The Rise of Bircherism (The Progressive)
" ... Although Welch was interested in poetry and languages, his family’s bitterness over 'the lost cause of the Confederacy' nagged at him. How, he wondered, could the South best avenge itself against the North’s assault on its honor? ..."
New book documents the conspiratorial career of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch.
Edward H. Miller’s A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism (University of Chicago Press) is an eye-opening look at the deep roots of rightwing politics in the United States. Sweeping in scope, the book takes a deep dive into the fears at the heart of the John Birch Society, a once-prominent organization founded by candy manufacturer Robert Welch in 1958 to fight communism and derail secular humanism.
The Birchers’ focus broadened from a solely anti-communist platform to include fervent opposition to abortion, homosexuality, the ERA, and sex education.
Miller’s comprehensive look at the John Birch Society is a chronicle of conservative evolution, tracking how an anti-communist crusade came to include support for prayer in public schools, states’ rights, and opposition to abortion, affirmative action, big government, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and sex education.
Miller’s account begins in rural Chowan County, North Carolina, where Welch was born in 1899. A child prodigy, he was doing advanced algebra at age seven and entered high school at age ten. At twelve, he was accepted into the University of North Carolina, graduating in 1917 when he was just seventeen.
Although Welch was interested in poetry and languages, his family’s bitterness over “the lost cause of the Confederacy” nagged at him.
How, he wondered, could the South best avenge itself against the North’s assault on its honor?
Welch first tried the U.S. Naval Academy, but he hated the regimentation. Harvard Law School was similarly stifling. At nineteen, he began penning a weekly column for the Norfolk Ledger. Conspiracy theories, Miller writes, were grist for his mill. So were anti-labor and anti-communist messaging.
For example, during the many strikes of 1919, Miller writes that Welch “thundered against boycotts and expressed great resistance about the usefulness of unions. Partly due to his white male privilege, he demonstrated little regard for securing social justice for the underprivileged and remonstrated against an encroaching federal government.”
Like his Baptist forebears, Welch ascribed poverty to a lack of initiative and extolled self-discipline over social spending to aid the poor.
It was a message he took to heart. When journalism proved an insufficient source of income, Welch entered the business world. He did well, but eventually took a job with his younger brother’s candy firm. The two worked together for twenty years.
He was consistently active in politics and waxed poetic over perceived blunders and missteps. When the New Deal was launched, Welch immediately declared his antipathy to the “creeping communism” of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This became a constant theme. When the House Un-American Activities Committee formed in 1938, he cheered it on. Then, during World War II, he advocated for non-engagement, believing communism, rather than fascism, was the bigger enemy.
As a member of the America First movement, Welch met publisher William H. Regnery and writer William F. Buckley, men who proved important to him in later years. But they were not his only influences: Welch read the theories of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises—the same economists who inspire libertarian and rightwing mega-donors today. Like Hayek and von Mises, Welch began to argue that “government’s sole mission should be to ‘protect property, freedom, and life.’ ”
After the war, Welch became mesmerized by the McCarthy hearings, and as “the communist dominos” began to fall in Europe, he reacted with terror over what he called the “immense conspiracy” of communist one-world government.
His first book, May God Forgive Us, was published by Regnery in 1952. Miller calls it “an admixture of histrionics and conspiracy theories.” It sold well.
When Dwight Eisenhower was elected President, Welch’s fears were further stoked. Eisenhower’s creation of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and his elevation of the minimum wage, sent Welch into a tailspin. He became convinced that the United States and Russia would one day merge.
Domestic affairs also plagued him. The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision added to Welch’s fury; he ranted that the decision’s prime author, Justice Earl Warren, was a communist dupe eager to smash state’s rights. The United States, he said, needed heroes.
John Birch, an American Baptist missionary who had been killed by Chinese communists, fit the bill. In 1954, Welch published a hagiographic book titled The Life of John Birch. He then wrote a letter to Howard Pew, president of Sun Oil. The letter eventually formed the crux of a newsletter he named “The Politician.” The missive, meant to circulate between a select group of people, was eventually leaked. Among its revelations: Eisenhower was a secret communist.
While this caused eyerolls among progressives, the right ate it up. In the book’s wake, a radical fringe formed the John Birch Society to fight the red menace at home and abroad. Among its earliest members were Fred Koch, father of Charles and David; Phyllis Schlafly, who later became instrumental in the Stop ERA movement; Tim LaHaye, an evangelical Christian who wrote the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels; and Beverly LaHaye, founder of Concerned Women for America.
During the 1960s, Birchers howled against civil rights as—you guessed it—a communist plot. They derided the Council on Foreign Relations as an elite mob promoting one-world government, and lambasted Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Lyndon Johnson as tools of Moscow.
By 1976, Miller reports, 140 newspapers ran “The Birch Log,” a column written by the John Birch Society’s public relations director, John McManus. Bircher Alan Stang’s radio program was aired on 117 stations. A 1977 Birch Society book, Teddy Bare, about the improprieties of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, appeared on The New York Times’ best seller list for three months. The group also ran summer camps for young people in six states.
Funds from Fred Koch and Nelson Bunker Hunt, the richest man in the world during the 1970s, ensured that the John Birch Society stood on solid ground. And, as New Right groups such as the Heritage Foundation, Leadership Institute, and Moral Majority formed, the Birchers’ focus broadened from a solely anti-communist platform to include fervent opposition to abortion, homosexuality, the ERA, and sex education.
The latter was particularly concerning to the Birch Society. Like the evangelicals, Miller reports that they saw progressives as working to “subvert the morals of children for communist subjugation” and took aim at SIECUS (the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States) for “usurping parental responsibility for the education of children.”
This cry—echoed fifty years later by parents who believe that public schools are undermining their rights by “teaching pornography” and “divisive concepts” like Critical Race Theory to their students—illustrates how deeply the Birchers’ ideas have integrated into contemporary rightwing ideology. From calls for small government, lower taxes, and reduced immigration, to opposition to abortion, marriage equality, and trans rights, to support for white supremacy and police authority, the ideas popularized by Robert Welch and the John Birch Society have become a foundational cornerstone for both the secular and religious right.
A Conspiratorial Life highlights these intersections and provides a deep, thoughtful, and accessible account of Welch’s lasting hold on U.S. politics. While the group maintains an office in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Senator Joe McCarthy is buried, its presence has greatly diminished. Yet the ideals it championed continue to resonate among many on the right, and the intellectual shadow it cast can still be found in virtually every rightwing organization and media outlet.
In fact, fake news and the intentional distortion of facts may be Welch’s most enduring and festering legacy.
As Miller writes, “The ideas of the John Birch Society paved the way for conservatives of the 20th century, shaped events in the 21st century, and will continue to do so far into the future.”
Eleanor J. Bader is an award-winning New York City-based freelance writer who covers domestic social issues including education, hunger and homelessness, anti-poverty organizing, and movements for gender and reproductive justice.