John Birch Society - Rise of Conservatism in the USA - Cold War DOCUMENTARY

John Birch Society - Rise of Conservatism in the USA - Cold War DOCUMENTARY

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When looking at the history of the Cold War in  the United States, especially that of the 1950s,   there is a natural focus on McCarthyism and the  role played, in both reality and in imagination,   by leftist organizations. What can  be overlooked in this focus however,   is the existence of groups on the conservative  far-right. One key example of these groups is   the focus of today’s episode. I’m your host  David, and today we are going to take a look   at the John Birch society. Buckle up, because  this one is a trip. This is…The Cold War! The paranoia of the Cold War in the United  States gave birth to a variety of different   organizations, both governmental and private, that  focused on protecting America from communism. The  

major beginnings of this anti-communist sentiment,  of course, started long before the Cold War,   as we’ve talked about in several previous episodes  which we will link in the show notes. However,   during the Second World War the proverb  “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” seemed   to come to the fore, as countries like Great  Britain and the United States found themselves   allied with the Soviet Union in the war  against the fascism of the Axis powers.  When that war ended however, the fear of  communism came back with a vengeance and   the House Un-American Activities Committee,  along with individuals like Joseph McCarthy,   began a hunt for communists within both the  government and the civilian populations.   Private citizens soon also joined this hunt,  forming their own private organizations which   worked to root out communism in the United States. One of these, the John Birch Society,  

was particularly well organized and widespread  throughout the country. Founded in 1958,   the year after Joseph McCarthy died, the  John Birch Society really feels as if it   was the ideological heir to McCarthy’s  Red Scare rhetoric, though notably their   statements were often more at odds with the  government, especially at the federal level,   as one of the core ideas of the John Birch  Society was a fight against “big government”,   putting forward the argument that states’ rights  should supersede those of the federal government.  The JBS has a deep and complicated history but  a good place as any to begin understanding the   layers to this ogre is by looking at the name of  the organization itself. One would be forgiven   for thinking that the John Birch Society must have  been founded by someone named John Birch, however,   it wasn’t. It was founded by Robert W. Welch  Jr., who made his name and fortune alongside  

his brother, James in the candy industry. But with  that being the case, then who was the John Birch   of the John Birch Society? Well, to answer that,  we have to go back 13 years before the founding of   the society to 1945 and the end of the Second  World War in the CBI Theater of operations,   specifically China. In 1945 Captain John  Morrison Birch, United State Army Air Force   was an intelligence officer working for the  Office of Strategic Services, the OSS in China.   Prior to his military career, he had been a  missionary in China, working behind Japanese   lines after the beginning of the Second  Sino-Japanese War. So what was it about an  

Air Force intelligence officer born in India  and raised in Georgia that caused a wealthy,   retired candy maker from Stockton, North Carolina  to name his political advocacy group after him?  The main factor was the circumstances of Birch’s  death in 1945. The John Birch Society was first   and foremost an anti-communist organization  and Robert Welch considered John Birch to be   the first casualty of the Cold War. 10  days after the Second World War ended,   the OSS sent Birch to travel to northern China  and accept the surrender of Japanese commanders   as well as their military installations in that  part of the country. While on his way there,   Birch and his men ended up in the wrong place  at the wrong time and found themselves in a   confrontation with Chinese communist forces.  The altercation ended with Captain Birch being  

executed by means of a gunshot to the head then  being bayoneted, and his body left in a ditch.  However, despite this terrible and tragic  killing, we know that Birch was not the only   American soldier to die due to conflict with  communism nor was he likely even the first,   so the question still stands…why is  Birch’s name on Welch’s organization?  Well it most likely has to do with Christian  religious denominations. There might not be   much that Welch and Birch shared, but one thing  they definitely did share was the fact that   they were both Fundamentalist Baptists. Both  Welch and Birch were described as “zealots” or   “insufferable” in their approach to preaching as  well as their attempts to convert fellow students.   Whatever the reason may have been, it’s possible  that John Birch would have been supportive of the   John Birch Society. Not only were his parents’  honorary members of the society, who gave Welch  

permission to use their son’s name, but Birch  also had well documented anti-communist opinions   stemming from his experiences in China, saying  that communist leaders were “hypocritical thugs.”   However, the opinion that John Birch would  have approved of the JBS was not always   inline with some of the fellow servicemen  who met Birch, including Jimmy Doolittle,   who met him in 1944. Doolittle even wrote  in his 1994 autobiography that he was sure   that Birch would not have approved of  his name being on the organization.  Whether Birch would have approved or not, the  name became well known throughout the mid to   late 20th century as the JBS expanded and  exerted their influence in American society. 

Welch had written The Life of John Birch in  1954, which is a fairly standard biography   of Birch at first, but, like JBS itself, veers  off into accusations of Communist infiltration   of government and pro-communist conspiracy to  cover-up Birch’s death, giving it the “hush-hush   treatment” in America that would have been  right at home in any speech by Joseph McCarthy.   Almost half of the page count of The Life  of John Birch is dedicated to discussing   how far communism had infiltrated America.  To give you an idea of Welch’s thinking,   he had also written a book in 1954 called “The  Politician”. In it, he criticized Eisenhower. In   its original form it contained a rather incendiary  paragraph that stated, in part, "Could Eisenhower   really be simply a smart politician, entirely  without principles and hungry for glory, who   is only the tool of the Communists? The answer is  yes…With regard to ... Eisenhower, it is difficult   to avoid raising the question of deliberate  treason." That paragraph by the way, was   removed before the final publication of the book. So how was the JBS founded? Well, over a Monday  

and Tuesday in early December of 1958, a group of  twelve led by Robert Welch met in Indianapolis. A   transcript of this meeting is included in  The Blue Book of the John Birch Society,   which functioned as sort of a “bible”  of the organization, with every member   receiving their own copy. An excerpt from the  transcript of that 1958 meeting, published in   a 1961 version of The Blue Book is as follows: “Our immediate and most urgent anxiety, of course,   is the threat of the Communist conspiracy. And  well it should be. For both internationally,   and within the United States, the Communists are  much further advanced and more deeply entrenched   than is realized by even most of the serious  students of the danger among the anti-Communists.   I personally have been studying the problem  increasingly for about nine years, and practically   full time for the past three years… Yet almost  every day I run into some whole new area,   where the Communists have been penetrating and  working quietly for years, until now they are   in virtual control of everything that is done  in that slice or corner of our national life.”  As an organization there were several core  principles that made up the Society’s political   positions. First and foremost was their opposition  to collectivism, communism, and big government.  

This distaste for big government also led the  JBS to advocate for a weaker federal government,   which would allow states’ rights to  supersede those of the federal government.   Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, they also actively  opposed the civil rights movement and the women’s   Equal Rights Amendment, using the argument  that “Civil rights legislation should have   come from the states and the communities”  because passing this legislation creates   an “out-of-control” federal government.  Strange echoes of the present, really.  For a fringe right-wing organization, none  of these beliefs are that strange. However,   the John Birch Society becomes far more  interesting when you begin to look at the   other half of their political positions, which  veer into the realm of conspiracy theories,   with terms like “one world government” and “new  world order” popping up throughout their rhetoric.   The Blue Book states that “internationalism, as  it is conceived and promoted today, is an attempt   to impose more government and a more centralized  one-world government on all of us everywhere.”  

In addition to this, one of the first public  activities of the JBS was a "Get US Out! Of   the UN!" campaign, which alleged in 1959  that the "Real nature of [the] UN is to   build One World Government (New World Order)."  Attacks on the United Nations and America’s   involvement with the organization became  a major theme for JBS through the 1960s.  Now despite the John Birch Society’s ostensibly  secular origins, Biblical rhetoric was frequently   used by Welch, including statements in The  Blue Book like “this is a world-wide battle,   the first in history, between light and darkness;  between freedom and slavery; between the spirit   of Christianity and the spirit of anti-Christ  for the souls and bodies of men”. Religion also   played a part in the conspiracy theories pushed  by the society, although that shouldn’t come as   a surprise during the Cold War, as religion grew  in importance in the “us vs them” battle between   the United States and the Soviet Union. The John  Birch Society was the first group to sound the   alarm about the “assault on Christmas” which they  believed was being perpetrated by communists and   supporters of the United Nations. This was an  attempt to “destroy all religious beliefs and  

customs.” A pamphlet published in 1959 titled  “There Goes Christmas?!” warned that "[o]ne of   the techniques now being applied by the Reds to  weaken the pillar of religion in our country is   the drive to take Christ out of Christmas --  to denude the event of its religious meaning.”   The same pamphlet went on to say, "The UN fanatics  launched their assault on Christmas in 1958,   but too late to get very far before the holy  day was at hand…They are already busy, however,   at this very moment, on efforts to poison the  1959 Christmas season with their high-pressure   propaganda. What they now want to put over on  the American people is simply this: Department  

stores throughout the country are to utilize UN  symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations."  While Welch despised communism, Welch’s  organization style for the Society actually took   on aspects of the organizational structure of the  same communist cells that he opposed. D.J. Mulloy,   author of “The World of the John Birch Society:  Conspiracy, Conservatism, and the Cold War”,   wrote that the JBS was organized to be, in Welch's  words, "under completely authoritative control at   all levels". In addition to that, The Blue Book  contained lines like “I am far more comfortable   working sixteen hours a day, seven days per  week, on the same problem and without pay,   than I would be in a concentration camp behind an  electrified barbed-wire fence. And while I am not  

actually suggesting quite so drastic a level of  work or sacrifice for anybody else at this time,   I do want to repeat that we are not going to be  saved from concentration camps by those who plan   to do the saving every Saturday morning before  lunch…” which seem to encourage members to work   long hours for the Society, as their duty  to protect and serve their country, without   pay. Not unlike the expectations of Comrade  Stalin, as we have outlined in other episodes.  The John Birch Society engaged in a number of  different campaigns throughout the 20th century,   although they seem to have been at the height  of their activity during the 1960s and 1970s,   tapering off slightly in the 1980s. In 1960, Welch advised JBS members to:   "Join your local P.T.A. at the beginning of the  school year, get your conservative friends to  

do likewise, and go to work to take it over." And  the society began publishing an official magazine,   titled American Opinion, which still exists but  is now titled The New American. By 1965, there   were four hundred American Opinion bookstores  selling the literature of the John Birch Society.  In March of 1961, Welch reported that JBS  had somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000   members and a staff of around 60 between the  home office and field coordinators. Meetings   tended to consist of watching taped messages  from Welch and then working to write massive   quantities of letters and postcards to government  officials on topics the JBS considered important   at that time. One of these campaigns dealt with  the second summit held between the United States  

and the Soviet Union and urged President Dwight  D. Eisenhower, "If you go, don't come back!".   The JBS generated over 600,000 postcards and  letters. Welch offered a $2,300 prize to college   students who could write the best essays on the  “grounds of impeachment” for Chief Justice Earl   Warren, of Brown v. Board of Education fame. One  of the cases that had made Warren a target for JBS   was Engel v. Vitale which had held that mandatory  prayer in public school was unconstitutional.  The conspiracies and double talk used by the  society truly hit a peak in 1965 when JBS   took a stance opposing the American involvement  in Vietnam, despite it ostensibly being about   preventing the communist takeover of South  Vietnam. In a 1971 article in The Journal  

of Politics, Stephen Earl Bennett covers this  peculiar issue. “Welch expressed his belief that   the war in Vietnam was a "carefully stage-managed  ... fraud," in which "Communist influences are   pulling strings and determining actions on both  sides..." According to Welch, the "Communists"  

intended to use American participation in a war in  Southeast Asia to achieve two major goals. First,   he prophesied that Communist China  would soon enter the war in Vietnam,   as had happened in Korea; once at war with China,  "left wing influences" in Washington would play   upon "the wholly fictitious feud" between the USSR  and Red China to develop a new alliance between   the United States and the Soviet Union. Second,  participation in a shooting war with the Red   Chinese would enable the Johnson Administration,  "which has already shown itself to be hell-bent   for tyranny," to clamp so much "regimentation"  on the American people that it "would make the   government controls of World War II look like a  study in free enterprise and personal liberty.”  However, the JBS also didn’t trust anti-Vietnam  War protestors who they saw as “Communist-front   groups” who were only protesting the war in order  to trick “misguided” Americans into believing that   the Johnson Administration was legitimate in  their claim to be fighting communism. These are   what some people would call mental gymnastics. Now, also in 1965, the JBS circulated a flyer  

titled “What’s Wrong With Civil Rights?”, even  using the flyer as a newspaper advertisement.   Despite the current JBS website stating that  their opposition to Civil Rights legislation   was based on their belief that it was an issue  best left to the states, this flyer takes a   very different approach. Stating: "For the civil  rights movement in the United States, with all of   its growing agitation and riots and bitterness,  and insidious steps towards the appearance of a   civil war, has not been infiltrated by the  Communists, as you now frequently hear. It   has been deliberately and almost wholly created  by the Communists patiently building up to this   present stage for more than forty years." They claimed the Civil Rights Movement,   run as it was by Communists, was a “drastic  remedy” for a problem that was “exaggerated”.  

Going on to state that “the average American Negro  has a tremendously higher material standard of   living than Negroes anywhere else” and they  also had a “higher standard of literacy and   better educational opportunities” than they would  anywhere else in the world. This obviously misses   the point as to if their opportunities were  equal to those of other non-Black Americans.   The flyer went on to say that “the average  American Negro has complete freedom of religion,   freedom of movement, and freedom to run his own  life as he pleases” and “his security of person,   and assurance of honorable treatment by his  fellow citizens…have ben exactly on par with   those of his white neighbors.” Many then,  and now, would obviously disagree with this. 

The JBS would also oppose the creation of the  first sex education curriculum in America during   the late 1960s and circulated pamphlets from  1967-1971 for their Movement to Restore Decency,   MOTOREDE, campaign. Their objections to the  curriculum focused on the idea that students   were too young for the it, that it would  encourage sexual activity and “perversion”,   and degrade the spiritual values  and moral fiber of students.   All of which was capped off by the typical John  Birch Society calling card, that sex education   was part of “powerful conspiratorial forces  intent on destroying all civilized values.”  Throughout the 1970s, the JBS would focus on a  number of diverse issues including opposition   to the formation of the Occupational Safety and  Health Administration or OSHA, and opposition to   the Equal Rights Amendment. OSHA was established  despite their campaigns, but the JBS played a   key role in stopping the ratification of the ERA,  helped significantly by a member of the Society,   Phyllis Schlafly. The JBS accused the ERA's  supporters of subversion, asserting that the   ERA was part of a communist plot "to reduce human  beings to living at the same level as animals." 

Throughout the 1970s, the JBS would be part of  advocating for the false claim that Laetrile,   also called Amygdalin, was a cure for cancer and  they would advocate for the legalization of the   compound as a drug for that express purpose. A  New York Times article in 1977 identified the   JBS and other far-right groups as being involved  in pro-laetrile campaigns in at least nine states.   Congressman and Birch Society leader Lawrence  P. McDonald was involved in the campaign as a   member of the "Committee for Freedom of Choice  in Cancer Therapy," the leading pro-laetrile   group. What’s old is new, am I right? And just to top all of this off,   the Society also opposed Earth Day, suggesting  that it was a communist plot and noting that   the first celebration fell on the 100th  anniversary of Vladimir Lenin's birth.  Now, like most anti-communist organizations  in the latter days of the Cold War,   JBS membership and influence declined through  the 1980s and especially into the 1990s. But,  

unlike these other organizations,  it never died out entirely. Instead,   the Society reconsolidated and moved their  national office to Appleton, Wisconsin, which   just so happens to be the birthplace of Senator  Joseph McCarthy. Yet another sign that they saw   themselves as the ideological heir to McCarthyism. They continued to voice their opinions on American   policy throughout this period, despite having  little influence. They campaigned against the   ratification of the Genocide Convention, arguing  it would erode U.S. national sovereignty. They   would also continue to push for the United States  to end their membership in the United Nations. 

Though probably still not as large as they were  at the peak of their membership in the 1960s,   and its hard to know exactly since membership  lists are kept private, the John Birch Society   has continued to exist and influence politics  in the United States well into the 21st century.   So much so that they were a co-sponsor of the 2010  Conservative Political Action Conference, moving   it from a fringe organization in the conservative  movement to a place in the mainstream.  Echoes of their original rhetoric can still  be seen in modern conservative political   strategies. From the “War on Christmas” and  opposition to sex education to the unproven   use of Ivermectin to treat Covid and the view that  racial discrimination is an “exaggerated” problem. 

JBS continues to pursue the same issues from  their past, which remain core principles for them   today. From opposing the UN's Agenda 21 based on a  conspiracy theory that it will "establish control   over all human activity”, to opposing NAFTA, and  to pushing to return America to its “Christian   foundations”, this despite their website claiming  that “The John Birch Society does not subscribe   to any particular faith or denomination.” The John Birch Society emerged from the Cold War,   continued to nurture the ideology the  Red Scare and of government conspiracy,   making it one of the senior groups in the  far-right American political landscape here   in the 21st Century. JBS has re-emerged into the  public spotlight in recent years, its decades old  

mantras finding new life in an age of internet  conspiracy theory combined with the growing   prominence of more extremist right-wing ideology.  As the JBS gains traction with its core base,   it will be interesting to see how politicians,  looking to leverage the Society for votes on   election day, handle the more outlandish  beliefs that come with the John Birch Society.

2022-10-31 04:37

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