Sign from the John Birch Society advocating US withdrawal from the United Nations (TheZachMorrisExperience via Wikimedia Commons)

The search for the origin story of modern conservatism has taken many routes. Some historians have found it in the 1930s, when a truculent right, led by figures such as Herbert Hoover and Robert McCormick, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, warned that the true dictator was not Adolf Hitler but Franklin D. Roosevelt. Others have pointed to the early 1950s and the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy and his defenders at William F. Buckley Jr.’s fledgling magazine, National Review.

Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right by Matthew Dallek Basic Books, 384 pp.

Now comes Matthew Dallek to argue that the John Birch Society, formerly dismissed as a bunch of kooks, was a key influence in the formation of the political right. Dallek, a professor at George Washington University, has waded through thousands of documents to offer a compelling and richly detailed account of the society’s activities in the 1960s. His new book, Birchers, maintains that the group was the ultimate counter-establishment movement on the right and that many of its themes were later adopted and mainstreamed by Donald Trump.

The John Birch Society founder, Robert H. W. Welch Jr., was a Harvard Law School graduate and wealthy candy manufacturer from Belmont, Massachusetts. He pinned the blame for what he saw as America’s decline on Woodrow Wilson, who had, in Welch’s words, set “this nation on its road to totalitarianism.” The New Deal heightened the peril. Welch had a charitable view of Hitler and the Nazis, and believed that communism was the real threat to America. He opposed entry into World War II and joined the America First movement. In 1941, he wrote The Road to Salesmanship, which bemoaned federal intrusions into the free market. 

After the war, Welch railed against federal agencies, global financiers, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the UN, which he believed represented sinister forces out to destroy American free enterprise and liberty. In 1954, he wrote The Life of John Birch, a biography of a U.S. Army intelligence officer who was killed in Mao Zedong’s communist insurgency in 1945. Welch was convinced that the State Department was engaged in a cover-up of the killing by officials sympathetic to Mao. He hoped that President Dwight D. Eisenhower would stymie the worldwide communist revolution, but he lost faith in the GOP after his hero McCarthy was censured by the Senate. In his book The Politician, Welch speculated that Eisenhower might be a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” According to Dallek, “Welch’s conspiratorial understanding of American life had escalated, and he now concluded that the true allegiance of some of America’s leaders was to the Communist Party, not to the Constitution.”

In December 1958, Welch met for two days at an Indianapolis motel with 11 friends, several of whom had served on the powerful National Association of Manufacturers, to launch a new organization that would educate the public about the communist conspiracy. Despite their wealth and influence, these businessmen saw themselves as victims of a cabal of shadowy elites. They were enraged by what they viewed as Eisenhower’s fecklessness in the face of the communist threat and his support for racial integration. Eisenhower and his fellow Republican establishment grandees quickly became the Birchers’ target. “The John Birch Society,” Dallek writes, “functioned as a third-party force within the larger American polity that sought to erode the perceived national consensus and remap the political geography of Eisenhower’s America.” 

One industrialist who espoused the Birch credo was Fred Koch. In the 1930s, Koch had built oil refineries in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and in Hitler’s Germany. He was horrified by the former but warmed to the latter. “Koch,” Dallek writes, “thought the people in fascist nations were better off and more motivated to work hard than in countries where a central government had established a safety net for workers.” A militant anticommunist, Koch played a decisive role in spreading the Birch gospel throughout the Midwest in the late 1950s.

Formerly dismissed as a bunch of kooks, the John Birch Society “functioned as a third-party force within the larger American polity that sought to erode the perceived national consensus and remap the political geography of Eisenhower’s America,” Dallek writes.

Welch capitalized on current events to heighten the group’s influence. Dallek explains that Welch—emulating the communists he feared—created cells of 20 members at the local level and established front groups, including the Committee Against Summit Entanglements, which denounced Eisenhower’s diplomacy with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Leading figures on the right ranging from Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to Buckley signed the committee’s letter decrying a summit with the Soviets and reminding readers that the Cold War was “a war to the death.” 

By 1959, the movement had started to attract support outside the world of senior business leaders, and boasted 82 chapters nationally. These local chapters disseminated books, pamphlets, and films touting the “Americanist” faith, and conducted petition drives and letter-writing campaigns to pressure public libraries and businesses to sign on to the society’s anticommunist crusade. The biggest campaign, launched in early 1961, demanded the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren for promoting racial desegregation.

As the Birchers gained a higher profile, John F. Kennedy’s administration sought to exploit their new prominence as a handy political foil. Matters came to a head when Major General Edwin A. Walker, the commander of an infantry division in West Germany, was found to be instructing his men in the society’s teachings. (He also stated that everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to President Harry S. Truman was “definitely pink.”) After an investigation, Walker resigned in 1961 and went on to take a leading role in opposing desegregation in the South. Numerous Republican legislators defended him, while Kennedy urged Americans to shun “counsels of fear and suspicion.”

For the GOP and many conservative intellectuals, the Birchers offered a tempting source of support. Dallek emphasizes that though Buckley has been praised for breaking with the Birchers in separate editorials in 1961 and 1962, he tried to walk a careful line—disavowing Welch’s lunacy while praising the movement’s foot soldiers. (In 1962, Buckley said, “I don’t think in my life I have made a single unfavorable reference to any members of the John Birch Society.”) Goldwater, for his part, called the Birchers “fine citizens.” Fine citizens? In the summer of 1964, Revilo P. Oliver, a member of the society’s ruling council who had written a widely condemned essay about the assassination of Kennedy called “Marxsmanship in Dallas,” stood on a brightly lit stage, a large American flag behind him, and told 1,300 Orange County residents about the “profound biological differences between human races.” 

The society began to splinter after the failure of George Wallace’s American Independent Party campaign for the presidency in 1968. According to Dallek, “by around 1970 the movement seemed more open to joining the ranks of white supremacists” and hitched its wagon to Lester Maddox, the racist governor of Georgia.

In Dallek’s view, the Birchers inspired a political tradition based on explicit racism and conspiracy theories that laid the groundwork first for the Tea Party, then Trump. But the truth is that the Birchers probably did more to sustain these impulses than they did to invent them. Non-interventionism, a belief in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race, and a suspicion of democracy were hallmarks of the right during the 1930s, when foes of the New Deal publicly declared that democracy was synonymous with communism. Still, Dallek deserves high praise for disinterring the history of the movement in such minute detail. He amply demonstrates that the conspiracism and hate propagated by the Birchers helped lay the groundwork for the MAGA movement decades later.

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Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.