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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. 

In a supreme irony, California attorney general Stanley Mosk issued a breathless report about the threat the Birch Society posed to democracy that, he said, was merely his “personal observations,” but which was regarded as authoritative since it came from the state’s chief law enforcement officer. McCarthy would have been proud. (It was the Mosk report, by the way, that originated the popular phrase that right-wing extremists included a lot of “little old ladies in tennis shoes.”) Mulloy writes that the John Birch Society was thought to be “on the verge not only of taking over the Republican Party and propelling a dangerous ‘extremist’ into the White House, but also of being a threat to the very foundations of American democracy itself, and perhaps even enabling the rise of fascism in the United States.”  

This kind of reaction from the media and the liberal establishment guaranteed that the Birch Society would prosper. Throughout the next decade, Welch displayed a consistent P. T. Barnum streak, maintaining a fever pitch with periodic “major announcements” of new insights into the latest dimensions and tactics of the Communist conspiracy. 

While the deeply conspiratorial paranoia of Birch Society analysis was ultimately its undoing, starting in the late 1960s, some of the political analysis that Welch and others at the Birch Society produced was cogent and sophisticated. Welch was equivocal about the Vietnam war at the outset, thinking the United States was being lured into a trap and making a mistake in bailing out the colonial legacies of France and Great Britain. And while he criticized the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for reasons similar to those of Barry Goldwater, Welch nonetheless argued for desegregation in the South and worked to expunge any expression of racism in the Birch Society. Mulloy notes that the common charge that the Birch Society was anti-Semitic is wrong and that the image of the society as a hotbed of fascism is badly overwrought. 

The Birch Society posed significant problems for Republicans and for the nascent conservative movement. Mulloy goes into detail about Welch’s interactions with William F. Buckley, who dealt carefully with Welch in part because many of National Review’s early financial backers were Birch Society supporters. Buckley cleverly argued that Welch was “an optimist,” that the problems of the West were much more serious and deep-seated than what a practical conspiracy could explain. But Russell Kirk had the best riposte: “Eisenhower’s not a Communist—he’s a golfer.” 

Buckley would later take a harder public line against the Birch Society, a move that cost National Review readers and supporters, but which also began the slow marginalization of the society. (Welch struck back years later, charging that Buckley’s effete “ivory-tower” conservatism was useless and that if Buckley had not existed, Moscow would have invented him.) The society’s marginalization was not accomplished, however, before its prominence complicated Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and, to a lesser extent, Ronald Reagan’s first campaign for governor of California in 1966. Despite being urged by Buckley and other conservatives to repudiate the Birch Society, Goldwater thought he could not afford to alienate the group and its sympathizers.

While the Birch Society’s stylings were an albatross for Republicans, let me suggest something Mulloy doesn’t entertain: Liberals loved the John Birch Society—almost as much as Moscow must have loved it. Liberals secretly enjoy being terrified of right-wing-extremist threats for much the same reason so many moviegoers thrill to horror/slasher movies: They like the frisson of having strident opponents whom they don’t think they have to take seriously, especially if they can project the fringe as representing the mainstream of their political opposition.

Mulloy’s generally straight and unbiased account of the Birch Society falls into this familiar rubric on either end of the main body of his narrative. He thinks the John Birch Society, rather than being mostly a sideshow, “played an essential role in the revitalization of conservatism both as a political philosophy and as a vehicle for the attainment of practical political power in the United States.” Does anyone still revere or study Robert Welch as an icon or thinker comparable to James Burnham, Russell Kirk, or William Buckley? Is it really plausible that the conservative movement would not have made the progress it did without the Birch Society? The Tea Party, Mulloy thinks, represents “a revival of sorts” for the John Birch Society, which misses the distinction that the Birch Society depended almost entirely on the leadership of Robert Welch and elected very few people to public office, while the Tea Party, which has no figure remotely comparable to Welch, has succeeded in winning a number of significant races (as well as committing a number of blunders).  

Like many histories of conservatism written by nonconservatives, The World of the John Birch Society treats the ideas of conservatism lightly or not at all. For all of the interesting detail in this narrative, Mulloy’s strained interpretive conclusion will leave many readers puzzled about how the conservative movement actually thrived and prospered in the aftermath of the Birch Society’s shooting star.

Steven F. Hayward is the Ronald Reagan distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy.