John Birch Society

The John Birch Society (JBS) carried the mantle of post-World War II extreme anticommunism into later decades. Robert Welch founded this grassroots political organization in 1958. Four years to the month after the censure of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, Welch assembled eleven of his prominent conservative friends in Indianapolis. The JBS resulted from this two-day meeting. Welch, a retired candy-maker and former vice-president of the National Association of Manufacturers, led the Society from its inception until his death in 1985.

The ‘‘Birchers’’ took their name from a Baptist missionary to China, who became an intelligence operative for the U.S. Air Force during and after World War II. The Society regarded John Birch as a martyr and the first casualty of the Cold War because of his death at the hands of Chinese Communists. However, unlike its namesake’s reputation as a staunch guardian of theological precision, the John Birch Society was not primarily concerned with religious matters. The gospel message of the Society at its founding consisted of vehement opposition to Communism. Much like Senator McCarthy before them, the leadership of the organization indulged in sweeping and imprecise accusations. The group suspected that even the most prominent conservatives acted on behalf of a great Communist plot. In 1960, the Chicago Daily News published a letter written by Welch and circulated to Society members. In it Welch expressed his conviction that former President ‘‘Dwight Eisenhower is a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.’’ Such accusations caused many within the Republican Party to question the Society’s intentions. Even still, the group continued to participate within national politics. The John Birch Society reached its political zenith with its mobilization in support of the unsuccessful Presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964. The estimated membership of the group peaked between 60,000 and 100,000.

The Society depends on conspiracy theories for its continued existence. Since its inception, the group expressed its opposition to such activities as the United States’ participation in the United Nations on grounds that it was a front for Communist activity. In 1966, Birchers began shifting their focus to another conspiracy against American freedom. Welch and other Society leaders through the rest of the twentieth century elaborated on a 200-year-old theory that a small group of individuals actually control global economics and politics and were behind the rise of Communism itself. This alleged group, often referred to as the Illuminati or the Insiders, still receives attention in JBS publications. Ironically, the right-wing organization is often an integral part of left-wing conspiracy theories as well.

In 1989, the organization moved its headquarters from Belmont, Massachusetts, to Appleton, Wisconsin, Senator McCarthy’s hometown. It continues to oppose internationalism and civil rights initiatives. The JBS is not anti-Semitic, unlike many other radical right groups, and includes Jewish members. Upswings in right-wing populism during the 1990s caused an increase in membership; however, the John Birch Society remains significantly less influential than its heyday during the 1960s.

KEVIN JAMES HOUK

See also McCarthy, Joseph



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