Russell reached the U.S. Senate in 1933 as its youngest member and preached a small-town conservatism that was rapidly vanishing from the American political landscape. He mentored freshman Senator Lyndon Johnson and developed a powerful reputation as a behind-the-scenes orchestrator of Senate business. In 1951 Russell chaired the high-profile hearings on the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur from command of United Nations (UN) forces in Korea. The senator handled this potential political firestorm so adeptly that the controversy quickly subsided.
A master at shepherding defense appropriations through Congress, Russell chaired the Armed Services Committee during 1951–1952 and 1955–1968 while often serving as de facto head of the powerful Appropriations Committee at the height of the Cold War. As such, he provided strong support for what Dwight Eisenhower termed the military-industrial complex and helped ensure minimal congressional oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Although privately uneasy with the U.S. military commitment in Vietnam, Russell never put the full weight of his stature and influence behind a reevaluation of the U.S. engagement there. He criticized U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's gradual escalation policies and frequently called for greater U.S. resources and more decisive tactics in Vietnam during the late 1960s, despite doubts that victory was likely. Russell would not offer the White House political cover for extrication from the conflict. The normally outspoken legislator couched his timidity in claims of helplessness over providing solutions to the growing Vietnam quagmire. His equivocation ultimately proved most tragic in light of his special relationship with President Johnson.
Russell died in Washington, D.C., on 21 January 1971.
Jeffrey D. Bass
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking, 1983.; Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.