August 12, 2013 1 Comment
I was 15 years old when in 1961 a mysterious group appeared at my high school in San Diego, CA to present an evening film series. The first night several hundred students, along with parents and some teachers, filled the bleachers in the school gym and watched grainy black and white film footage of the Joseph McCarthy’s Senate hearings.
The film was intended to educate us on Communist infiltration in government, the media, and higher education. I remember the film graphically showing the police using force to break up demonstrators who dared to oppose McCarthy’s cause. The film was very clear about being vigilant to guard against Communist sympathizers who might be present in our own communities.
After the second film night a meeting was held to organize a student club so we could educate ourselves further about this Communist threat. I joined with others and received my very own membership card. At the end of the meeting, one of the organizers presented a teacher with a gift for our school library: The Blue Book of the John Birch Society, written by the Society’s founder Robert W. Welch.
In his writings, Welch accused President Dwight D. Eisenhower of being “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” and claimed that the United States was “under operational control of the Communist Party.”
Welch definitely believed in a Communist conspiracy. In fact, he promoted a wide variety of conspiracy theories. He claimed that the United Nations was plotting to impose a one-world socialist government, that the burgeoning civil rights movement was organized by Communist agents, and that water fluoridation was a Communist-backed plot to poison and weaken the minds of Americans.
A few days after our local student club had been organized, school faculty and administrators held a meeting of their own. They reviewed Welch’s views and prudently decided to remove the donated Blue Book from the library. They also decided to disband our student club.
This was my introduction to the John Birch Society (JBS), perhaps the best-known and most influential radical right-wing political organization in America. Welch founded his Society on December 9, 1958 in Indianapolis. By January 1960 the Society had grown to 75 chapters and 1,500 members. By September of that year there were 324 chapters and some 5,300 members. Many would agree with the claim of a former insider that,
The John Birch Society built the most effective, best-funded right-wing populist organization in the United States of America.
Welch had been an executive in sales and advertising before becoming involved in politics, and he proved to be something of an organizational genius. He is said to have pioneered the practice of grassroots lobbying through educational meetings, petition drives and letter writing campaigns – activities that are a staple part of grassroots politics today.
Welch decided that to be effective in opposing Communism, he must use some of the same techniques he believed the Communists were using. This included organizing his movement into small cells whose leadership could not easily be penetrated, working through front groups, and infiltrating other organizations to take over their leadership.
In 1960, Welch advised JBS members to “join your local PTA [Parent Teachers Association] at the beginning of the school year, get your conservative friends to do likewise, and go to work to take it over.”
The JBS was particularly successful in recruiting younger members. By 1960 Welch had launched a program to organize student groups in high school and college campuses across the nation. In 1962 supporters succeeded in getting one of their members elected as chairman of the college campus based California Young Republicans. Soon National Republican leaders were being advised that, “There is a definite, well-organized, well-financed program … to repeat this California situation in state after state.” (Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin, 64)
That same year Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater complained, “Every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society,” and by this he meant people of high political influence. The staunchly conservative thinker and author William F. Buckley, Jr. became so alarmed over the rapid growth of the JBS that he published a 5,000-word essay in his magazine, the National Review, vehemently denouncing Welch and the John Birch Society and urging the Republican Party to purge itself of Welch’s influence. Welch responded by attempting (unsuccessfully) to take over Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative youth organization that Buckley had helped found. (Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin, 206)
The influence of the John Birch Society on the Republican Party continued to grow. By 1963 right-wing political organizations, including JBS, had effectively taken over the California Republican Assembly on a platform that opposed civil rights, the United Nations, and called for the abolition of federal taxes (Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin, 87) Many Birchers were delegates at the 1964 Republican nominating convention, and the majority threw their support behind Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election.
In October of 1964 an editorial in the Idaho Statesman expressed concern over the American public being inundated with thousands of weekly “ultra right radio and television broadcasts,” estimated to cost $10 million annually. The editorial warned that by virtue of these saturation tactics,
radical, reactionary propaganda is producing an impact … on large numbers of people who, themselves, are in no sense extremists or sympathetic to extremists’ views. When day after day they hear distortions of fact and sinister charges against persons or groups, often emanating from organizations with conspicuously respectable sounding names, it is no wonder [w]hat the result is: Confusion on some important public issues; stimulation of latent prejudices; creation of suspicion, fear and mistrust [of] their representatives in government.
Old Ties and New Allies
Barry Goldwater was resoundingly defeated in the election, and the extreme right wing of the Republican Party bowed out of the public spotlight. But their influence continued behind the scenes. In 1968 Welch and the Birchers threw their support behind third party presidential candidate George Wallace of Alabama.
By the mid-1970s a new right-wing coalition of Protestant Evangelical conservatives emerged. They helped elect Ronald Reagan as President in 1980. This new conservative movement eclipsed the John Birch Society, and the JBS became further marginalized after attacking many of Reagan’s policies.
Many in this new generation of conservative political activists had their start in the John Birch Society.
Fred C. Koch, the founder of Koch Industries, was one of the charter members of the John Birch Society. His two sons, Charles G. and David H. Koch, grew up thoroughly influenced by their father’s Bircher philosophy and anti-Communist libertarian leanings. They later used their vast family fortune to found and support dozens of conservative foundations and think tanks. The best known of these are FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and the Cato Institute. They are also major donors to The Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
David Koch ran as a Libertarian Vice-Presidential candidate in 1980. He advocated the abolition of Social Security, the FBI, the CIA, and public schools. Between 2007 and 2011 the Koch brothers poured over $100 million into conservative lobbying and advertising campaigns. During the 2012 election the Koch network spent an estimated $400 million. Through their foundations the Koch brothers also helped to organize the early libertarian Tea Party movement and they continue to actively promote its causes.
Phyllis Schlafly, the well-known anti-feminist and “family values” campaigner was associated with the John Birch Society in the 1960s. (Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin, 204) Robert Welch referred to her as “one of our most loyal members.” (Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin, 90) In 1964 Schlafly published her influential book, A Choice, Not an Echo, which was used extensively to mobilize support for the Goldwater campaign.
In her book she outlined a grand conspiracy theory: “America’s so-called democracy was controlled by ‘secret kingmakers,’ a shadowy group mostly made up of internationalist New York investment bankers [who] dominated the media.” (Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin, 89) Their operations were coordinated internationally through the Bilderburger banking conferences with the overall goal of ushering in a “global Communist conquest.” Schlafly’s grand conspiracy theory resembles a script taken from Welch’s own writings. At age 88 she continues to be a featured celebrity speaker at conservative Republican gatherings.
Timothy LaHaye, best-selling author of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels has lengthy ties with the John Birch Society. In the 1970s, as pastor of Scott Memorial Baptist Church in San Diego, CA he regularly lectured and ran training seminars for the John Birch Society, a fact he openly acknowledges in his book No Fear of the Storm (later reissued under the title Rapture Under Attack).
Familiar Bircher conspiratorial views are reflected in LaHaye’s 1980 book, The Battle for the Mind, in which he “asserts that ‘secular humanists’ have taken control of all American institutions, including public schools and universities, the political system, the news media and the entertainment industry, with the aim of driving Christianity from American life and creating a totalitarian state.” He further charges in this book that
since World War II, most members of the House of Representatives, Senate, presidential cabinets and the State Department have secretly been humanists who have labored to disarm the nation and deliver it up to the Soviets.
In 1981 LaHaye joined with ex-billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt, a member of the John Birch Society’s national council, to co-found the Council for National Policy. The Council meets three times a year in secret, bringing together conservative Christian activists (such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell), right-wing Republican politicians and wealthy patrons to advance a “theocratic” agenda. (LeHaye advocates a society ruled by “ biblical” principles where abortion and homosexuality are outlawed, women are kept subordinate to men, and public schools offer fundamentalist religious education.)
The Cause Continues
Membership in the John Birch Society declined during the 1980s as the Religious Right gained increasing power and influence. When Robert Welch died in 1985 a power struggle ensued within the Society over who would be in control. Active membership dropped even more. Many thought that the Society’s raison d’etre had passed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But new conspiracy theories took shape, and between 1988 and 1995 membership in JBS doubled; by some estimates it even tripled.
In 2008 Ron Paul, the Republican House Representative from Texas and three-time candidate for President, spoke at the John Birch Society’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. He praised the group for its many accomplishments saying,
Anyone who has been in the trenches over the years battling on any of the major issues – whether it’s pro-life, gun rights, property rights, taxes, government spending, regulation, national security, privacy, national sovereignty, the United Nations, foreign aid – knows that members of the John Birch Society are always in there doing the heavy lifting.
In 2010 the John Birch Society gained renewed prominence as one of the official sponsors of CPAC, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington D.C.
The ideals of the John Birch Society live on, taken up now by Tea Party activists, conservative members of Congress, and the Christian Right. Whenever you hear allegations of secret Communist plots to undermine American superiority, assertions that the United Nations wants to establish a one-world government, that current human rights causes are part of some nefarious greater plot, or that secular humanists are out to subvert fundamental Christian values, think back to Robert Welch and the conspiratorial theories he promoted a half-century ago.
Times may have changed but these old ideas live on. And they are as dangerous and delusional as ever.