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