The phrase better red than dead was used, especially by opponents of nuclear weapons, to warn against uncompromising opposition to communism during the Cold War (i.e. the state of hostility that existed between the Soviet-Bloc countries and the Western powers from 1945 to 1990).
The earliest instance of the phrase that I have found is from an article titled Voters Back Adenauer¹ A-Arms Policy, published in the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) of 7th July 1958:
Voters in the populous industrial state of North Rhine-Westphalia Sunday gave the Chancellor’s Christian Democratic party a small but important clear majority in elections billed as a test of the Chancellor’s nuclear arms policy.
The furor of a few months ago over the decision to accept tactical atomic weapons for West Germany defense forces apparently is dying away much more rapidly even than the Chancellor’s well-wishers believed was possible.
The socialists campaigned along lines sometimes described as “better Red than dead.” The Nagy executions² and the general toughness of the Soviets in recent weeks were a distinct handicap to the Chancellor’s opponents.
¹ Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967), Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1949 to 1963
² a reference to the executions in June 1958 of Imre Nagy (1896-1958) and other leaders of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956
The following title from the column Dear Abby, in the Times-Democrat (Davenport, Iowa) of 5th July 1958, is perhaps an early allusion to the political phrase:
Better Red Than Dead
Dear Abby: My brother’s wife comes to our house and starts kissing our parakeet on his head. The parakeet’s head gets full of lipstick and he looks ridiculous. My mother says I can’t shampoo the parakeet’s head because it might hurt him, but I don’t want to see a red-headed parakeet. How can I get the lipstick off his head without killing the parakeet?
Dianne (age 9)
Dear Dianne: No shampoos for parakeets! Better a red-headed parakeet than a dead one.
A nonce use of better red than dead in a different sense had appeared in The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) on 11th December 1939; in an article titled Hunting Accidents, John G. Mock enumerated the causes of accidents and concluded with:
Better Red Than Dead
It is also noteworthy that of the hunters who met with fatal accidents, 54 per cent wore no red—the danger sign—on their apparel. Some refuse to wear it, simply because the deer may see them. How much better it would be to have a whitetail spot them than to remain unseen to another hunter. What a price to pay for a piece of venison!
The phrase better dead than red was used to express unconditional opposition to communism, especially in the context of a possible nuclear war.
German lieber tot als rot, meaning better dead than red, is frequently posited as the model for the English phrase, and is sometimes asserted to have been coined by Josef Goebbels (1897-1945) during the Second World War; but, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2009), there is no evidence that it in fact antedates the English use.
A similar German slogan was translated into English as better dead than red-white-red in The Last Five Hours of Austria (New York, 1938 – translation Leigh Farnell), by Eugen Lennhoff (1891-1944), who had been the editor of the Vienna Telegraph; he wrote that when he telephoned the office on 11th March 1938, he was answered that in Graz:
“Nazi demonstrations are growing. The Nazis have a new refrain, ‘Better dead than red-white-red’”
This Nazi slogan was in fact responding to red-white-red till we’re dead, a motto coined by the Chancellor of Austria, Kurt Schuschnigg (1897-1977), during a speech to the Tyrol leaders of the Patriotic Front on 9th March 1938, according to Lennhoff (red-white-red refers to the colours of the Austrian flag).
The earliest instance of better dead than red that I have found is from Religion: Prayer in Industry, published in the magazine Time on 21st July 1930; it is, however, an isolated occurrence, predating both nuclear weapons and the Cold War:
Just a month ago John Emmett Edgerton, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, addressed the third quadrennial Conference on the Economic Order, conducted at Evanston, Ill. by the Methodist Federation for Social Service. The general subject was “The Layman and the Economic Order.” The religious as well as the daily Press paid little attention to the meeting. It seemed purely a Methodist talk fest. Last fortnight, however, The Nation discovered a paragraph in Mr. Edgerton’s paper which Methodist publications seem to have ignored.
The paragraph: “I am proud to say that the morning-prayer exercises in my factory have had the finest economic effect. Workers are producing far more goods than before the prayer system was started some years ago. We have made it almost impossible for anyone but a Christian to get a job. We examine applicants for work to see if they have any dangerous ideas. We have been able by that process to keep our plant free of trouble.”
Comment by The Nation: “Mr. Edgerton’s prayer system will undoubtedly spread, as it certainly deserves to, in the present ‘inevitable period’ of unemployment. In these recent materialistic years the workers have suffered from the scourge of work without faith. If prayer has aided production as much as Mr. Edgerton indicates, we see no reason whatever why with proper faith it should not prove equally effective as an entire substitute for production in difficult times like the present. 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.”
The second-earliest instance of the phrase that I have found is from The Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana) of 19th September 1959:
Khrushchev Is Denounced At Rally
Chicago (AP)—Nikita Khrushchev was denounced as a “butcher,” “tyrant,” and “jailer” Friday night at an anti-Communist rally where demonstrators wore black armbands and carried small cards reading “Welcome Murderer.”
While a crowd of about 800 applauded loudly, more than 10 speakers representing 17 captive nations berated the Russian Prime Minister and his visit to this country.
“Better dead than Red,” declared one woman.