Better red than dead

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"Better red than dead" and "better dead than red" were dueling Cold War slogans which first gained currency in the United Kingdom and the United States during the late 1950s, amid debates about anti-communism and nuclear disarmament (red being the emblematic color of communism).

The first phrase, "better red than dead", is often credited to British philosopher Bertrand Russell, but in his 1961 Has Man a Future? he attributes it to "West German friends of peace."[1] In any event, Russell agreed with the sentiment, having written in 1958 that if "no alternative remains except communist domination of the human race, the former alternative is the lesser of two evils," and the slogan was adopted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which he helped found.[2]

The first known English-language use of either term came in 1930, long before their widespread popularity. In an editorial criticizing John E. Edgerton, a Tennessee businessman who had mandated morning prayers in his factories to help keep out "dangerous ideas," The Nation sarcastically wrote: "It is high time in any case that the workers learned to live by faith, not work. As for those weaklings who may fall by the wayside and starve to death, let the country bury them under the epitaph: Better Dead than Red."[3] The first known use of "better red than dead" came in August 1958, when The Oakland Tribune wrote: "The popular phrase 'better red than dead' has lost what appeal it ever had."[4]


With the end of the Cold War, the phrases have increasingly been repurposed as their original meanings have waned; for example, "better dead than red" is sometimes used as a schoolyard taunt aimed at redhaired children.[5][6]

Other languages[edit]

The phrases may have been invented or inspired by Germans. Folklorist Mac E. Barrick linked it to Lewwer duad üs Slaav ("better dead than a slave"), a phrase used by Prussian poet Detlev von Liliencron in his ballad Pidder Lüng (de). Later, in Nazi Germany, Slav replaced Slaav, giving the anti-Slavic "better dead than a Slav".[7]

Also during the Nazi period, lieber tot als rot ("better dead than red") was used as a slogan. It is unclear whether it was the inspiration for either of the English phrases.[5] The opposite slogan, lieber rot als tot ("better red than dead"), was popular among German speakers during the Cold War as well.[8]

It is however worth mentioning that a similar phrase has been a motto of Azores already centuries ago: (Portuguese:) Antes morrer livres que em paz sujeitos (English: "Rather die as free men than be enslaved in peace").

In the strong pacifist movement in France in 1937, Jean Giono, a leading spokesman asked:

What's the worst that can happen if Germany invades France? Become Germans? For my part, I prefer being a living German to being a dead Frenchman.[9]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, ed. (2012). "Better red than dead". The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. Yale University Press. p. 215. Retrieved 16 December 2013. 
  2. ^ William Safire (2008). Safire's Political Dictionary. Oxford University Press. pp. 49–50. 
  3. ^ "Work and Pray". The Nation 131 (3392): 32. 9 July 1930. 
  4. ^ "red, adj. and n". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  5. ^ a b Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, ed. (2012). "Better dead than red". The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. Yale University Press. p. 51. Retrieved 16 December 2013. 
  6. ^ Doyle, Charles Clay (Winter 2001). "Seeing through Colored Glasses". Western Folklore 60 (1): 88. doi:10.2307/1500196. 
  7. ^ Barrick, Mac E. (May 1979). "Better red than dead". American Notes and Queries 17 (9): 143–44 – via EBSCOhost. 
  8. ^ William Jervis Jones (2013). German colour terms: a study in their historical evolution from earliest times to the present. John Benjamins Publishing. p. 399. 
  9. ^ Eugen Weber (1996). The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s. Norton. pp. 23–24.