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 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 alternatives remain except Communist domination or extinction 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] As anti-communist fever took hold in mid-century, the version "better dead than red" became popular in the U.S., especially during the McCarthy era.[5]

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.[6][7] In more recent times, with the increased use of the colors red and blue to denote the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties, respectively, the phrase has found some currency among American Democrats. Some American alt-right groups such as Patriot Front has also used the phrase to demonstrate their rejection of traditional conservatism of the Republican Party in the pursuit of an ethnostate.[8][failed verification]

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".[9]

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.[6] The opposite slogan, lieber rot als tot ("better red than dead"), was popular among German speakers during the Cold War as well.[10]

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."[11]

Another version of the phrase took hold in Francoist Spain, adapted to Antes roja que rota ("better red than broken"), in reference to the threat posed by separatist groups in the regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Charles Clay Doyle; Wolfgang Mieder; Fred R. Shapiro, eds. (2012). "Better red than dead". The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. Yale University Press. p. 215. ISBN 978-0300183351. Retrieved 16 December 2013.
  2. ^ William Safire (2008). Safire's Political Dictionary. Oxford University Press. pp. 49–50. ISBN 9780195343342.
  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. ^ Coiner, Constance (1998). Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel Le Sueur. University of Illinois. p. 7. ISBN 9780252066955.
  6. ^ a b Charles Clay Doyle; Wolfgang Mieder; Fred R. Shapiro, eds. (2012). "Better dead than red". The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. Yale University Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0300136029. Retrieved 16 December 2013.
  7. ^ Doyle, Charles Clay (Winter 2001). "Seeing through Colored Glasses". Western Folklore. 60 (1): 88. doi:10.2307/1500196. JSTOR 1500196.
  8. ^ Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. ^ Barrick, Mac E. (May 1979). "Better red than dead". American Notes and Queries. 17 (9): 143–44 – via EBSCOhost.
  10. ^ William Jervis Jones (2013). German colour terms: a study in their historical evolution from earliest times to the present. John Benjamins Publishing. p. 399. ISBN 978-9027272027.
  11. ^ Eugen Weber (1996). The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s. Norton. pp. 23–24. ISBN 9780393314793.