The overestimation of the John Birch Society

tags: John Birch Society

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

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.

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...  

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