|A Birch Society billboard circa 1960|
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 virtually take over the entire Republican Party and eventually make a serious run at overturning decades of hard fought progressive reforms.
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 got 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 inflated—claim of over 100,000 organized in local chapters around the country, the 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.
Welch and his wealthy friends underwrote and extensive publishing program. Those friends included Fred C, Koch, founder of Koch Industry and the founder of the Koch dynasty that 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 himself from the Welch and the Society.
The foundational document of the Society was the Blue Book, steno graphically transcribed from 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.
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 that there were a vast number of supporters.
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 the by-word of the ultra-far right. He concluded that everything was ultimately a master plot of the Illuminati and of International Bankers including the Rothchilds 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 did so in a book he published privately and 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.
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 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. 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.
While it is unlikely that the John Birch Society will re-emerge as a force, its dark legacy thrives.