In years past, students have decorated t-shirts for the Colgate-Cornell hockey game with the slogan “Better Dead than Red,” referring to Big Red, the nickname of Cornell’s sports teams. This year, for Colgate’s Homecoming football game against Cornell, the slogan was used as part of Homecoming decorations in downtown Hamilton and was also printed on t-shirts that were to be handed out by the Athletics Department. However, the t-shirts were never distributed and the decorations were taken down after members of the Hamilton community expressed concern over the slogan’s connection to McCarthyism and anti-Communist efforts that were prevalent in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s.
“[Better Dead than Red] was a slogan used by hot-blooded but addlebrained American reactionaries to emphasize their fear and loathing of communism and implicitly to endorse nuclear war rather than some supposed capitulation to Moscow during the Cold War,” Charles A. Dana Professor of History Andrew Rotter said. “The slogan was catchy but irresponsible, given the small size of the American communist party, the opposition to communism across the political spectrum, and thus the absurdity of thinking that the United States was in danger of a communist takeover.”
According to senior Tim Allen, president of the Konosioni Class of 2010, the Athletics Department contacted Konosioni several weeks ago and asked the group to decorate downtown Hamilton for Homecoming weekend. The decorations included the use of the slogan “Better Dead than Red” on the windows of some businesses, such as Nichols and Beal restaurant.
“About a week and a half prior to Homecoming, we asked Athletics what kinds of sayings or slogans they would prefer on the windows downtown,” Allen said. “They responded with a variety of phrases, including but not limited to the Homecoming motto, ‘Better Dead than Red.’ After having decorated, we received some feedback that one of the vendors whose window we decorated did not approve of the slogan.”
Nichols and Beal received several complaints about the presence of the slogan on their window, which led to the owners’ decision on Saturday to wash the slogan off the window and replace it with a “Go Raiders” banner.
“I had someone come in and complain and I had two other phone calls complaining on the day that we washed it off and two other complaints before then,” Heather Oley, one of the owners of Nichols and Beal said. “So I decided it would be best just to wash it off because it wasn’t worth it. Although we did put up a sign that said “Go Raiders.” I think people were upset with our decoration because it was so visible in town. I tried to explain to them that it was just everyone trying to support the football game, and they told me that it was back from the McCarthy-era and said they wouldn’t come back unless we took it off.”
The use of the phrase “Better Dead than Red” was initially intended to extend beyond Homecoming decorations to t-shirts that the Athletics Department was going to hand out at some point over the weekend. According to Senior Associate Athletics Director Vicky Chun, the phrase was never chosen by the Athletics Department as the official slogan for Homecoming. Rather, the Homecoming Committee, which includes a number of groups such as the Athletics Department and Konosioni, decided to “piggyback a previous shirt made by students for the same type of event.” An undisclosed number of shirts were printed. However, when Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson received complaints about the slogan, she notified the Homecoming Committee who decided not to hand out the shirts.
The members of the community who complained were not identified and as a result, there is no comment from anyone who found fault with the phrase. The Hamilton news website, Radio Free Hamilton, also covered the controversy and David Hollis, the site’s webmaster, said that he was also unable to find anyone who took issue with the slogan. On the contrary, most people in the Hamilton community he spoke to found the slogan to be amusing.
“There were a bunch of folks who remembered it as a slogan from the Cold War and thought it rather funny and smart that it was used,” Hollis said. “Besides, it is a football Homecoming, they didn’t post it about Tony Blair or some other Colgate guest.”
Both Allen and Chun said that the use of the slogan was never intended to insult anyone and was just meant to play on the rivalry that exists between Colgate and Cornell.
“We deeply regret that anyone in town may have seen the signs as offensive,” Allen said. “However, Konosioni is dedicated to preserving the spirit and traditions that make Colgate an exciting, energetic and enthusiastic campus. Our intentions in decorating were certainly not to offend, but rather to uphold these values and to make Homecoming an exciting event for both the town and student body.”