The John Birch Society, headquartered in Grand Chute, may seem like an antiquated organization with little political impact. Many readers might not have even heard of them. Claire Conner, in her new book “Wrapped in the Flag”, suggests otherwise, and points to many current strains in right-wing thinking that found their roots with John Birch.
The JBS has held numerous questionable beliefs over the years, some harmless and some powerful. On one hand, they saw hidden codes on dollar bills and believed the fluoride in our drinking water was a Communist plot. But on the other hand, founding members like Fred Koch (1900-1967), father to the infamous Koch brothers, were spending inordinate amounts of time and money promoting things such as right-to-work laws.
Koch claimed that the Democratic and Republican Parties were infiltrated by the Communist Party, and he supported Mussolini’s suppression of communists in Italy. Perhaps most disturbingly, he wrote that “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America” and thought that public welfare was a tool to incite “race war”. The idea that your enemy’s enemy is your friend long tainted the Society. Because Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (1892-1975) was both Christian and anti-Communist, he got a pass on political oppression and poor economic policies.
The organization, though named for a missionary in China, was largely inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy (also of Grand Chute), the man who saw Communists lurking in every crevice. When he died in 1957 at age 48 of inflammation of the liver caused by drinking, many in the JBS suspected murder. JBS founder Robert Welch (1899–1985) thought much like McCarthy did, calling President Eisenhower a Communist and even accusing the film “Black Beauty” (1946) of being propaganda by a Communist Jew, Max Nosseck (1902-1972). To Welch, the “whole Supreme Court” was “a nest of socialists and worse.”
Welch was one of the best known and most respected conservatives of the 1950s, earning fame as the creator of Sugar Daddy candies. It is no surprise he founded and lorded over what Conner calls “the largest, most effective, and most controversial right-wing organization” in America. Welch used his platform to push conspiracy theories, not just of a worldwide Communist plot, but of something more sinister behind the curtain: the Illuminati.
The Illuminati is a secret group, around for centuries, believed to “pull the strings” of the world. There is no logical, rational or sane reason to accept their existence, and yet some still do. For Welch, this group was behind the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, both world wars and the Great Depression. Who are its members? Today, the JBS publishes a multi-volume set called “The Insiders” tracing the tentacles through the last five presidential administrations, to the AARP and even singles out Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
These ideas were introduced to the JBS by Professor Revilo P. Oliver, who was described by Welch as “one of the very top scholars in America in his field and one of the ablest speakers on the Americanist side.” He also was a strong Holocaust denier, saying Jews were put in detention camps for traitorous activities and were not exterminated. He was eventually forced out of the organization after comments in 1966 about “vaporizing” Jews to achieve a “beatific vision” (a direct connection with God).
Racism and sexism ran through the membership, sometimes subtly and other times in more obvious ways. On one hand they argued that the Confederates had been “great patriots”, a claim that may not reflect views on race. They openly fought the Equal Rights Amendment (1972); a major factor in the amendment’s defeat was Bircher ally Phyllis Schlafly (b. 1924), who mobilized conservatives. Welch wanted to repeal suffrage for women, which would not only keep back women but also cut votes for Democrats. Even Bill Buckley, who later fell out with the Birchers, held firm to the belief that white people needed to “take all necessary measures to prevail, politically and culturally.”
Their ideal candidate in 1964 was Barry Goldwater: anti-civil rights, pro-military and anti-welfare. The ideal running mate was Strom Thurmond, but that was not to be. Goldwater firmly believed that “small, clean nuclear weapons” were the proper way to handle Communists. He pushed himself into the mainstream the same way John Kennedy did — having someone else write a best-selling book for him (in this case, the author was Brent Bozell, Bill Buckley’s brother-in-law). Fred Koch personally bought and distributed 2500 copies. Ultimately, Johnson won re-election with help from a shocking, now-infamous ad with a girl and a nuclear bomb. Welch fumed, of course, saying Johnson would replace the Constitution with “modernistic pieces of legislative furniture”.
They didn’t get another shot until 1980, when they stood behind Ronald Reagan. Reagan had his weaknesses, but as early as 1961 he had released an album rallying against “socialized medicine” (though he later supported Medicare). He also was pro-Vietnam War, hoping to invade and saying in 1965, “we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it, and still be home by Christmas.”
When Reagan won, his first day as president had him saying, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” He also said that anyone who was homeless ended up there “by choice” and cut $128 billion from aid to the sick and poor, suggesting that private charity would make up the difference (it didn’t). He next proposed cutting the Departments of Energy and Education, getting even more squeals of delight from the Birchers.
But that joy was short-lived. The same “savior” that ordered these things was the same man who funded Leftist rebels in Latin America, sought peace with the Soviet Union and instituted the single largest tax increase in American history. As the Reagan bubble burst, so did the donations from JBS members and Robert Welch moved to semi-retirement. After a brief transition, it has rested with John McManus ever since.
The JBS today is a shell of its former self, with a handful of members and a mere 10,000 Facebook “likes” in a world where the fictional Steve Urkel has 648,000 and hasn’t even had a show in fifteen years. Yet, the Koch brothers haven’t fallen far from the tree, even if they are not part of their father’s organization. David Koch is the primary funder of Americans For Prosperity and the so-called Tea Party, while Charles Koch founded the Cato Institute, a highly influential right-wing think tank. The next generation is no longer using Communism as its threat, but its playbook has hardly changed.
For those interested in more connections between the JBS, the Posse Commitatus militia and teachers who get pregnant from their 13-year-old students, pick up Claire Conner’s book today.