John Birch Society

views updated May 17 2018

John Birch Society

The death of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1957 left a vacuum in the conspiracy-minded wing of the American conservative movement. In 1958, retired candy-manufacturer Robert Welch, who suspected that the Wisconsin Senator had been murdered by the Communist conspiracy, formed the John Birch Society to continue McCarthy's mission. The Society took its name from Captain John Birch, a young American soldier killed by Chinese Communists in 1945 and regarded by Welch as the first American martyr of the Cold War.

Like McCarthy, the Birch Society offered an ideology that combined anti-Communism with anti-liberalism and populism. For the Birch Society, Communism included not just the external threat of the Soviet Union, but also the more pernicious danger of internal subversion by the "creeping socialism" of the New Deal. Liberals and moderate conservatives are regarded by the Society as being either Communist agents or unwitting dupes. Especially dangerous are elitist liberal intellectuals, allegedly in control of the universities, the mass media, and the government. At various times, Welch estimated that between 60 to 80 percent of America was under Communist control.

In building up the Birch Society, Welch drew on his considerable managerial expertise as a successful businessman, but he also deliberately imitated what he perceived as the tactics of the communist enemy. Like Lenin, Welch created a tightly organized and well-disciplined movement with little room for debate. Not a political party but a political movement, the Birch Society sought to control the Republican Party at the grass-roots level. The Society also sought to influence public opinion by sponsoring a wide variety of magazines—American Opinion, The New America —and books—Global Tyranny … Step by Step.

As the Cold War heated up in the early 1960s, the Birch Society gained tens of thousands of members and was a powerful force in the Republican Party in states like California, Texas, and Indiana. The Society played an important role in securing the nomination of Barry Goldwater as the Republican candidate for president in 1964. In the early 1960s, the young George Bush actively invited Birch Society members to fill key Texas Republican party offices.

Yet, in its moment of greatest political influence, the Birch Society came under increasing scrutiny and criticism. The Anti-Defamation League denounced the extremism of the Society while cartoonist Walt Kelly mocked their paranoia in his comic strip Pogo. In 1961 Welch described former President Dwight Eisenhower as a "dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." In response, mainstream conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr. felt that they had to distance themselves from the Birch Society. In the pages of National Review Buckley denounced "the drivel of Robert Welch." In 1965 Goldwater called upon all Republicans to "resign from the Society."

After the mid-1960s, the Society underwent a steep decline in membership and also changed its orientation. Unwilling to support the war in Vietnam, which he saw as being sabotaged by Communists in the American government, Welch turned his attention to domestic issues like the civil rights movement (opposed with the slogan "Impeach Earl Warren"). African Americans who fought for civil rights were seen by the Society as pawns of an anti-American conspiracy and described as "indigenous animals" and "gorillas."

Balanced against this focus on racial politics was a radical extension of the Birch Society's conspiracy theories. In 1966 Welch declared that "the Communist movement is only a tool of the total conspiracy" controlled by the "Bavarian Illuminati," which he believed had masterminded the French and Russian Revolutions, the two World Wars, the creation of the United Nations (U.N.), and many other world events. The U. N., as the supposed center of a world conspiracy, became a particular bete-noir for the Society, which adopted the slogan "U.S. out of the U.N.!"

Initially, Welch's elaborate conspiracy theories about the Bavarian Illuminati and the U.N. alienated members and further marginalized the Society. Yet even in its low point of the 1970s, the Society had some prominent and influential supporters, including Congressman Larry McDonald of Indiana. Further, with the death of Robert Welch in 1985 and the accession of G. Vance Smith to leadership, the Society began to re-vitalize itself.

In the conspiracy-minded 1990s, the era of the X-Files, the Birch Society has gained new prominence and popularity. In the post-Cold War world, many other right-wingers, especially those belonging to militia groups, share the Society's fear of the U.N. Among right-wing militias, the Birch society is respected as an organization of scholars who have uncovered the secret agenda of the U.N.—although, unlike some of the militias, the Birch Society does not advocate overthrowing the government by violence. "There is a plethora of newsletters, tabloids, magazines, and radio shows out there mimicking us," complained G. Vance Smith in 1996. Smith did take comfort in the fact that more respectable media organs were now spreading the Birch Society gospel to the unconverted. For example, Pat Buchanan, co-host of Cable News Network's (CNN) Crossfire and perennial Republican presidential candidate, has praised the Society's New American magazine for "its advocacy, its insights, its information, [and] its unique point of view." A special issue of the New American devoted to conspiracies sold more than half a million copies in 1996.

Outside of politics, the Birch Society has also exerted remarkable influence on popular culture. Its ideas have been frequently parodied, notably in the movie Dr. Strangelove (1964), where the character General Jack D. Ripper mouths Birch Society conspiracy theories. Mad magazine mocked the Society along the same lines in 1965. In the 1996 movie Conspiracy Theory, the main character has a copy of the New American in his apartment. Despite its small numbers and eccentric ideas, the Birch Society has been a unique and potent force in American life for more than 40 years. In an age of conspiracy theories, the Birch Society has been at the forefront of American paranoia.

—Jeet Heer

Further Reading:

Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New York, Knopf, 1965.

Judis, John B. William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Earl Raab. The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1760-1977. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1977.

John Birch Society

views updated May 18 2018


The John Birch Society, an anticommunist organization, was founded in 1958 by candy manufacturer Robert Welch (1899–1980). Welch was a North Carolinian raised as a fundamentalist Baptist. A child prodigy, he graduated from the University of North Carolina at age sixteen and entered the business world, eventually founding his own candy company (inventing the Sugar Daddy), and after its failure during the Great Depression, becoming the director of sales at his brother's candy firm. He was a passionate anticommunist, growing more so in the early years of the Cold War. In 1954 he published The Life of John Birch, the story of a Baptist missionary killed by Chinese communists in 1945 (ostensibly the first American victim of the Cold War).

Welch served on the board of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), a business organization critical of governmental intervention in the economy. In December 1958, using his ties to business and industrial leaders in NAM, Welch called for a weekend-long retreat where he formed the John Birch Society, an organization dedicated to the exposure of communism in America and the advocacy of vigilance at home and abroad against the communist threat. The Birch Society grew rapidly—many of Welch's colleagues in NAM became council members—publishing a newsletter and monthly magazine, American Opinion. The organization, however, was run by Welch; his pronouncements on the communist threat determined the activities and program for the organization.

The public awareness of the John Birch Society exploded in 1960 with the revelation that Welch had labeled President Eisenhower, in a privately printed and distributed book, The Politician, as "a dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy." Welch was criticized for his statements, and he defended them by stating that they were never for public consumption, but the perception lingered that the Birch Society was a threat to democracy. Nevertheless, the Society grew tremendously (claiming close to 100,000 members by 1964), with some of its more important chapters in California (Orange County, California, had the most chapters in the country). Members often discussed the threat of communism at suburban coffee klatches (in many cases members were women) and supported politicians such as Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who addressed their concerns. Goldwater was not a member, but spoke well of the people who were and relied on them for political support in his 1964 presidential campaign.


The public exposure of Welch's views led to newspaper and magazine investigations into the Birch Society and some of its more extreme anticommunist theories. The publication by the Anti-Defamation League of Arnold Forster's and Benjamin Epstein's Danger on the Right (1964) highlighted (and overstated) connections between the Birch Society and mainstream conservative figures. Still, such exposés gave pause to conservatives who feared the ruin of their movement by being branded with the broad brush of extremism. National Review editor William F. Buckley, Jr., attacked Robert Welch in 1961, and "excommunicated" him from the conservative movement in 1963. Buckley made a distinction between Welch and the activism of most Birch members, urging the latter to separate themselves from Welch's radical pronouncements. If conservatives were to win political influence, Welch's influence had to be tempered.

The Kennedy administration was also concerned about the John Birch Society, leading to an Internal Revenue Service investigation of the organization in the early 1960s. The assassination of President Kennedy brought an end to such efforts, but the concern of liberals in Washington about the threat of a right-wing coup was magnified by the success of grass-roots organizations like the Birch Society in their recruitment of members and their political activism.

After the 1964 election, the Birch Society faded from public concern and experienced a decline in membership. While the John Birch Society continues to exist in the early twenty-first century (headquartered in Appleton, Wisconsin), serving as the focal point for anticommunist, antiworld government, and anti-immigrant conspiracy theories on the far right, the death of its founder in 1980 proved the end point of the most active phase of the Birch Society. Nevertheless, in the early 1960s the Birch Society's influence on the shaping of anticommunist politics was profound. Dedicated to the cause of exposing treason at home, the Birch Society continued in a legacy of what historian Richard Gid Powers in his book Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism has called "conspiratorial anticommunism," a viewpoint deeply rooted in the history of anticommunist organizations during the twentieth century.


Andrew, John A. Power to Destroy: The Political Use of the IRS from the Kennedy to Nixon Administrations. Chicago, IL: I.R. Dee, 2002.

McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Powers, Richard Gid. Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Schoenwald, Jonathon M. A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Welch, Robert. The Politician. Belmont, MA: Belmont Publishing Company, 1963.

Gregory L. Schneider

See also:Americanism vs. Godless Communism; Communism and Anticommunism; Goldwater, Barry.

John Birch Society

views updated May 23 2018


JOHN BIRCH SOCIETY was founded in December 1958 by Robert Welch, a retired Boston candy manufacturer who considered President Dwight D. Eisenhower "a dedicated conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." According to Welch and other society members, coconspirators ranged from Franklin D. Roosevelt to the various chairs of the Federal Reserve Board. John M. Birch was a Baptist missionary and Air Force officer who was killed by Chinese communists in 1945, ten days after V-J Day. Welch never met Birch, but he named his society in honor of the man he called the Cold War's first hero. The society quickly emerged as perhaps the most well-known far-right anticommunist group in the United States. By the early 1960s, the group peaked after enlisting some ten thousand members, including hundreds who sat on school and library boards or held other civic offices. Headquartered in Belmont, Massachusetts, society activists ran campaigns calling for the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and the United States' withdrawal from the United Nations. On a more regular basis, the Birch Society publishes a journal, American Opinion, and runs youth camps, book distribution services, and intellectual cadres of "Americanists" scattered throughout the nation. Its members have never advocated violence.


Broyles, J. Allen. John Birch Society: Anatomy of a Protest. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

Hardisty, Jean. Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.


See alsoAnticommunism ; Radical Right ; andvol. 9:The Blue Book of the John Birch Society .

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