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The overestimation of the John Birch Society

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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Populism, that ever-lurking and always problematic phenomenon in American politics, is especially galling to liberals when it breaks from the right, as it has done during the last few years in the form of the Tea Party. Conservative populism disorients and frightens liberals (almost as much as the Republican establishment does), such that liberals find it necessary to make out conservative populism to be “extremist” and to magnify its potential threat to democracy.

The World of the John Birch Society

The World of the John Birch Society

Fifty years ago, the liberal bugbear was the John Birch Society, which D. J. Mulloy, who teaches history at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, thinks is the trailblazer and blueprint for today’s Tea Party. His book doesn’t really bear the weight of this argument, which was probably added for the purpose of lending it some kind of contemporary relevance. Despite some superficial parallels (Eisenhower is a Communist! Obama is a Muslim! Impeach Earl Warren! Impeach Obama!), the differences are more important, starting with the fact that today’s diffuse Tea Party is largely a spontaneous populist movement without clear leaders, while the John Birch Society was a focused and more hierarchical organization that owed its origin and staying power to the peculiar genius and drive of its founder, Robert Welch.

The John Birch Society is a worthy topic on its own, and while the society has made appearances in many histories of the 1960s and the Cold War era, Mulloy’s is the first in-depth scholarly history concentrating on the Birch Society by itself. 

The John Birch Society could be said to have formed out of the ashes of Joseph McCarthy’s self-immolation, when Robert Welch, a person of considerable talent and brilliance who enjoyed a successful business career in candymaking (we owe Sugar Daddies and Junior Mints to his company), seized upon the story of John Birch, an American soldier who was killed in August 1945 by Chinese Communists—making him, supposedly, the first American casualty of the Cold War. 

In 1958, Welch, a Republican who had unsuccessfully sought office in Massachusetts earlier in the decade, recruited a small circle of his business associates to found the John Birch Society. Some of Welch’s business contacts were men of prominence and consequence, such as Fred Koch, patriarch of today’s Koch brothers, and William Grede, former president of the National Association of Manufacturers. The “national council” of Welch’s new group was no assembly of fringe yahoos.

Nonetheless, the early Birch Society did combine two traits that marked it out for the fringe: its bent for the kind of sweeping conspiracy theorizing that explained everything, and what today we might call “viral marketing.” Welch’s central idea was that it was “not possible to lose so much ground, so rapidly, to an enemy so inferior, by chance or stupidity.” There had to have been collaboration from inside our own government, a deliberate slow-motion surrender—nay, “treason” itself.  

The earliest version of Welch’s schemata was a longish “letter”—eventually growing to 60,000 words in later iterations—informally titled “The Politician.” Privately but widely circulated by Welch, it contained the extraordinary charge that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent” of the Communist conspiracy to overthrow the United States. And not just Ike, but everyone around him was in on the game, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles. It was turtles all the way down, if you know the old apocryphal line attributed to Bertrand Russell. It was also preposterous.

But it was brilliant marketing. As Mulloy writes, “Certainly no one could accuse [Welch] of lacking ambition.” Although circulated “confidentially,” the message of “The Politician” caught on. Especially with liberals. While membership of the Birch Society never exceeded more than 100,000 people at its peak, liberals in the early 1960s were certain they were seeing the second coming of McCarthyism. Journalists jumped to attention, making sure they wouldn’t miss sounding the alarm.