Russell, Richard Brevard, Jr. ("Dick")

views updated

RUSSELL, Richard Brevard, Jr. ("Dick")

(b. 2 November 1897 in Winder, Georgia; d. 21 January 1971 in Washington, D.C.), conservative Democratic U.S. Senator from Georgia for more than half his lifetime, from 1933 to 1971, and leader of the southern Bloc in the Senate.

Russell was the fourth of thirteen children of Richard Brevard Russell, Sr., a judge and businessman, and Blandina (Dillard) Russell, a teacher. Russell's father served as Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court from 1922 until 1938. Russell, who grew up near Atlanta, graduated from Gordon Military Institute in Barnesville, Georgia, in 1915 and earned an LL.B. degree from the University of Georgia in 1918. On 12 September 1918 Russell enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves, serving for only three months of active duty but content thereafter to be referred to as a "veteran."

After practicing law briefly with his father in Winder, Russell spent the remainder of his life in public office. He served as a Democrat in the Georgia House of Representatives from 1921 to 1931, being Speaker his last two terms, from 1927 to 1931, and was elected as the youngest governor in Georgia's history, serving from 1931 to 1933. When Senator William Harris of Georgia died in April 1932, Russell was elected easily that November to complete the remainder of his term. He defeated Governor Eugene Tallmadge in the bitter 1936 Democratic primary and was reelected every six years from 1942 to 1966 without opposition.

Russell served on the powerful Appropriations Committee in the U.S. Senate, heading its Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He joined the newly formed Armed Services Committee in 1947 and directed that prestigious group from 1951 to 1953 and from 1955 to 1969. He resigned that chair in 1969 to replace Carl Hayden of Arizona as head of the Appropriations Committee. His strong personality, integrity, fairness, wisdom, and ability to arrange compromises made him a dominant figure. During the Great Depression, Russell vigorously supported most of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's early New Deal legislation. He pioneered agriculture, conservation, forestry, and rural electrification programs; originated the school lunch program, feeding more than eighteen million American children; favored strict immigration laws; and advocated national defense preparedness. Russell grew increasingly conservative on social legislation, opposing most of President Harry Truman's Fair Deal program in the 1940s and 1950s. He supported American military intervention in Korea in 1950 and chaired the special committee that investigated Truman's dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur as commander of the United Nations forces during the Korean War. In 1952 he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency.

Russell planned strategy for the southern-led filibusters against the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, calling those measures unconstitutional, a violation of state's rights, politically inspired, and punitive against the South. The Senate was deadlocked for nearly two months on the 1960 measure, holding more than a week of record-breaking, around-the-clock sessions. Russell believed in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon (white) culture, which informed his politics. He viewed himself as the voice of the Old South and firmly believed in institutionalized racial segregation and opposed special laws designed to protect the freedom of African Americans.

Russell served on the Warren Commission investigating the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The commission concluded in September 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald alone committed the crime by firing three shots from the sixth floor of the Depository Building in Dallas. Russell termed the commission's task a "sad and morbid experience" in the "most strenuous year of my life." He had opposed most of Kennedy's New Frontier programs and went on to oppose President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs. He did not accept racial equality, objecting to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Southern Senators, led by Russell, led a filibuster of the 1964 civil rights legislation for eighty-three days before the Senate invoked the cloture rule, ending the filibuster by calling for a vote. Russell warned that the 1964 civil rights legislation was "vote bait" that would destroy more civil rights than it would protect.

During the 1960s Russell secured large defense appropriations and championed the development of major weapons systems. He believed that America's military should be so strong that no other nation would dare attack the United States, and he advocated the development of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Program. He strongly urged Kennedy to invade Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviet Union positioned missiles in Cuba, only a few miles from the United States, and he supported American military intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965 to 1966. (Prompted by exaggerated reports of a Communist threat in the Dominican Republic, Johnson sent American troops to unseat a left-leaning president and install a government more favorable to U.S. economic interests.)

Russell was a foreign aid critic who did not believe that the United States should serve as the world's police. He initially opposed American military involvement in Vietnam and denied that the country possessed anything of strategic or economic value. He warned as early as 1954 that the Vietnam conflict would be "a long drawn-out affair costly in both blood and treasure."

Russell reluctantly supported the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorizing Johnson to use armed force against aggression in Southeast Asia, and he remained cool to the escalation of the war in 1965. He questioned whether the United States could fund such a war effort and continue to support domestic spending programs. Russell claimed that the South Vietnamese could not be relied upon to fight for themselves, expected conditions to deteriorate, and believed that the American people would oppose sending troops to Vietnam. Once American troops came under fire in Vietnam, however, Russell became more hawkish. If the United States left Vietnam, he feared that American prestige would diminish, the confidence of the free world in American dependability would be shaken, and American enemies would be emboldened. Russell advocated the bombing of North Vietnam and the blockading of its ports. He denounced military desertions, draft-card burnings, and antiwar sit-ins. Record-breaking defense appropriations bills swept through his committees and the Senate with little or no debate.

Russell, a bachelor and member of the Methodist Church of Winder, did not have many close friends. He maintained a rigorous Senate work schedule and read the Congressional Record daily from cover to cover. Russell mastered parliamentary maneuver, knew Senate rules well, and debated effectively. He served as president pro tempore of the Senate from January 1969 until his death, putting him third in line for succession to the presidency, behind the vice president and the Speaker of the House. He died at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., from respiratory problems brought on by emphysema. Russell is interred in a family gravesite at Russell Memorial Park in Winder, Georgia.

Russell's service in the U.S. Senate was the longest in Georgia's history. A defender of the Old South, he did not appreciate the central paradox of the nation in the 1960s: how the "Land of the Free" could deny freedom to its own citizens. His inability to accept racial equality and full civil rights for all, in accordance with the change in national sentiment, prevented Russell from attaining true national greatness. Nevertheless, he left many legislative legacies in agriculture, defense, foreign affairs, and the school lunch program, and he passionately defended the institutional integrity of the Senate. In 1972 his Senate colleagues named the Russell Senate Office Building in his honor.

The Russell papers are located in the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia in Athens. The Johnson papers at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, have additional material on Russell's Senate career. The definitive biography is Gilbert C. Fite, Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator from Georgia (1991). Biographical information is also in John A. Goldsmith, Colleagues: Richard B. Russell and His Apprentice Lyndon B. Johnson (1993); Robert Mann, The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell, and the Struggle for Civil Rights (1996); and Calvin MacLeod Logue and Dwight L. Freshley, eds., Voice of Georgia: Speeches of Richard B. Russell, 1928-1969 (1997). See also the dissertation studies of David D. Potenziani, "Look to the Past: Richard B. Russell and the Defense of Southern White Supremacy," (Ph.D. diss., University of Georgia, 1981), and Karen K. Kelly, "Richard B. Russell: Democrat from Georgia," (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1979). Obituaries are in the Atlanta Constitution and New York Times (both 22 Jan. 1971).

David L. Porter

About this article

Russell, Richard Brevard, Jr. ("Dick")

Updated About content Print Article