could be politically costly. 

But Senator Chávez took his chances against Joe McCarthy – in the name of what was right.

He told the Senate that day, “I would like to be remembered as the man who raised a voice – and I devoutly hope not a voice in the wilderness – at a time in the history of this body when we seem bent upon placing limitations on the freedom of the individual. I would consider all of the legislation which I have supported meaningless if I were to sit idly by, silent, during a period which may go down in history as an era where we are permitted curtailments of our liberties, a period when we quietly shackled the growth of men’s minds.”

Dennis Chávez’s entire career is defined by his courage, by his integrity, by his commitment to justice.

The similarities between Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump between McCarthyism and Trumpism are – chilling. Both are demagogues. Both lie to the American people. Both try to destroy reputations and lives based on falsehoods.

But the lessons learned from that dark period in our history are lessons we can all learn from today.

First – is the lesson of courage.

In 1950, there were few – of any political party – willing to go up against Senator McCarthy.

But there were exceptions. Less than a month after Senator Chávez’s floor speech, the junior senator from Maine – Margaret Chase Smith – the first woman to serve in both the House and Senate – delivered her “Declaration of Conscience” on the Senate floor. Joined by six other brave Republicans, the “Great Lady of Maine” denounced the “hate and character assassination sheltered by the shield of congressional immunity.”

Where is that courage now?  There are those in the Senate majority who understand the incompetence of this president. That he has an uneasy relationship with the truth. 

That his words and actions so often undermine basic American values.  

But so few ever speak out. No one challenges his lies, his divisiveness, his singular focus on his own ambition to the exclusion of the welfare of American people. 

In 1950, there were seven Senate Republicans who challenged Joseph McCarthy.

In 2020, who has the courage to stand up to say, “The Emperor has no clothes”?

Second – is the lesson of truth-telling.

Senator McCarthy – and his chief counsel and chief henchman, Roy Cohn – stacked lies upon lies, wild accusations upon wild accusations. They attacked hundreds of government employees, those in the entertainment industry, academics, and labor-union activists.

Careers were destroyed. Reputations damaged. Lives devastated.

Is this much different than what the President does to those who question, disagree with, testify against him. 

The impeachment proceedings against President Trump may seem distant now. But history will remember them. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, Ambassador Bill Taylor, Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent, Fiona Hill, Pentagon official Laura Cooper, State Department official David Holmes, OMB official Mark Sandy – all told the truth. Stood up to the President and his threats. And all are American heroes.   

There is a direct line between Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump: they chose the same lawyer, Roy Cohn. And the President’s threats to the brave men and women who testified are right out of Roy Cohn’s playbook.  

Third – is the lesson of demagoguery.

Joe McCarthy was a demagogue. His anti-communism met the times. He played upon and stoked fear. And he accused those who spoke out against him of disloyalty to the nation.  

As Senator Chávez so eloquently put it on the Senate floor that day: “We have embarked upon a course which breeds hysteria and confusion – a course so dangerous that few dare to oppose the drift lest they be the next marked for destruction.”

But before us today – is Donald Trump – and his demagoguery is even more dangerous. He too plays upon fear – and anger. He accuses the free press of being “enemies of the people.”  He rails against immigrants invading our country, stoking hatred and racism.

He promises working-class Americans greater prosperity.  

But, in the end, he gives the tax breaks to the rich, uses the office for personal gain, and ignores the needs of every day Americans.

And – in the middle of the most devastating pandemic our nation has faced in a century – he’s told the American people no one saw a pandemic was coming, that it’s a hoax, that the virus will “magically” disappear, that we have the best testing system in the world all while promoting snake oil remedies that could actually harm Americans.

But – the American people are not fooled. They see the emptiness of his promises, the division he sows, and the lies he tells.

Seventy years ago, Senator Chávez said: “It matters little if the Congress appropriates hundreds of millions of dollars to check the erosion of soil if we permit the erosion of our civil liberties, free institutions, and the untrammeled pursuit of truth.

Those words resonate as much today as they did then.   

Members of Congress, of this body – must not permit the erosion of our constitutional institutions, must not permit the erosion of truth. 

Now – more than ever – we must aspire to the courage of Senator Chávez. History will be the judge – by rewarding courage and exposing cowardice.