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Taking its name from a U.S. captain who had been killed by Chinese Communists in the final days of World War II—the “first casualty” of the burgeoning cold war—the society went on to become one of the largest and best-known political action organizations of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Although its membership rolls were kept secret (the society’s commitment to conspiracy was supplemented with a healthy dose of paranoia), historians have estimated that by 1962 the Birchers boasted over 60,000 members and $1.5 million in annual income (Dallek).
The worldview of Welch and his followers was anything but complex. Simply put, all of their beliefs revolved around the understanding that “Communism, in its unmistakable present reality, is wholly a conspiracy, a gigantic conspiracy to enslave mankind; an increasingly successful conspiracy controlled by determined, cunning, and utterly ruthless gangsters, willing to use any means to achieve its end”.
To Welch and his followers, the United States was fighting a losing battle against this global conspiracy. If the United States was indeed the strongest nation on the planet, yet its leaders could not contain the spread of communism, then these same leaders must be consciously or unwittingly colluding with the Communists.
Respected U.S. political and judicial leaders, such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, were therefore cast as willing pawns in the Communist takeover of the United States.
The programs that Eisenhower, whom Welch described as a “tool of the Communists,” and other politicians supported—programs such as the continued growth of the welfare state, a commitment to civil rights legislation, membership in the United Nations, and increases in foreign aid—were thus seen as eroding U.S. sovereignty and power, allowing the Communists to infiltrate all levels of U.S. government.
Such institutions as labor unions, churches, and schools were powerless to stop these developments, as they too had been penetrated by known Communists. The Birchers stood as the nation’s last line of defense against the pawns of global communism.
Faced with such a formidable foe, the Birchers did not call for violent counterrevolution or any other sort of undemocratic action. Rather, the society stressed education and grassroots political organizing as the ways to combat the Communist conspiracy.
Welch urged Birchers to create new anticommunist radio programs and to establish “reading rooms” stocked with such right-wing publications as the society’s own American Opinion, the Dan Smoot Report, and the National Review.
In the political arena, the Birchers worked to capture the leadership posts in such important Republican organizations as the Young Republicans and the California Republican Assembly.
Once established in these positions of authority, Birchers provided conservative candidates such as 1964 presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater with trained personnel of political organizers. The society also exerted tremendous influence at the local level, running like-minded candidates for school boards, city councils, and numerous other offices across the nation.
In the aftermath of Goldwater’s defeat, Welch’s conspiracy theories grew more and more bizarre. Developing a broad historical perspective, Welch now saw the roots of the Communist conspiracy in the eighteenth century, more specifically in the Illuminati, a secret society founded by Adam Weishaupt in Bavaria in 1776.
The elite members of the Illuminati, whom Welch referred to rather vaguely as the “Insiders,” had been conspiring to overthrow “all existing human institutions” and become “the all-powerful rulers of a ‘new order’ of civilization” for close to 200 years. The first overt action of these plotters was the French Revolution, and the first open declaration of their purposes was Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
It is in this historical trajectory that Welch placed communism, which he now believed was “only a tool of the total conspiracy.” After witnessing the successful takeover of Russia in 1917, the Insiders saw how powerful communism could be, and how they could use it in their quest for global dominance.
World War II thus became an Insider-provoked conflict (Welch claimed that the Communists had “goaded the unsuspecting Hitler into attacking Poland”) whose sole purpose was to devastate Europe and therefore prepare the continent for the spread of communism. Having conquered much of Europe, the Insiders now wished to infect the United States with communism.
Such historically inaccurate theories began to alienate many rank-and-file members, as well as important conservative leaders and politicians who had once actively supported the society. As conservative leaders sought to distance themselves from the “extremist” image of Goldwater and his most adamant followers, the society saw its influence greatly diminish.
The National Review, a previous ally of the society, rebuked the Birchers in 1965, and such prominent conservative politicians as Ronald Reagan began to question the organization’s opinions and tactics.
The American Conservative Union (ACU), one of the most influential post-Goldwater conservative organizations, adopted an unstated policy barring society members from sitting on the ACU board. The ACU also issued a statement denying any connection between themselves and the society.
Yet despite such developments, the influence of John Birch Society members on U.S. politics should not be overlooked. Their activity within the society often led them into other arenas of political activity within their communities and eventually into Republican Party politics.
The organizing skills that they brought to the Goldwater campaign of 1964 helped allow conservative stalwarts to battle with success more moderate Republicans over the shape of the party itself. Without the grassroots efforts of society members, the “conservative capture” of U.S. politics—culminating in the election of Reagan in 1980—may have never even gotten off the ground.