The John Birch Society pushed a darker, more conspiratorial politics in the ’50s and ’60s — and looms large over today’s GOP, argues historian Matthew Dallek.
On December 8, 1958, a group of 12 well-to-do businessmen gathered in the living room of an upscale, Tudor-style home in Indianapolis, Indiana, to save the United States from an imminent communist takeover.
Or at least that’s what the group’s host — a former candy manufacturing executive turned anti-communist agitator named Robert W. Welch Jr. — told them they were there to do.
Welch had summoned the group to recruit them for a new organization dedicated to exposing what he believed to be a far-reaching communist plot to overthrow the US government. According to Welch, communist agents had infiltrated every level of the government and had seized control of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Even Dwight Eisenhower, the former five-star general who had cruised to a second term in the White House as a moderate Republican in 1956, was suspected of being a communist agent.
What was needed to combat this massive plot, Welch told the group, was a new “national education program,” via pamphlets, speeches, and the like, that could teach average Americans about the communist threat. The men enthusiastically agreed, and they resolved to serve as the vanguard of that movement.
They called themselves the John Birch Society, taking their name from a Baptist missionary who had been killed in China by communist forces in 1945 — the first recognized casualty of the nascent Cold War.
As the historian Matthew Dallek documents in his new book, Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the Far Right, the group would go on to grow from a small club of far-right businessmen into a sprawling, nationwide organization that claimed up to 100,000 members across hundreds of state and local chapters. Over time, the John Birch Society would leave its imprint on the Republican Party, pushing it to embrace more hardline positions on anti-communism, white supremacy, isolationism, and nativism.
Six decades after that initial gathering in Indianapolis, it’s tempting to conclude that the Birchers accomplished that mission. Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, many historians and pundits have pointed to the history of the John Birch Society as the throughline that connects Trumpism to the birth of the conservative movement, casting Trump as the logical culmination of the movement rather than as its gravedigger.
But according to Dallek, who studies the history of American conservatism at George Washington University, the story of the Birchers’ role in the radicalization of the GOP is a bit more complicated.
“What I’ve tried to do is to draw not too straight a line from the 1950s to today, and to show — as historians try to do — that the radicalization of the GOP was contingent,” Dallek told me when I spoke with him recently. The Birchers’ ideas “were not really ripe in 1970 or [the] ’80s or ’90s, but they became ripe in the past 15 years. They were there for the taking, and as we know, people took them up and ran with them in very powerful ways.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Historians sometimes cite the John Birch Society as an early instance of far-right populism, but the men who formed the society in 1958 were hardly marginal figures within American society. Who were the group’s founders?
The founders were a group of 12 men — all men — and almost all of them were very wealthy industrialists. Many of them knew each other from their time together in the National Association of Manufacturers, and they admired Robert Welch as a truth-teller who was speaking out about the communist threat inside the United States. They had one foot very much planted in the mainstream, and they had benefited enormously from the rules and arrangements of the mid-20th-century capitalist system.
The great irony, of course, is that they viewed themselves as outsiders. They were colossi bestriding the world, but they also saw themselves as dissidents who were being hounded on the margins of the dominant ideas in America.
Who did the founders see as their target audience, especially in the organization’s early days?
Initially, their vision was to recruit “A1 men” — other men like them. Welch at one point said, “I do not want to recruit people who think differently from us. I don’t want it to be a debating society.” So the initial recruits tended to be wealthy, white, and mostly men, although Welch realized the value of women members early on.
Within the first couple of years, though, they slowly widened their recruitment, and they began to recruit more professionals: upwardly mobile, middle-class doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers, and the like.
How did the founders relate to the Republican Party?
It was a very complicated relationship. Some of them viewed the Eisenhower Republican Party as one of the greatest threats to the country. Welch wrote in a letter to his friends that Dwight Eisenhower was a dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy. Looking back to what happened to Joe McCarthy and to Robert Taft — two of their heroes — they saw the modern Republican Party as un-American.
But they had a relationship with the GOP. Welch ran for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts as a Republican in 1950. Bill Grede, who was an industrialist from Wisconsin and a founding member of the society, had fundraised for Eisenhower’s campaign in 1956 and served on a labor management committee that was appointed by Eisenhower.
What sort of tactics did the Birchers use in their early days to mobilize the conservative grassroots outside of the party apparatus of the GOP?
Their mission throughout the 1960s was to try to educate the American people about the communist conspiracy, and many of the Birchers — not all, but many — were suspicious of the two-party system.
They didn’t like democracy, and they believed the only way to save the country was through a kind of shock education — through controlling the kinds of texts that kids and college students and other Americans were exposed to — and through direct action: setting up front groups and committees that could attack what they saw as the weak points in the communist line.
For example, they set up the Committee Against Summit Entanglements, which was a direct action protest against the Khrushchev-Eisenhower summit in 1959, and they set up the campaign to impeach Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, because they saw Warren as a communist.
So it was a combination of trying to create a space where they could spread an alternative message about this alleged conspiracy, but also to shock their enemies and mobilize the public to attack what they saw as their communist foes.
The Birchers gradually became more willing to work within Republican Party politics in the early 1960s. They were involved, for instance, in the 1962 midterm campaigns, and many of them supported Barry Goldwater’s campaign for president in 1964. What convinced them that they could work within Republican politics?
I think a lot of them did see being active in Republican politics as a viable path because they had longstanding Republican ties, and some of them saw the Republican Party as an anti-big government vehicle. But they also flirted with third parties as well. That third-party option rarely went off the table, even if they never fully pursued it.
Also, because of their orientation, the Birchers were very careful to say, “Wait a second, we are not officially endorsing anybody, even though we know — wink, wink — that everyone’s going for Goldwater.” But Goldwater did inspire a lot of them. Arizona had a lot of Birchers, and Goldwater said some nice things about the Birchers being decent people, even as he was criticizing Welch. They saw a lot to like in his policies, but it was never a very comfortable fit.
There’s a famous episode in conservative history where William F. Buckley Jr. — the editor of National Review and the intellectual godfather of modern conservatism — “excommunicated” the Birchers through a series of critical editorials in National Review. That episode has become a sort of symbol of so-called “responsible Republicans” policing their right flank from incursions by more fringe movements — but you argue that that story leaves something important out.
Several very good historians have started to argue over the past 10 years that the idea that Buckley excommunicated the Birchers and police the boundaries of the conservative movement is a myth — and I basically agree with that take.
Buckley was in a real bind. On the one hand, he had relationships and rapport with a number of fringe figures, including some Birchers. Buckley realized that a lot of Birch members were real conservatives. They were subscribers to National Review. Buckley’s mother supported the Birch Society.
At the same time, though, Buckley did think that Welch and his cockamamie conspiracy theories about Eisenhower and fluoridation in the water supply were not helpful to the conservative cause. Much of his fire was concentrated on Welch in particular.
But Buckley and his colleagues at National Review did struggle with what to say and how to react to the Birchers. Some of them said, “We do need to push back harder,” but others said — and Buckley himself said — “When did I call them kooks? I never said that.”
In the process, Buckley alienated a lot of Bircher leaders, even as he was saying, “I didn’t criticize all Birchers.” A lot of them said that Buckley was doing damage to the conservative cause and to the unity of conservatism.
Even as their influence faded in the 1970s, the Birchers’ ideological legacy was clear, both in the groups that took up its ideological mantle, like the Moral Majority and George Wallace’s American Independent Party, and in the Republican Party’s gradual drift toward a more conspiratorial style of politics.
But what has been the Birchers’ primary legacy at the level of political tactics and strategy?
One of their big tactical legacies is rhetorical. It’s what I described as an apocalyptic mindset — the sense that liberals and establishment Republicans are not just those with a difference of opinion about policy.
The Birchers helped to entrench this idea that the establishment was the enemy, that the institutional arrangements in American politics and American society were stacked against true Americans. That was a rhetorical strategy that you see some hardline Republicans pick up on intermittently.
On top of that, I do think that the Birchers helped show the power of shocking grassroots direct action taken up against a single cause —like Obamacare or gun rights or gay marriage or abortion. The Birchers showed that this could be quite effective at mobilizing people, and that a relatively small number of people who are 110 percent devoted to a cause can have an outsize impact — and maybe even a much greater impact than even hundreds of thousands of voters.
Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, some historians have looked back at groups like the Birchers and said, “We ignored these groups for too long, but they’ve always been at the core of the conservative movement.” You push back against that reading a bit in the book. Why?
There is a risk of flattening out the history. What I’ve tried to do is to draw not too straight a line from the 1950s to today, and to show — as historians try to do — that the radicalization of the GOP was contingent.
I also think that by giving the fringe too much credit in the last third of the 20th century, we risk distorting the tensions within the Republican Party, as well as twisting what the Republican Party and mainstream conservatives stood for.
On some issues, the fringe and the Republican establishment aligned, especially on culture war issues. But most of the time, the Birchers and their successors were very frustrated. They loathed Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and some Birchers even said that Ronald Reagan was never to be trusted. On immigration reform, on internationalism, on military interventions, on free trade agreements, on conspiracy theories, and on the degree of explicit racism versus more coded or implicit racism, there were significant fissures.
So even though the fringe was part of the Republican coalition — especially during campaigns — we don’t want to oversell their power historically. The MAGA phenomenon is a more recent development, and I try to explain how our contemporary far right essentially adopted the Birchers’ ideological legacy as an alternative political tradition and eventually took over the Republican Party.
In the book, you cite a statement from Gordon Hall, an expert on extremist groups and a critic of the Birchers, who said, “No one loves America more than the John Birch Society and no one understands it less.” From our vantage point today, I’m inclined to flip that expression around and say that no one respected American democracy less than the Birchers but understood its weaknesses better.
Do you think that’s a fair analysis?
I think that’s an interesting way to put it. The Birchers had a slogan that said, “We’re a republic, not a democracy. Let’s keep it that way.” That meant different things to different people, but they were quite opposed to the idea of multiracial democracy. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s recent comments and tweets about getting a “national divorce” and eviscerating the federal government — that does hark back to this Bircher idea that, “Hey, we’re a republic.”
I think that what Gordon Hall and a lot of liberal observers got wrong, especially over time, are the ways in which the Birch ideas were still very much alive in the country. They were not really ripe in 1970 or [the] ’80s or ’90s, but they became ripe in the past 15 years. They were there for the taking, and as we know, people took them up and ran with them in very powerful ways.
So I think that liberals forgot about the far-right opponents of democracy and of civil rights and voting rights. They were a more powerful presence than a lot of people acknowledged for many, many years — but now they’re easier to see.