The late Richard B. Russell (Democratic senator from Georgia) left his mark on the United States. His name is attached to public buildings, a park, a water control project, an airport, a scholarship program, a series of symposia and, for a time, a nuclear submarine.1 He played a key role in the creation of the national school lunch program. He was an influential mentor to a young Lyndon B. Johnson. He strongly influenced the passage of the Farmers Home Administration Act, the Rural Electrification Act, and the National School Lunch Program. His efforts in this last respect led the United States Senate to pass legislation to name the program in his honor in 1999. Of these, more than a few are familiar to Americans beyond the state of Georgia. Nevertheless, few persons, even within his native state, would connect Senator Russell with one particular obscure section of the United States Code, a law whose impact is as bereft of consequences as the long-standing Logan Act.2 Still, for a time, one man stood against the U. S. Senate and found vindication.
On an otherwise quiet summer day in August 1958, Stuart Symington (D. MO)3 asked leave to insert an article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the Congressional Record. The piece, prepared by Thomas R. Phillips, was entitled: Question of When the United States Should Surrender in an all-out Nuclear Attack Studied for the Pentagon.4 Phillips alleged that the United States government was investigating possible American responses to a nuclear attack. Moreover, one agency was examining the assumption that surrender would be advisable if faced with overwhelming force. The remainder of the article examined the premise that the USSR possessed superior military forces. Using the article as a jumping off point, Symington offered a few comments critical of the President Eisenhower’s defense policy.
The issue of surrender studies next surfaced later that August when Symington summoned his colleagues to consider articles in the New York Mirror and the Washington Post.5 The articles revealed that a request for information concerning the surrender study submitted by William F. Knowland (R. CA), H. Styles Bridges (R. NH) and Everett M. Dirksen (R. IL) had disturbed the president.
The three later informed their Republican colleagues that Eisenhower was horrified that “such a defeatist study could be conducted by… the Defense Department.” The Washington Post, citing an unnamed source, reported: “I’ve never seen the President so mad. He turned the Pentagon upside down trying to get to the bottom of it.”6 Significantly in light of later events, Symington continued to focus on the defensive capabilities of the United States. He read yet another article into the official record. This column, also by Thomas R. Phillips, alleged that the American missile program was so inadequate as to allow the USSR a substantial measure of superiority.7
The Eisenhower administration launched an effort at damage control. The New York Times announced that Secretary of Defense Neil H. McElroy assured the President there was no thought or plan for surrender and the studies were only theoretical.8 The Washington Post revealed that James B. MacAuly, deputy assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, was dispatched to inform interested senators that only part of an “overall study of possibilities of an all-out war… included conditions under which” surrender might be an option.9
As for Symington, he was uninterested in a surrender study per se. He used its existence as plausible proof that the state of the nation’s defense was inadequate. The Eisenhower administration dared not let him go unanswered. In 1958, the Democratic party was seen as the war party to the same degree Republicans were identified with the Depression. Furthermore, Symington was not immune to the lure of presidential politics. The administration would be remiss if it allowed a potential opponent make national defense his issue when said candidate was a former secretary of the Air Force.
That which began as the foundation for an argument quickly became a matter of disproportionate importance. Senator Russell was determined to safeguard the honor of the American people. He would not support those he saw as cowards who would count the cost and develop plans for surrender. He insisted: “In all of history, I know of no war, aggressive or defensive, that was won by a nation that entered it with a plan for how and when the nation would surrender.” In fact, if the Eisenhower administration entertained any thought of surrender, then the nation should capitulate immediately and thereby forego spending billions in treasure in a fruitless enterprise.10
Of course, Russell did not believe the American people were willing to consider surrender to any nation. In his opinion, Americans would die on their feet before they would live on their knees. To that end, he offered an amendment to a pending supplemental appropriation bill. It read:
The amendment would prohibit the future expenditure of funds for surrender studies. The proposal would also hold hostage the salary of any employee or official who countenanced such studies.
The problem with Russell’s amendment was that it fixed a problem that did not really exist. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch was correct when it reported that a work composed by Paul Keckskemeti was a product of publicly funded project undertaken under the auspices of the Rand Corporation during the Truman administration.Strategic Surrender, however, was not completed until 1958 because it was carried out on a part-time basis.12Admittedly, the monograph was an historical investigation of the politics of victory and defeat beginning with the end of the Great War, and it did speculate as to the changes wrought by the advent of nuclear weapons.13A closing chapter avowed that under certain conditions the mere threat of an attack might induce a nation to surrender. Nonetheless, Strategic Surrender was not constructed to affect policy. It was analytical, not admonitory. It was not in the same league as the previous year’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy by Henry A. Kissinger. Its most aggressive suggestion was a concluding observation in which Americans were asked to consider revising their antipathy toward compromise and their faith in extreme solutions. Otherwise, the nation might be unable to “deal with political reality, and thus jeopardize” its survival.14
In short, as Knowland quickly revealed, there was no government-sponsored surrender study. That should have put paid to the entire affair. Nevertheless, such was not to be. Russell was determined to foreclose even the unlikely prospect the United States government would support, fund, or in any wise consider the prospect of surrender.
Russell cared not if the U. S. government chose to examine surrenders going back to Tamerlane or Atilla the Hun. He would not, however, tolerate the thought of an American surrender.15 Senator Knowland concurred, but offered a statement from the Department of Defense. The DOD press release reminded the American public that insight about the future could only come from studying the past. Moreover, the Department of Defense insisted that Strategic Surrender was primarily motivated by a desire to understand those conditions that might produce surrender by enemies of the United States.16 It was not enough. Senator Edward J. Thye (R. MN) rose to express his outrage that anyone might believe Americans would ever surrender.
Symington sought to turn the debate back to the nation’s defense, but lost the floor to Knowland, who assured his Georgia colleague that Eisenhower knew not the meaning of surrender. “I repeat that the word surrender is not even in the vocabulary of the President.”17 Russell would have none of it. The American people must be reassured. The world must be informed the United States had no thought of surrender. Moreover, as for him, the Congress of the United States should never “authorize the expenditure of public funds for studies in contemplation or a condition or situation that would result in bringing the United States to its knees.”18
Nothing could sidetrack the No Surrender Express. Symington congratulated his colleague for standing against a form of appeasement. Bridges was equally horrified at the prospect of an American surrender and urged Congress to act forthwith. Bridges further insisted that any government employee who participated in such a surrender study should be “promptly discharged, because such action is the typical Communist technique of working from within in order to brainwash our people, pave the way for appeasement, soften us up, and then destroy us.”19
Leverett Saltonstall (R. MA) tried to turn the Senate back to what the book really said, but truth was no longer a defense. Russell would place the Senate on record against any surrender study. Homer E. Capehart (R. IN) took a different tack. He chastised Symington for making the issue public, and Russell for introducing an amendment that would provide fodder for the Communist propaganda machine. Symington was admonished that proper behavior was to discuss the matter directly with the President. Capehart was seemingly unaware that for Symington the surrender study was only a means to another end. As for Russell’s amendment, Capehart avowed that “we ought not to be indulging in resolutions of this kind, and we ought not to be talking about them in public. We ought not to be printing them.”20 Russell responded in kind to Capehart’s disdain:
With customary senatorial civility on the wan, Everett Dirksen entered the fray. Dirksen wondered if Russell knew of any responsible official who believed the nation would not be victorious against any foe. Russell responded that he knew of no one who was prepared to surrender, and then returned to his central point. Americans must be reassured that their government would not consider that alternative as even a theoretical exercise.
Russell then allowed Symington an opportunity to respond to Capehart’s comments concerning free speech. Symington used his defense of the Second Amendment as a means to return to the question of the nation’s defenses. Saltonstall and Knowland foiled him, however. Saltonstall reaffirmed that the discussion at hand concerned surrender and only that. Knowland then hijacked the debate with a discussion of whether Congress was in possession of accurate information from the Department of Defense.22 In any event, when asked, Capehart avowed his support for the amendment. Moreover, Lyndon B. Johnson (D. TX) opined that Russell had the right of it. At this point, the Senate adjourned for lunch.
When the Senate reconvened, Russell requested the yeas and nays. Before the vote, however, Capehart seized the floor. He was concerned that public debate over the state of the national defense would lend aid and comfort to the enemy. Capehart repeated his belief that Symington erred in placing Phillip’s article in theRecord. Capehart also insisted that John F. Kennedy (D. MA) made repeated reference to the supposed military superiority of the USSR in an earlier address.
Therefore, Capehart informed his colleagues he would insist that future discussions be held behind closed doors. A brief discussion then followed whether Kennedy should be praised or condemned for an earlier speech on the nation’s security. Matters got out of hand when Capehart requested the Senate go behind closed doors in the interest of national security.24 Once the question of free and open debate was put aside, Barry M. Goldwater (R. AZ) proceeded to praise Russell and Symington. Goldwater asserted that while the Senate was occasionally remiss in discussing matters best left secret, the subject of surrender studies was no such instance. Capehart essayed a rebuttal, but to no avail.25
Then, with a vote on the disputed measure imminent, John Sherman Cooper (R. KY) took to the floor. Cooper averred that the amendment suggested a serious lack of faith.
Moreover, Cooper was certain the nation would “go into the long night” rather than surrender. Immediately, Thruston B. Morton (R. KY) and the persistent Capehart expressed their belief that the Russell amendment sent the wrong message.27 After that, Knowland informed those newly arrived to the chamber that, despite news reports, no surrender study was undertaken. He also requested a recess to allow time for reflection. “I am certain that no Member of the Senate would wish, either knowingly or unknowingly, to do anything that might be detrimental to the future of the Nation.” Since the Senate was scheduled to adjourn on 24 August, a postponement had the potential to consign the amendment to oblivion. Moreover, once passed, an amended bill must survive a conference committee before passage is assured.28
Knowland was supported by Clinton P. Anderson (D. NM), Estes Kefauver (D.TN), and Arthur V. Watkins (R. UT). A brief flurry of activity also occurred in consequence of a substitute amendment offered by Capehart, who proposed:
Capehart’s amendment was ruled out of order by the chair after a question from Francis H. Case (R. SD) and the Senate adjourned.29 As the session drew to a close, Russell stood “red-faced and adamant” surrounded by vehemently talking colleagues.30
When the Senate next came to order, passage of the Russell amendment was certain. Despite overnight pleas from Lyndon B. Johnson, Russell’s friend and the Senate majority leader, the senator was not moved. The Senate now faced the quandary articulated by H. Alexander Smith (R. NJ) and Chapman Revercomb (R. WV). Both men avowed that to vote against the amendment would be interpreted as a willingness to “consider terms of surrender rather than be destroyed.” Meantime, a vote in favor of the amendment would indicate a belief that a surrender study had been undertaken. The Senate, as Capehart observed, was in the position of the man who was asked if he still beat his wife. In either instance, he is the loser. “If he says yes, he admits that he has been beating her; if he says no, he admits that he is still beating her.”31 Nevertheless, no one dared gainsay H. Alexander Smith and A. S. Mike Monroney (D. OK) when they averred that it was better to be “destroyed than surrender.”32
Saltonstall suggested yet another postponement, but Johnson opposed the notion in the interest of legislative expediency:
Knowland introduced a statement by the President’s press secretary in a final attempt to stop the amendment, but without effect.
Cooper avowed his continued opposition to the amendment and reaffirmed his faith in the American people.35Richard L. Neuberger (D. OR) essayed an exercise in rhetorical sarcasm and, questioned the wider implications of the bill.
For his part, Cooper wondered if this legislation would apply to situations analogous to the surrender of Corregidor in 1942 or the Army of Northern Virginia in 1865.37 Still, at this, the last hour, nothing would eventuate but passage of the amendment. Case announced his support of the amendment and the floodgates opened. Bridges and Capehart enthusiastically signed on.38 Gordon L. Allott (R. CO), Joseph S. Clark (D. PA), and Frank J. Lausche (D. OH), albeit reluctantly, joined the crowd. Allot insisted: “I find it impossible to believe that it is necessary to consider such an amendment as it is before the Senate. I find it simply impossible to believe in my heart that it is necessary.”
Lausche asserted: “I wish this amendment had not been offered, but I agree that to withdraw it now would do more harm than good.”39 Clark affirmed:
So they tallied the vote. The Senate voted eighty-eight to two that surrender was not in the American lexicon.41To some individuals, this episode exemplifies a crucial aspect of American politics, to wit, elected representatives faithfully promising to oppose an action no one intended to undertake in the first place. Others will contend that the exigencies of the Cold War created what was, at times, an absolute compulsion by elected officials to reassure the American people that their hearts burned with patriotic fervor, even if, in the process, they must suspend common sense. Some, whose numbers are unfortunately legion, will dub this entire affair an aberration. The representatives of the people, they aver, will never again embrace hypocrisy in consequence of their deep distrust of the electorate’s ability to walk and chew gum. Such judgments are the stuff of contention. Other Americans, facing a threat to collective existence no less real than that, which bedeviled their parents and grandparents, might find solace and agreement with the editorial page of the 17 August 1958 issue of the New York Times.
What of Russell? What motivated him to pursue a course that left him standing “red-faced and adamant” in the midst of his peers?42 Undoubtedly, Russell stuck to several basic assumptions with respect to foreign policy—the superiority of Anglo-Saxon culture, a fierce patriotism, and the efficacy of a strong defense.43 His no-surrender amendment met at lest two of those criteria. He clearly believed that his proposal was so self-evident it would not provoke opposition from his colleagues. When unexpected opposition emerged, albeit occasionally self-serving and colored by purblind chauvinism, Russell stood firm. Russell defended his position, even though it was based on inaccurate information. He appeared determined to do the right thing, even if for the wrong reason. Although Russell spoke rarely in the course of the debate, he repeatedly avowed that his fellow citizens wanted to be assured their government would not, even as a theoretical exercise, consider the possibility of surrender. It’s altogether likely Russell believed that was reason enough to place the matter on the books.
The creation of Paragraph 407 in Chapter 15 as pertains to Title 50 of the United States Code—the Better Red Than Dead legal language—reveals two verities about the human condition. First, power corrupts, and it frequently leads to minor abuses in the fashion of venal versus mortal sin. Second, in times of national crisis, real or perceived, elected officials are inclined to support measures they might otherwise eschew. Senator Richard Russell sought to put the Congress on record in support of an idea. He cared not if others viewed his proposal as quixotic or unnecessary. Meantime, his colleagues were reminded that those who would seek the electorate’s approval must be, as with Caesar’s wife, above suspicion. In consequence, the Senate, and subsequently the House of Representatives, answered the important question of day, to wit, would Americans prefer being dead to becoming Red?
The legislative tempest engendered by Russell can now be dismissed as inconsequential. Nevertheless, to do so is to deny the efficacy of those symbols that sustain a nation in times of peril. Russell appreciated, mayhap only instinctively, that surrender was not an acceptable part of the American lexicon. A circumstance that, despite one war seemingly to the contrary, remains a significant part of the American psyche.
The author, Jerry K. Sweeney, earned a Ph.D. at Kent State University. Professor Sweeney has been with South Dakota State University for many years and currently is head of the history department. In addition to numerous articles, he is the editor or co-author of A Handbook of American Diplomacy (1992), A Handbook of American Military History (1996), and America and the World, 1776-1998 (2000).