A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism, by Northeastern University professor Edward H. Miller is an engaging and penetrating dive into the enduring influence of the John Birch Society and the group’s founder Robert Welch, a successful Massachusetts-based candy company executive. “The ideas of the John Birch Society paved the way for the conservatism of the 20th century,” Miller writes, “shaped events in the twenty-first century, and will continue to do so far into the future.”
Along with the desire for small government, low personal and corporate taxation, and law-and-order, at its peak the John Birch Society (JBS) reached into countless homes through its American Opinion magazine. In addition, Miller writes that by 1976, The Birch Log column written by JBS public relations director John McManus was syndicated in 140 newspapers, and JBS member Alan Stang’s radio program was aired by 117 stations.
Famous Birchers include anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly; evangelical Christian writer Tim LaHaye; Concerned Women for America founder Beverly LaHaye; and petrochemical oligarch Fred Koch, whose son Charles continues to bankroll and promote many of today’s libertarian and rightwing movements.
What’s more, as Chip Berlet and others for Political Research Associates have covered in the past, resurgences of the John Birch Society tap into populism, a trend that periodically surfaces during times of cultural and demographic upheaval.
Miller spoke to PRA’s Eleanor J. Bader in mid-March.
PRA: Let’s start by talking about your research. No one had written a full-scale biography of Robert Welch. Did you interview former JBS members, visit archives, peruse JBS material, or…?
Edward H. Miller: After writing Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy, a monograph published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015, I really wanted to focus on a life, and I was able to collect the personal papers of Robert Welch. These documents were an incredible source of information about his life and work. I also spoke to a few JBS members to set the scene. Lastly, the archives at the John Hay Library at Brown University had an amazing amount of material. The story I heard about the collection at Brown is that the JBS tossed some of their papers into a dumpster, but someone found them, pulled everything out, and brought the boxes to Brown.* The collection was literally saved from the ashcan of history.
*Chip Berlet and Political Research Associates (PRA) have a role in this story: PRA retrieved the list of the 1987 members of the far-right JBS from dumpsters when the society moved offices. Although this act of retrieval may represent the best way to obtain information about members, the opportunity for obtaining such lists makes it a less desirable method of data collection. In addition, the reliability of the data from these groups is not known and there may be biases in these data.
Do you think Welch’s conspiratorial beliefs were a result of his southern family’s resentment over the Civil War?
There were many reasons for Welch’s conspiratorial thinking, including his penchant for secrecy as a candyman. You can’t patent a candy bar recipe, and many candy manufacturers are paranoid about others finding out about a product. But Welch’s ancestors certainly feared that President Lincoln would take away their slaves, and even though Robert later had relationships with several African Americans—there were even some all-Black chapters of the JBS—he saw the Civil Rights Movement as a communist plot.
He also saw communists under every rock and seemed to believe that Russia would overtake the US. Where did that come from?
Welch believed the Russians were already here and were becoming a stronger and stronger presence in the country. This was one of his differences with National Review founder William F. Buckley, who felt that the threat from Russia came from [outside]. Welch thought the problem was coming from within, from Russian spies and infiltrators, which is why he extolled Joseph McCarthy as a national treasure. He thought many folks, including Dwight Eisenhower, had fallen sway to the Red Menace. When Eisenhower decided not to roll back New Deal social programs, Welch believed the Kremlin was behind the decision. He really believed the U.S. was being out-maneuvered and that communists were running the U.S. government.
Wasn’t Welch also influenced by economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who advocated laissez-faire capitalism?
Ludwig von Mises was to the right of Hayek but both men wanted government to allow businesses to operate as freely as a bucking stallion. Welch agreed.
This idea has carried into the present, especially when it comes to tax policy. Welch helped birth Reagan’s tax cuts, and this is one of his lasting contributions to the libertarian right. As far back as the 1950s, Welch and JBS sought tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy and promoted this as socially beneficial.
Why did Fred Koch and others find Welch’s ideas so appealing that they became founding JBS members?
When Welch gave the speech [in the Indianapolis home of Marguerite Dice, the national vice chair of the Minute Women of the United States] that led these men to form the JBS in 1958, attendees included a retired Army colonel, a past president of the National Association of Manufacturers, and several other business leaders. They believed Welch had something important to say about the spiritual life of the country. Welch argued convincingly that work needed to start locally, in the schools. He wanted people to become active in their PTAs. This is similar to today’s right-wing push for parental rights. He also believed that if the U.S. didn’t act fast, the country would become like Europe, where natural rights—life, liberty, and property—were no longer credited to God. Furthermore, Welch hated the European social programs that had been embraced in the post-war years, and felt that programs like ‘socialized medicine’ would be calamitous for the U.S.
Sex ed also riled JBS members up, and they set their sights on Mary Calderone, founder of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (now called SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change), who they painted as brainwashing children to favor collectivism.
The crusade against sex ed, like the so-called War on Christmas that Welch railed against, have proven to be evergreen issues for the Right.
What do you consider Welch’s greatest strength?
Welch was a master organizer. Although he lost his first race for public office in 1950, he knew the importance of having people working on the ground. He sold his books to friends, who sold and distributed them to their friends. The allure was that they acted as if they were doing something that needed to be kept secret. And that can be a lot of fun.
Welch could be both rigid and flexible. He moved the organization from a sole focus on resisting communism to embracing issues that drove the New Right in the 1970s: abortion, taxation, anti-ERA, sex education, support for local police. He could write quickly and well, and he could be charming and charismatic. He also realized, as I wrote, that “battling the enemy was captivating. It involved elements of fun and mystery and danger.” This helped build the JBS.
The JBS also had a slew of front groups to lure unsuspecting folks into the organization.
They did. They also used their publications. JBS published the American Opinion magazine and ran American Opinion bookstores in every part of the country. You could find the magazine in the bake shop and the public library, and it appeared really innocuous. The cover was always a tad deceptive—a boy and his dog fishing or something equally wholesome. Inside, however, the articles would cover the threat of Communism, the menace of newly arriving immigrants, the War on Christmas, or their campaign to boot Earl Warren from the Supreme Court because he’d written the majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that led to the racial integration of public schools.
Emphasizing the intersections between issues seemed pretty important to JBS, with social issues revolving around an anti-communist hub.
Jack McManus, JBS’s longtime PR person, was the most vehement antiabortion person in the group, and he pushed members to oppose reproductive choice. It was also an issue that they felt they could win with. It helped bridge theological differences since everyone understood that if they could get their preferred candidates elected, they could get their agendas on taxation, business regulation, and social issues passed despite religious disagreements. This explains evangelical support for Trump.
Welch referred to feminists as “feminoids,” or female hemorrhoids. Did his wife ever object to his misogyny?
Everything I came across presented his wife Marion as fully dedicated to him. All of their property, everything they owned, was dedicated to the JBS, and while he left Marion the house when he died, he donated millions of dollars to the Society. As far as I can tell, both of them were genuine believers in the fight being waged.
Why do you think the JBS eventually sputtered out?
Even though the group had a lot of followers, after Robert Welch’s death, the organization began to decline. The master organizer was no longer around. The organization is still around today, headquartered in Appleton, Wisconsin, but lots of other organizations have picked up the JBS mantle and are now promoting at least some of its ideas. But although Robert Welch is no longer with us, his ideas are everywhere, especially in contemporary Republican politics.