Senator Richard B. Russell (1897-1971) of Georgia was a powerhouse and there were reasons for this. First, he was studious and hardworking, he knew the rules up and down. Second, he was trustworthy and honorable by his colleagues. This meant that presidents could confide in him things they wouldn’t other senators, especially on the subject of his specialty, national defense. His father, Richard Russell Sr., had told him and his brothers that while not all men can be successful, all can be honorable. Russell Jr. sought to be both.
Russell had a meteoric rise in 1920s Georgia politics, becoming Speaker of the House by the age of 30 and was briefly the youngest governor of the 20th century, serving from 1931 to 1933. He pushed more funding for education and highway improvement while economizing state government, consolidating departments and balancing the budget. In 1932, Senator William J. Harris died and Russell saw this as his opportunity to advance to the Senate, and he won the special election for the seat the following year. He supported the New Deal as good for Georgia. especially its agricultural programs, which he contributed to and helped pass. However, Russell was never strongly progressive and he grew more conservative as the years went by, particularly on labor issues as did many Southern politicians. In 1936, he won renomination against Governor Eugene Talmadge, who ran on an anti-New Deal platform. In the leadup to World War II, Russell was a staunch supporter of FDR’s foreign policy and after the war was similarly supportive of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. However, he viewed the two measures as necessary to counteract the Soviet Union and was not a fan of any foreign aid or measures that he didn’t see as being of direct benefit to the United States. Russell, for instance, voted against Truman’s Point IV Program, which provided economic aid to poor nations, rather than nations recovering from war damages. In 1946, Russell authored and sponsored the School Lunch Act, which provided federal aid to the states for providing school lunches. The bill was both intended to provide proper nutrition for the nation’s children and to benefit farmers.
Russell and LBJ: A Father-Son Partnership
In 1949, the hyper-ambitious Lyndon B. Johnson graduated from the House to the Senate, the former institution he once compared to “chicken shit” as opposed to the Senate as “chicken salad” (Autry). And the Senate was where Johnson really could shine, and an important step in this process was endearing himself to Richard Russell, who he came to believe was the most powerful senator, as indeed he was. Russell was a lifelong bachelor even though he had dated women throughout his life. He also never had a son and Johnson filled this void within Russell as a senator. Russell mentored him on the ways of the Senate and Johnson was such a good student that in only four years he was the leader of the Senate Democrats as Russell chose to forego the position to maintain his independence. Johnson proved to be one of the most effective Senate party leaders in history.
Russell and the MacArthur Firing
Russell was not always on the same page as President Truman, but he refused to bolt the Democratic Party ticket for the Dixiecrats, which helped maintain his power and good relations with the president. One of the ways he supported Truman was siding with him in his firing of General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination. He chaired joint hearings on the matter with different sides providing testimony and realized he needed to balance the interests of national security with this testimony and the public need to know. Thus, the testimony itself was behind closed doors but the committee released transcripts in 30-minute intervals to the press that excluded any sensitive military information, which had the effect of preventing leaks. The report released by the committee is to this day heralded as an example of how to properly handle a potential constitutional crisis, with the committee concluding that the firing was within the president’s powers while acknowledging the shock it had sent through the nation.
Russell and Civil Rights
When it comes to civil rights, Richard Russell was the single most effective senator in delaying civil rights legislation through his mastery of the Senate rules and his employment of the filibuster. It is entirely possible that without him civil rights legislation would have been adopted as early as 1948. He was not a racial demagogue, never condoned violence against blacks, and didn’t race-bait in his campaigns, but he was also a racist who believed in the Jim Crow system and that blacks were, at least for the time being, inferior. It follows that Russell never voted for civil rights legislation in his whole career. Among other issues, this was a significant area of difference between Russell and his prodigal son, Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1950, he tried to undermine Truman’s desegregation efforts of the military, which was defeated. His reputation on civil rights prevented him from winning the Democratic nomination in 1952, instead they picked Adlai Stevenson, Governor of Illinois. They did pick another Deep South Democrat for VP, however, John J. Sparkman of Alabama, who was a strong supporter of Truman and the Fair Deal.
In 1956, Russell coauthored the Southern Manifesto, expressing opposition to Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and desegregation. Although he agreed to not coordinate a filibuster on the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 in exchange for them being watered down bills, he led the South in the fight against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with Southern senators pushing over one hundred roll call votes on amendments to weaken the bill. Once cloture was reached to end debate on the bill, Russell’s forces were defeated. However, he publicly called for compliance with the law and spoke against resistance and violence. However, he continued to oppose civil rights legislation and that year he boycotted the 1964 Democratic National Convention along with many other Southern senators. That year, his state of Georgia would for the first time in its history vote for the Republican in a presidential election…after being one of the strongest states for Kennedy in 1960.
Russell and National Defense
Russell’s foremost specialty was national defense and he wanted the United States to have a military force so great that no one would dare challenge it. Peace through strength was his thinking and this fueled his general dislike for any foreign aid that didn’t directly work in US interests. Russell worked to get military installations built, especially in his own state. He was greatly trusted by the presidents he served under and often provided advice. In 1954, Russell warned against backing the French in Vietnam and would privately advise on Vietnam to “go in and win – or get out” (Vogt). However, he also felt committed to being sure that US troops had the best resources they could if this was the direction the president chose. Russell was a strong believer in the power of the presidency and thought that both the non-interventionist right and the dovish left would weaken America should they call the shots.
Russell and the Sixties
Russell’s cooperation was significantly less with the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations than it had been with Roosevelt and Truman, as he was growing more and more conservative. His MCI score during the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations ranged from 20 to 68%, while after it ranged from 53 to 90%, with his life score being a 54%. Despite Georgia being one of Kennedy’s best states in the 1960 election, Russell opposed the New Frontier programs. After the Kennedy assassination, LBJ pretty much forced him to serve on the Warren Commission despite him not wanting to as he didn’t want to work under Chief Justice Earl Warren. Johnson just announced his appointment to the press, making it politically impossible for Russell to refuse him. Russell would have preferred to work with the more conservative Justice John Marshall Harlan II, and stated to Johnson “I think you did wrong getting Warren and I know damned well you did wrong in getting me. But we’ll both do the best we can” (American RadioWorks). Ultimately, the committee had to compromise with him to get a unanimous report: he was skeptical of the “single bullet theory”. He voted against the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (War on Poverty) but did Johnson a solid in 1965 by voting for Medicare. He also would regularly speak with Johnson and advise him over the phone.
End of Friendship with Johnson and Decline
Although the civil rights debate may have put strain on their bond, it didn’t end it. What ended it was Russell’s decision to join the Republicans in opposition to LBJ’s nomination of his man on the Supreme Court, Abe Fortas, to the chief justice post in 1968. Russell’s announcement of opposition brought other Southern senators with him and sunk the nomination. Fortas would resign in 1969 over scandalous conflicts of interest. As the 1960s were progressing, Russell’s influence was weakening although he maintained his strength on matters of national defense until his death. Part of this was the civil rights shift but also his declining health…he was a longtime smoker and was suffering from emphysema, which killed him in 1971.
Washington’s major political figures attended his funeral, including his Georgia colleagues and Senator Hubert Humphrey. President Richard Nixon didn’t attend the funeral but traveled to Atlanta to place a wreath on the casket. He publicly stated, “A quarter of a century ago, when I first came to the Congress of the United States, Richard Russell of Georgia was already a name that inspired a universal admiration and respect, from legislative adversaries and allies alike. He possessed in unprecedented abundance a rare blend of courage, character, vision, and ability that moved him indisputably into the ranks of those giants who have served in the United States Senate” (O’Shea).
His Senate colleagues subsequently voted to name an office building after him out of respect for his legislative abilities, which has recently attracted controversy given Russell’s unapologetic commitment to Jim Crow. Although the focus of modern day politics is increasingly “woke” and Russell’s views are regarded as way backwards now, he was a product of his time and far from the worst of the bunch. He managed to be honorable in defeat, and certainly was one of the most effective senators of the 20th century. Despite his effectiveness and good reputation in his time, his name may be struck from the Senate office building, as society’s views on historical figures who were racist and demographic makeup are changing. For the former, its their racism that is above all else emphasized. Perhaps some of these changes were inevitable given demographic shifts and the naming of the Senate buildings was to represent the most respected people in each of what were effectively three parties: Northern Democrats, Southern Democrats, and Republicans. Northern Democrats have Phil Hart of Michigan who was known for squeaky clean ethics, Southern Democrats have Richard Russell of Georgia, and Republicans have Everett Dirksen of Illinois. However, Southern Democrats no longer are really their own force so the naming for “balance” may be irrelevant today as the conservative and liberal wings have thoroughly captured the Republican and Democratic parties. Russell represents a faction that truly doesn’t exist anymore, thus for the issue of race or not, his name may be taken off for another celebrated senator.
Autry, C. (2012, October 26). Top profanity in POTUS history. NBC12.
Constitutional Crisis Averted. U.S. Senate.
Lyndon B. Johnson: The Sudden President. American RadioWorks.
O’Shea, B. (2018, August 28). Who is the Russell Senate Building named for? Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Vogt, S.B. (2005, June 24). Richard B. Russell Jr. (1897-1971). New Georgia Encyclopedia.