Friday, December 9, 2016

The Birth of the John Birch Society—Ur Moment of the New Right

In those pre-social media days the John Birch Society invested heavily in bill boards and bumper stickers to pedal it unique combination of conspiracy theories, paranoia, and hate.


Prelude-- Thanksgiving 1966, Evanston, Illinois
I had a young teacher at Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois who was everything a bright student could ask—gifted, engaging, and taking a personal interest in her charges.  Mrs. Boyd was particularly kind to me.  She took an interest in my writing and encouraged me.  She even pointed me to Shimer College, a tiny school in Mt. Carroll with a great books curriculum where her husband had gone to school.  She knew I would thrive and grow in the heady atmosphere of the Socratic dialog method of instruction.
During my senior year she learned that I would be alone for Thanksgiving because I was scheduled to work three days that weekend at my job washing dishes at Howard Johnson.  My parents and brother were going to Des Moines to share the holiday with Mom’s sister Mildred, her husband Norman, daughter Linda, and aging and ailing mother Mona.  I was looking at a Thanksgiving meal of a Swanson’s TV Dinner by myself.  Without hesitation, Mrs. Boyd invited me to spend the holiday with her and her husband.  I gladly accepted.
They lived in one of those large courtyard apartment buildings in Evanston on a tree lined street not far from Northwestern.  It was a large, rambling apartment on the second floor with rich, gleaming wood trim and wainscoting filled with comfortable heavy furniture and lined with high book cases.  I was impressed.  It exuded a certain scholarly ambience and charm.
It was also filled with the aromas of a feast-in-the-making.  After taking my overcoat and best cowboy hat we chatted briefly before Mrs. Boyd and her husband retreated to the kitchen to finish preparations.  She directed me to the front room with its leather chairs and sofa.  She invited me to make myself at home and casually handed me a glass of wine at if I were a colleague not a 17 year old student.
I was the only guest. Feeling important and mature, I wandered over to the bookcases to inspect their contents—a lot of books in fine bindings—Western Classics, English and American literature, a section of gorgeous art books, references, some contemporary best sellers in their dust jackets, and a lot of college texts.  Then in one corner I found two shelves filled with John Birch Society books and literature and a wide selection of other right wing must-reads of the ‘60’s with titles like Betrayal!, None Dare Call it Treason, and A Texan Looks at Lyndon.  There was no George Lincoln Rockwell or the trashier Ku Klux Klan screeds, but everything right up to the edge of that, including lots of stuff on the Jewish conspiracy, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and proof that Martin Luther King was an agent of the Comintern.
I felt sucker-punched and shocked.  After all, Niles West was probably 80% Jewish.  Was her interest in me, a student far less promising or accomplished than many of them, because I was obviously and demonstrably so damn Aryan?  It now seemed likely.  She had never brought up politics with me, but must have known that by this time I was deeply interested in the Civil Rights Movement and was a leading member—and only Goy—in the Liberal Youth of Niles Township (LYNT) which was agitating for an open housing ordinance in Skokie.  She had to know that under the influence of another teacher, Mr. Gragg my writing instructor, I had become an ardent and vocal opponent of the Vietnam War.  Did she think she could turn me away from all that and lure me into her brand of super patriotism that somehow hated the government? 
Shortly Mrs. Boyd returned finding me peering unbelieving at the titles on the shelf.  She smiled sweetly and told me how those books had awakened her.  If I was interested, she said, she had some things I could take home.  But she did not press the point and shifted the conversation to my as yet unfinalized college plans.
It was time for dinner and she led me to an elegantly appointed table in the adjoining dining room.  After some suitable Episcopal prayer we settled into a leisurely meal and conversation—what we were reading but no mention of politics, school activities, the plays and concerts in Chicago for the season.  After pie my offer to help clean up was waved off.  We repaired to the front room for an after dinner drink and more polite conversation.
By 7 pm I was ready to leave.  Mrs. Boyd brought my coat and hat.  She slipped a paperback copy of the Blue Book and some pamphlets into the coat pocket with nothing but a friendly nod.
I stepped out into the crisp November air still dazed.  I never returned.  Mrs. Boyd and I never spoke of politics.  I began avoiding her outside of class.  I did end up going to Shimer, but never brought up Mr. Boyd with the faculty as she suggested I do.  We never met again.

Robert Weslsh with a portrait of a hero he largely created, John Birch a missionary and spy executed by the Communist Chinese in 1948 and proclaimed the "first martyr of the Cold War."

File this one under know thine enemy.  On December 9, 1958 Robert Welch, Jr. and eleven cronies founded The John Birch Society in Indianapolis, Indiana.  
Largely moribund American conservatism got an infusion of well organized and funded zeal from the extreme right.  Over the next decades, even after the Birch Society itself waned in significance, that movement would take over the entire Republican Party and eventually make a serious run at overturning decades of hard fought progressive reforms. 
Now with the Election of Donald Trump it seems triumphant and emboldened to openly return to the racist and crypto-fascist elements that were in the very DNA of the Society.
The North Carolina born Welch was a very bright young man and in his early days an ardent Baptist.  He was also deeply conservative.  He was admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the age of 12 where he became unpopular for his tireless Christian proselytizing.
Along the way, however, some of the skeptics must have gotten to him.  He jettisoned his Baptist faith as unreasonable and became a Unitarian.  He retained that identification most of the rest of his life, abandoning it only very late after consolidation created the Unitarian Universalist Association which immediately immersed itself in the Civil Rights Movement.  Despite his long association he almost never shows up in the ubiquitous lists of famous U.U.s.  Not someone to brag about, I guess.
Young Welch went on to study at the Naval Academy and Harvard but dropped out of both schools claiming to be disgusted by liberal faculty. 
He went into the candy manufacturing business with his brother in Brooklyn, New York.  After starting and failing with his own firm, he rejoined his brother and became the driving force behind the James O. Welch Company which went on to great success marketing Sugar Daddies, Sugar Babies, Pom Poms, and Junior Mints.  He retired in 1956 a very wealthy man determined to remake America to his own satisfaction.
From the beginning the John Birch Society, was the closely held vehicle for promoting Welch’s stridently anti-Communist views and conspiracy theories.  Although the organization would grow from the original 12 member to a reported—but possibly inflatedclaim of over 100,000 organized in local chapters around the country, Welsh called the shots and demanded ideological fealty of all branches and members.
He named his fledgling organization for an obscure missionary and covert American intelligence agent who was executed by Communists in China in August 1945.  Welch claimed that this John Birch was the first casualty in the Cold War.

Welsh ally and major supporter of the John Birch Society, Fred C. Koch, founder of Koch Industries and the family dynasty which has become the major funding source for the Tea Party and the right wing seizure of the Republican Party.
Welch and his wealthy friends underwrote an extensive publishing program.  Those friends included Fred C, Koch, founder of Koch Industries and of the Koch dynasty which currently funds many far right political organizations.  It also included controversial racist and anti-Semite Revilo P. Oliver, a University of Illinois professor and founder of the crypto-fascist National Alliance.  Oliver’s many contributions to Birch Society publications eventually led to some early supporters like William O. Buckley, founder of the National Review, to distance themselves from the Welch and the Society.
The foundational document of the Society was the Blue Book, a stenographic transcript of two days of speeches by Welch at the founding meeting.  Each new member received a copy.  It outlined Welch’s fundamental belief: 
…both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians.  If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country's sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a “one-world socialist government.”
The Society also published and Welch edited the monthly magazine American Opinion and the weekly The Review of the News in addition to an extensive pamphlet operation and speaker’s bureau.
Impeach Earl Warren became the Birh Society's first big public campaign.  The unprecedented attack drew national attention.

Early campaigns famously called for “U.S. Out of the UN” and demanded the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren for his rulings in favor of civil rights.  Much of the early energy of the organization was rooted in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, which it accused of being a total creature of international communism, and on civil rights legislation for undermining States Rights.
Although officially separate from the Republican Party, many of whose leaders he accused of being at best dupes of Communism, Welch and the Society supported far right candidates in the GOP, including Senator Barry Goldwater.  The opposition to civil rights by the Birch Society was a factor in beginning to move Southern racists from the Democratic Party to the Republicans, a process that would take decades to complete.
By the early ‘60’s the Birch Society was an influential public presence and a growing cause for alarm among liberals who denounced it for extremism.  Welch reported that it had
… a staff of 28 people in the Home Office; about 30 Coordinators (or Major Coordinators) in the field, who are fully paid as to salary and expenses; and about 100 Coordinators (or Section Leaders as they are called in some areas), who work on a volunteer basis as to all or part of their salary, or expenses, or both.
A word from Welch in one of the Birch Society publications could generate up to 600,000 letters and postcards in protest.  Many of those were sent out by the dozen by members using various identities, but it could be very intimidating and made it seem like there were a vast number of supporters.
Anit-Semite Revilo P. Oliver was still on the Council of the John Birch Society and a leading propagandist for it when he gave this lecture which essentially celebrated the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  The growing public uproar and backlash led Welsh to dump him from leadership and Barry Goldwater to walk away from his public support.  But Oliver's finger prints were still all over the John Birch Society.
But even at the height of his success, Welch’s refusal to form alliances or work with other conservative groups created friction on the right.  Oliver’s anti-Semitism became such as embarrassment that he and other overt racists were purged.  But that only earned the wrath of former allies in the White Citizens’ Council and Ku Klux Klan front groups.  Welch got the support of powerful Mormon leader Ezra Taft Benton, but that alienated religious fundamentalists who despised Mormons,  Catholics, and Jews who were also prominent in the Society.  
Welch spun ever more complicated conspiracy theories, many of which are still by-words of the ultra-far right.  He concluded that everything was ultimately a master plot of the Illuminati and of International Bankers including the Rothschild’s and the American Rockefellers, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission.  These “crazy” conspiracy theories also contributed to Buckley’s defection and even caused the leadership of the Latter Day Saints to officially distance themselves, even though they continued to follow many of Welch’s other ideas.
But when Welch directly attacked Dwight Eisenhower, war hero and Republican President for being a Communist and a traitor, he shattered many of his connection with the Party.  Goldwater had to denounce him.  Welch made his attack on Ike in a book he published privately and as not officially issued by the Society.  But the attempt to separate the Society from the views in the book, The Politician, was doomed to failure, even after a second edition drastically toned down the most extreme charges.  

Despite its virulent opposition to Civil Rights, the John Birch Society  was not overtly racist enough any more for many, especially in the South where George Wallace and his American Independence Party were more effectively feeding the beast.
As the Birch Society began to lose traction, new right wing forces were rising, including Alabama Governor George Wallace’s American Independence Party, which ran staunch anti-Communist in the Birch mold General Curtis LeMay for Vice-President, were on the rise.
The Society dwindled to a shadow of itself.  By the time Welch died in 1985 it was almost just a memory.  But when President George H.W. Bush launched the Gulf War in the name of a New World Order—an phrase that was a major Society bug-a-boo—it received a modest new round of interest on the far right.
Current leaders have tried to end the Society’s long standing isolation from other conservative groups.  They signed on as a sponsor of the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference and its successors.  It has also been shopping it longstanding opposition to the Federal Reserve and support of the gold standard to Ron Paul supporters and the Tea Party.
Overtly fascist and White Nationalist elements that were key to the early Society are now officially ensconced in the government being formed by Donald Trump.
While it is unlikely that the John Birch Society itself will re-emerge as a force, its dark legacy thrives.