The History of the John Birch Society

Extreme Right Political Group Was Laughed At Yet Wielded Influence

photograph of Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society
Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society. Getty Images 

The John Birch Society was a political group on the extreme right that emerged in the late 1950s, determined to continue the anti-communist crusade of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy. The organization took positions which mainstream America regarded as outlandish. As a result, it was often mocked and satirized.

The organization, which took its name from an American killed by the communist Chinese at the end of World War II, was founded in 1958 by Robert Welch, who had made a fortune in the candy business.

Welch organized the group into many regional chapters which spread his offbeat views while exerting political influence at the local level.

In early 1960s the John Birch Society was embroiled in a number of newsworthy controversies. And in the 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater the influence of the group's hardcore ideology was evident. Historian Richard Hofstadter, in a famous 1964 essay titled "The Paranoid Style In American Politics," cited the John Birch Society as a modern example of a political group using fear and a feeling of persecution as an organizing principle.

Despite criticism from the mainstream, the group continued to grow. In 1968, on the 10th anniversary of its founding, the New York Times, in a front-page article, noted that it claimed to have 60,000 to 100,000 members. It was producing a radio show that aired on 100 stations nationwide, had opened its own chain of bookstores, and was provided staunch anti-communist speakers to address groups.

Over time the John Birch Society seemed to fade into obscurity. Yet some of the extremist positions, as well as the tactics of the organization, wended their way into more mainstream conservative political groups. Traces of the group's ideology can be spotted in conservative circles today.

Accusations from conservative pundits during the Trump administration that a "Deep State" is subverting democracy are eerily similar to conspiracy theories about hidden forces behind the U.S. government promoted by the John Birch Society decades earlier.

And talk of "globalists" manipulating the American economy echoes talk of pernicious "internationalists" in John Birch Society literature.

Founding of the John Birch Society

Following the death of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1957, his followers, who fervently believed the United States was not only threatened, but actively infiltrated, by a worldwide communist conspiracy, were adrift. A businessman in Massachusetts, Robert Welch, who had made his fortune by organizing distribution channels in the candy business, called a meeting of other anti-communist activists.

At a two-day gathering at a home in Indiana, Welch laid out his plans. He claimed the other attendees were 11 businessmen who had traveled from all regions of the United States, though they were never identified.

In a rambling monologue, portions of which were later published and distributed, Welch essentially gave his version of world history. He asserted that a group that formed in Bavaria in the late 1700s, called the Illuminati, had helped spur the French Revolution and other world events, including World War I. Welch claimed that a secret group of international bankers had created the American Federal Reserve system, and controlled the American economy.

Welch's exotic and convoluted theories of history seemed unlikely to gain acceptance with a wide audience. Yet his plan was to couple his dire warnings of secret agendas with the organizational skills he had developed in his business career.

In essence, Welch proposed creating local chapters of the John Birch Society which would function much the way a neighborhood store would have retailed candy. His political ideas, geared to an audience of wary Americans during the Cold War, would be promoted at the local level.

An early Cold War incident inspired the name of Welch's new organization. While researching a book, Welch had come across the story of an American intelligence officer who was also a Christian missionary in China during World War II. At the end of the war, the American officer, John Birch, had been captured and executed by communist Chinese forces.

(Government records disputed Welch's account of Birch's death, which prompted Welch to claim pro-communist elements in the U.S. government had suppressed the facts.)

Welch considered Birch to be the first casualty of America's struggle against worldwide communism. By using Birch's name as a rallying cry, Welch sought to make resistance to communist infiltration the central mission of his organization.

Public Perception

The new organization found a receptive audience among politically conservative Americans who were opposed to changes taking place in America. The John Birch Society was fixated on a perceived communist menace, but it broadened that to include generally liberal ideas going back to the New Deal of the 1930s. In opposition to the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, Welch and his followers opposed the desegregation of schools. Members of the John Birch Society, often at local school boards, declared that integrated schools were part of the communist plot to weaken America.

Wherever John Birch Society chapters appeared there seemed to be controversy. Members accused local officials of being communist dupes or outright communists. By early 1961 news articles about the group were becoming common, and church groups, labor unions, and prominent politicians, began denouncing the organization as dangerous and anti-American.

At various times Welch and his followers attacked Eleanor Roosevelt and former presidents Truman and Eisenhower. As part of its agenda against integration and liberal ideas in general, the group promoted the idea of impeaching, Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The group's billboards proclaiming "Impeach Earl Warren" appeared beside American highways.

In early 1961 an American general, Edwin Walker, was accused of distributing John Birch Society literature to soldiers stationed in Europe. President John F. Kennedy was asked about the Walker situation during a press conference on April 21, 1961. Kennedy at first avoided mentioning the John Birch Society directly, but a reporter pressed him on it.

Kennedy gave an answer:.

"Well, I don't think that their judgments are based on accurate information of the kinds of challenges that we face. I think we face an extremely serious and intensified struggle with the Communists. But I am not sure that the John Birch Society is wrestling with the real problems which are created by the Communist advance around the world."

After citing a number of points of conflicts with communist nations and guerrillas around the globe, Kennedy concluded:

"And I would hope all those who are concerned about the advance of communism would face that problem and not concern themselves with the loyalty of President Eisenhower, President Truman, or Mrs [Franklin D.] Roosevelt or myself or someone else."

The following day, the New York Times published an editorial denouncing the John Birch Society as "a addition to the lunatic fringe of American life." The editorial contained scathing remarks: 

"Lost in a world of fantasy, the John Birchers are busily looking for Communists in the White House, the Supreme Court, the classrooms, and presumably under the bed."

Skepticism of the organization wasn't restricted to the nation's elite press.

A dispute over the group even became part of pop music history. Bob Dylan wrote a song, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," which poked fun at the group. Invited to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in May 1963, the 21-year-old Dylan intended to sing that particular song. CBS Television executives, apparently fearful of offending pro-Birch viewers, wouldn't let him. Dylan refused to sing another song, and during the program's dress rehearsal he walked out of the studio. He never did appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Impact On the Mainstream

Much of America might have scoffed at the John Birch Society, but within the Republican Party the group was exerting pressure. 

The presidential campaign of Republican nominee and stalwart conservative Barry Goldwater was influenced by the John Birch Society. Goldwater himself never explicitly aligned himself with the group, but in his famous line at the 1964 Republican National Convention, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," many heard echoes of the John Birch Society.

As American society changed in the 1960s, the John Birch Society continued to rail against the Civil Rights Movement. Yet Robert Welch refused to support America's involvement in Vietnam, as he contended it was being sabotaged by communists within the United States government.

Familiar themes of the John Birch Society became part of the campaign of independent presidential candidate George Wallace in 1968. Following the 1960s, the organization seemed to fade into irrelevance. Mainstream conservatives such as William F. Buckley had denounced its extreme views, and as the conservative movement transformed itself leading up to the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, it kept a distance from Robert Welch and his followers.

Welch died in 1985. He had retired from the organization he founded after suffering a stroke in 1983.

Legacy of the John Birch Society

To many Americans, the John Birch Society was a peculiar relic from the 1960s which had faded away. But the organization still exists, and it can be argued that some of its extremist rhetoric, which drew jeers decades ago, has seeped into the mainstream of the conservative movement.

Accusations about government conspiracies which are regularly touted in venues such as Fox News or conservative talk radio do seem similar to conspiracy theories that once circulated in books and pamphlets published by the John Birch Society. The most prominent proponent of conspiracy theories today, Alex Jones, on whose program Donald Trump appeared as a presidential candidate, routinely echoes longstanding John Birch Society assertions.

In the summer of 2017 Politico published an article about John Birch Society chapters in Texas. According to the report, the group's members had been successful in getting the Texas legislature to introduce bills aimed at such things as restricting suspected United Nations activities in Texas and curtailing the rumored spread of Sharia Law in America. The article contended that the John Birch Society was alive and well, and the group was gaining new members.

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McNamara, Robert. "The History of the John Birch Society." ThoughtCo, Jan. 31, 2018, thoughtco.com/the-john-birch-society-4158089. McNamara, Robert. (2018, January 31). The History of the John Birch Society. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-john-birch-society-4158089 McNamara, Robert. "The History of the John Birch Society." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-john-birch-society-4158089 (accessed February 18, 2018).