The present article is based in part on a paper Mr. Westin read last June before the plenary session of the National Community Relations Advisory Council in Washington, D.C.
Last April, the Gallup Poll asked a nationwide sample of Americans whether they had heard of the John Birch Society and found that thirty-nine million persons—an extraordinary number, according to Gallup—had read or heard of the Birchers. Of these, 47 per cent had an unfavorable estimate of the Society, 8 per cent were favorable, and 45 per cent had not yet reached a judgment. In one sense, these figures suggest a firm rejection of the Birchers by majority sentiment. But the figures also indicate that at the moment when the Society was receiving its most damaging publicity—when the mass media were featuring the charge by Birch founder Robert Welch that President Eisenhower was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”—three million persons still concluded that the Society was a commendable, patriotic, anti-Communist organization. If the undecided 45 per cent were to be divided in the same proportion as those who had reached a judgment (and this would probably underweight pro-Birch sentiment), another two and a half million persons would be added to the ranks of the approving. By this estimate it can be argued, then, that at least five and a half million Americans from among the most public-affairs conscious forty million of our adult population were favorably impressed with the John Birch Society.
One reason for this extraordinarily high degree of support is that the Birch Society has become the most appealing, activist, and efficient movement to appear on the extreme right since the fertile decade of the 1930’s. Birch membership at present is probably close to sixty thousand and is distributed widely throughout the nation, with particular strength in traditional centers of fundamentalism like Houston, Los Angeles, Nashville, Wichita, and Boston. This membership provides an annual dues income of $1,300,000. Life memberships at $1,000, special donations by wealthy supporters, and sales of Society literature add perhaps $300,000 more, giving the group a present working fund of $1,600,000 a year. By its own count, the Society has twenty-eight staff workers in its home office in Belmont, Massachusetts, thirty fully salaried and expense-paid traveling coordinators, and one hundred partially paid or volunteer coordinators. Its jabbing forefinger has already been felt in the mid-section of dozens of communities, and some commentators not prone to overestimating fringe movements warn that the Society may become an effective united front for the hundreds of right-wing groups currently operating on the American scene.
All this being the case, it is worth asking what kind of group the John Birch Society is and how it compares with traditional right-wing organizations. Why has it suddenly come into prominence at this particular moment, and what are its prospects in the decade ahead?
However much factors like urbanization, the cold war, and status insecurities may have provided a new setting for native fundamentalists, a large and irreducible corps of such people has always existed in the United States. Unlike American liberals and conservatives—who accept the political system, acknowledge the loyalty of their opponents, and employ the ordinary political techniques—the fundamentalists can be distinguished by five identifying characteristics:
- They assume that there are always solutions capable of producing international victories and of resolving our social problems; when such solutions are not found, they attribute the failure to conspiracies led by evil men and their dupes.
- They refuse to believe in the integrity and patriotism of those who lead the dominant social groups—the churches, the unions, the business community, etc.—and declare that the American “Establishment” has become part of the conspiracy.
- They reject the political system; they lash out at “politicians,” the major parties, and the give-and-take of political compromise as a betrayal of the fundamental Truth and as a circus to divert the people.
- They reject those programs for dealing with social, economic, and international problems which liberals and conservatives agree upon as minimal foundations. In their place, the fundamentalists propose drastic panaceas requiring major social change.
- To break the net of conspiracy they advocate “direct action,” sometimes in the form of a new political party, but more often through secret organization, push-button pressure campaigns, and front groups. Occasionally “direct action” will develop into hate-propaganda and calculated violence.
At various periods, the United States has experienced both left-fundamentalism (the Knights of Labor, the Wobblies, the Populists, the Communists, the Trotskyites, and the Wallace Progressives) and right-fundamentalism (the Know-Nothings, the Coughlinites, the Silver-Shirts, and America First). Today, right-fundamentalism spans a broad spectrum. At one pole, with its passionate thousands, is the “hate” right, led by the Conde McGinleys, Gerald L. K. Smiths, Admiral Crommelins, Father Terminellos, John Kaspers, and George Rockwells, who offer various combinations of anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-Negro sentiment. These groups are thoroughly discredited in contemporary America, and the major problem they present is a matter of defining the line which our law should draw between deviant expression and hate-mongering or advocacy of violence. At the opposite pole is the semi-respectable right. Here we encounter a variety of different political and educational organizations including the Foundation for Economic Education, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Committee for Constitutional Government, and the White Citizens’ Councils of the South. Socially prominent figures belong to such groups, which are well-financed, often have connections with local and national major party factions, and exercise substantial lobbying influence. Their supporters and leaders may long to break with the two-party system and start a rightist party, but they are restrained by the knowledge that this would isolate them and thus diminish their present effectiveness.
The John Birch Society stands between these two poles. In the words of one of its chapter leaders in Louisville, Kentucky, it is a “middle-of-the-road right-wing organization.” In order to get a precise picture of its ideology and tactics, I have examined every published word issued by the Society since its formation in 1958: the 1961 annotated edition of the Blue Book of the John Birch Society, its operating manual and theological fount; the monthly Bulletins which are sent to members and contain the agenda of activities (the 1960 issues of the Bulletin are available in a bound edition titled The White Book of the John Birch Society); those writings of Robert Welch which have been officially incorporated and reprinted by the Society (e.g., The Life of John Birch, May God Forgive Us, A Letter to the South on Segregation); and every issue of American Opinion, the monthly publication edited by Robert Welch for the Society.1
Measured by its official materials, the authenticated accounts of Welch’s speeches, and public comments by members of the Society’s Council, the Society emerges as a pure-bred specimen of American right-fundamentalism.
(1) Its image of world events and American politics is wholly conspiratorial. In the July 1960 Bulletin, Welch explains that the “key” to the advance of world Communism “is treason right within our government and the place to find it is right in Washington.” The danger, Welch says in the Blue Book, “is almost entirely internal.” And it is “a certainty,” he writes in May God Forgive Us, that there are “more Communists and Communist sympathizers in our government today than ever before.” As recently as January 1961, Welch was informing his supporters that “Communist influences are now in almost complete control of our Federal Government.”
Each year since 1958, Welch and his “board of experts” have published a “scoreboard” rating all the nations of the world according to the “present degree of Communist influence and control over the economic and political affairs” of the country. In 1958, the United States was rated as 20—40 per cent under Communist control; in 1959, the United States went up to 30—50 per cent; and in 1960, the figure climbed to 40—60 per cent. (At that pace, we will reach the 80—100 per cent mark in 1964.) England’s rating went from 20—40 per cent in 1958 to 50—70 per cent in 1960. Israel is presently rated as 40—60 per cent controlled; Egypt 80—100 per cent.
Everywhere, the Birchers advise, Communists are at the heart of events, even some events that might seem to less skilled observers remote from Kremlin direction. In an open letter to Khrushchev in 1958, Welch said “your hands played the decisive unseen part” in the run on American banks and their closing in 1933. It was the Communist-contrived recognition of the Soviets in 1933 that “saved them from financial collapse.” The “very idea of American foreign aid was dreamed up by Stalin, or by his agents for him.” The “trouble in the South over integration is Communist-contrived”; the Communists have invented a “phony ‘civil rights’ slogan to stir up bitterness and civil disorder, leading gradually to police-state rule by federal troops and armed resistance to that rule.” The United States Supreme Court “is one of the most important agencies of Communism.” The Federal Reserve system is a “realization” of “point 5” of the Communist Manifesto, calling for centralization of credit in the hands of the state. The purpose of proposed legislation requiring registration of privately-owned firearms is to aid the Communists in making “ultimate seizure of such by the government easier and more complete.” Everywhere, Welch concludes, the Communists are winning: in “the press, the pulpit, the radio and television media, the labor unions, the schools, the courts, and the legislative halls of America.”
All the above descriptions of conspiratorial trends have been cited from official Birch Society literature, what Welch calls the Society’s “steps to the Truth.” But the picture grows darker when one turns to the Black Book, or, as it is more commonly known, The Politician—the book-length “letter” which Welch circulated “privately” to hundreds of persons but which the Society has carefully rejected as an official document. The Politician is to the Society what Leninist dogma is to the Communist front groups in Western or neutralist nations—it is the ultimate truth held by the founder and his hard-core, but it is too advanced and too powerful to present, as yet, to the “masses” being led. In The Politician, Welch names names. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower; Secretary of State John Foster Dulles; CIA Director Allen Dulles; Chief Justice Warren—all of these men are called knowing instruments of the Communist conspiracy.
It is worth noting that Eisenhower and his administration draw the strongest venom in The Politician, just as Social Democracts do in full-dose Communist literature. For Welch (a Taft supporter and McCarthy stalwart), the Eisenhower administration was a betrayal which could only have had Communists at its source. “For many reasons and after a lot of study,” Welch writes, “I personally believe [John Foster] Dulles to be a Communist agent.” “Allen Dulles is the most protected and untouchable supporter of Communism, next to Eisenhower himself, in Washington.” Arthur H. Burns’s job as head of the Council of Economic Advisers “has been merely a cover-up for Burns’s liaison work between Eisenhower and some of his Communist bossess.” “The chances are very strong that Milton Eisenhower is actually Dwight Eisenhower’s superior and boss within the Communist Party.” As for Dwight Eisenhower himself, Welch states unequivocally: “There is only one possible word to describe [Eisenhower’s] purpose and actions. That word is treason.” “My firm belief that Dwight Eisenhower is a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” he continues, “is based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.” Discussing what he terms Eisenhower’s “mentality of fanaticism,” Welch refuses to accept the idea that Ike may just be an “opportunistic politician” aiding the Communists. “I personally think he has been sympathetic to ultimate Communist aims, realistically willing to use Communist means to help them achieve their goals, knowingly accepting and abiding by Communist orders, and consciously serving the Communist conspiracy for all of his adult fife.”
(2) The Birchers impugn the integrity and patriotism of those at the head of the major social and economic groups of the nation. In a supplement to the February 1961 Bulletin, Welch announced that “Communist influences” are “very powerful in the top echelons of our educational system, our labor-union organizations, many of our religious organizations, and of almost every important segment of our national life. Insidiously but rapidly the Communists are now reaching the tentacles of their conspiracy downward throughout the whole social, economic, and political pyramid.” Thus, the National Council of Churches of Christ is Communist-minded, and from 3 to 5 per cent of the Protestant clergy have been called actual Communists. “Treason,” Welch further declares, “is widespread and rampant in our high army circles.” The American Medical Association has been “took” and can no longer be depended upon for support in the fight against socialism. So too with the United States Chamber of Commerce, which has been preaching dangerously liberal and internationalist doctrines in its courses on practical politics. (When Chamber leaders protested this slur, Welch replied that their outraged reaction was exactly like that of the State Department in the 1940’s when charges of Communist infiltration were first raised.) The leadership of our universities, corporations, foundations, communications media—all are riddled with Communists, or “Comsymps” (a word Welch coined to avoid having to say whether a given person was a real party member or only a sympathizer).
Naturally, Welch and his colleagues are certain that these “Comsymp” elites are out to destroy him and his movement. References to persecution and images of martyrdom abound in Birch literature, ranging from incessant mention of how the patron saint (Senator McCarthy) was driven to his death, to suggestions that Welch may be murdered one day by the Communists.
(3) The Birchers are convinced that the Communists have gone so far in penetrating American politics that there is little hope in the existing political system. In his letter to Khrushchev, Welch wrote that the Communists obviously intended to “maintain and increase [their] working control over both our major political parties.” We cannot count on “politicians, political leadership or even political action.” Though he advocates the nomination, on an American Party ticket, of Senator Barry Goldwater for President and J. Strom Thurmond for Vice President in 1964, Welch has warned his followers that even Goldwater—the most “Americanist” figure around in politics at the moment—is “still a politician” and therefore not to be relied upon. Welch has also had some things to say about “Jumping Jack” Kennedy. According to Welch, the nation received “the exact Communist line . . . from Jack Kennedy’s speeches, as quickly and faithfully as from the Worker or the National Guardian. . . .” And in 1959, Welch denounced the “Kennedy brat” for “finding the courage to join the jackals picking at the corpse of McCarthy.”
A particularly revealing sample of Welch’s sense of American political realities is found in his description of the Eisenhower “steal” of the Republican nomination in 1952, one of the “dirtiest deals in American political history, participated in if not actually engineered by Richard Nixon.” If Taft had not been cheated of the nomination, Welch predicted:
It is almost certain that Taft would then have been elected President by a far greater plurality than was Eisenhower, that a grand rout of the Communists in our government and in our midst would have been started, that McCarthy would be alive today, and that we wouldn’t even be in this mess. . . .
(4) Most of the Birch Society’s positive program consists of advocating the repeal of things or the removal of the nation from something or somewhere. A partial” list of the things that the Society describes as wicked, Communist, and dangerous includes: U.S. membership in the United Nations, the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Trade Organization, and UNICEF; membership in GATT (the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs); reciprocal trade agreements; the “useless and costly” NATO; “so-called defense spending”; all foreign aid; diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and all other Communist nations; the National Labor Relations Act; social security; the graduated income tax; the Rural Electrification Administration, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and TVA; government wage and price controls; “forced integration”; “deliberately fraudulent” U.S. government bonds; the Federal Reserve system; urban renewal; fluoridation; metro government; the corporate dividend tax; the “mental health racket”; federal aid to housing; and all programs “regimenting” farmers.
Some items on this list may be opposed by conservatives or by liberals. But taken together, it adds up to a nihilist’s plea for the repeal of industrialism and the abolition of international politics. Such a program can be called rational or even political only by people who do not know what those words mean.
(5) Finally, the Birch Society advocates both “direct action” and “dirty tactics” to “break the grip of the Communist conspiracy.” Unlike those right-fundamentalist groups which have energetic leaders but passive memberships, the Birchers are decidedly activist. “Get to work or learn to talk Russian,” is a slogan Welch recommends to his followers, and they are certainly hard at work. From national headquarters in Belmont, Massachusetts, Welch formulates a set of complementary national and local action programs, then issues them to members through directives in the Bulletin and contacts with chapter leaders. A mixture of traditional and fundamentalist techniques is prescribed. The local programs include infiltration of community organizations such as PTA (“to take them away from the Communists”); harassment of “pro-Communist” speakers at church meetings, political gatherings, and public forums; creation of local front groups (e.g., the Committee Against Summit Entanglements, College Graduates Against Educating Traitors at Government Expense, the Committee to Impeach Earl Warren, and the Committee to Investigate Communist Influences at Vassar College); campaigns to secure endorsement of Birch positions and signatures for Birch petitions in all groups that Birch members belong to (e.g., veterans and business organizations); letters and telephone calls to local public officials, leading citizens, and newspapers who support what the Society opposes or oppose the Society directly; monthly telephone calls to the local public library to make sure it has copies of the five right-wing books recommended by Welch every month.
The national campaigns are carefully pinpointed efforts. They range from letter-and postcard-writing to national advertising campaigns. In the past two years, Birchers have been told to: write the National Boy Scouts director and demand to know why the president of the National Council of Churches addressed their National Jamboree; insist personally and in writing each time a member flies American, United, or Eastern Airlines that they stock Human Events and National Review on their planes; write to Newsweek to protest a “pro-FLN Communist” story (the Society has a crush on Jacques Soustelle), to Life protesting the “glorification” of Charles Van Doren, and to the NBC network and the Purex Corporation for sponsoring a TV drama favorable to Sacco and Vanzetti; circulate petitions and write letters on the number one project of the moment, to impeach Chief Justice Warren and thereby “give the Communists a setback.” Welch also sends out the copy for punchy postcards to be addressed to national political leaders. To cite instances in 1960 alone: to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. at the UN, “Two questions, Mr. Lodge—Who Murdered Bang-Jensen? And Which Side are You On?”; to Secretary of State Christian Herter, “Castro is a Communist. Trujillo is an anti-Communist. Whose Side are You On?”; and to President Eisenhower, on the eve of the scheduled summit conference, “Dear President Eisenhower—If you go, don’t come back.”
The last postcard stirred some protests from Society members, who felt that Welch’s savage little message to the President was a bit too strong. Welch set them straight in the Bulletin: “It is one of our many sorrows that, in fighting the evil forces which now threaten our civilization, for us to be too civilized is unquestionably to be defeated.” The Communists, he continued, want us to be “too gentle, too respectable . . . [but] this is not a cream-puff war . . . and we do mean business every step of the way.” Welch admitted that the technique of planted and loaded questions and the disruption of meetings was a “dirty trick,” but he still defended it as another vital tactic.
To stimulate compliance by members with the local and national efforts prescribed each month in the Bulletin, Welch has devised the MMM system, or “Member’s Monthly Memos.” These forms are filled out by the member detailing what he or she has done and including sundry observations on the “Americanist fight.” They are then collected by the chapter leader and transmitted to Belmont. Welch and his staff, according to the Bulletin, spend much time going over the MMM’s.
So far, the Birch Society has been successful in attracting to it some highly substantial figures in local communities—physicians, stockbrokers, retired military officers, lawyers, businessmen (particularly small and middle-sized manufacturers in the Midwest and South), and professionals, many of whom have become local chapter leaders and state coordinators. The Council of the Society is a veritable board of directors of right-fundamentalism: men like Colonel Lawrence Bunker, Cola G. Parker, T. Coleman Andrews, Clarence Manion, and Spruille Braden. Among the contributing editors and editorial advisory committee for American Opinion are J. B. Matthews, William S. Schlamm, Kenneth Colegrove, J. Bracken Lee, Ludwig von Mises, Adolph Menjou, J. Howard Pew, and Albert C. Wedemeyer. In several communities, observers of the Society have noted a significant number of thirty-to-forty-year-olds joining the organization. Welch has stated that half of the Society’s membership is Catholic, that there are some Jewish members, and that there are Negroes also—two segregated locals in the South and integrated chapters in the North.
Press reports suggest that most of the Society’s members already had strong affiliations with other right-wing groups before the Birch Society was formed. What Welch hopes to do is build a one-million member organization by welding together the masses of right-fundamentalist joiners into the fighting educational and pressure arm of the John Birch Society. In the Bulletin and American Opinion, Welch continually offers flattering salutes to various right-wing groups, publications, and personalities, stressing that “Americanists” can work in several forums at once for the cause. In May 1961, for example, Welch listed two pages of “other anti-Communist groups” which he endorsed and urged Birchers to support. These included the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, the American Council of Christian Laymen, the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation, the Catholic Freedom Foundation, the Christian Crusade, the Freedom Club (of Los Angeles), Freedom in Action (Houston), the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, the Network of Patriotic Letter Writers (Pasadena), and We, The People! (Chicago). In turn, Welch’s appearances are often sponsored by such groups: the Freedom Club of Reverend James Fifield arranged his Los Angeles rally, and the Sons of the American Revolution sponsored his Houston appearance.
To a large extent, Welch’s personal selflessness and his salesmanship have already made him a rallying point for the fundamentalist right, and no recent right-wing group comes to mind which has achieved so large and solid a dues-paying and working membership. In a world of Communist advances in Asia and Africa, pressures on Berlin, vast changes in the relation of white to colored populations throughout the world, the Birch Society has developed a thoroughly satisfying way for the thin-lipped little lady from Wichita or the self-made manufacturer of plumbing fixtures in North Carolina to work in manageable little daily doses against “the Communists.” The cancer of the unquestioned international Communist menace and the surgery of local pressure on the PTA and public library—here is a perfect appeal for right fundamentalism. This highlights the fact that the Society’s most successful efforts to date have not been on the national scene but on the “soft underbelly” of American democracy—those places where a minimum of pressure can often produce maximum terror and restrictive responses. Welch has stressed that school boards, city colleges, local businesses, local clergy, and similar targets are the ones to concentrate on. Above all, Welch has brought coordination to the fundamentalist right—coordinated targets, coordinated meetings and rallies, and coordinated pressure tactics. “All of a sudden,” the director of a Jewish Community Council in one city reflected, “the right wingers began to function like a disciplined platoon. We have had to contend with precision and saturation ever since.”
If this is what the Society advocates and how it functions, what are its immediate and long-range prospects? In the short run, the Society has lost one of its most potent weapons—the element of secrecy. Those in local communities who felt the sting of Birch campaigns during 1959—61 report that it was the factor of surprise at these sudden fundamentalist pressures and the unawareness of their organizational source which threw them off balance. Now, however, the Society has been brought into public view. Its authoritarian character and extremist statements have been attacked in both liberal and conservative newspapers; by important Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish leaders; and by political figures as diverse as Richard Nixon, President John Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Representative Sam Rayburn, Senator Thomas E. Dodd, and even Senator Barry Goldwater himself. The fact that a prominent leader of the Society who had been chosen as Washington lobbyist for the American Retail Federation was hastily discarded in June by the Federation because of his Birch affiliation indicates that recent publicity has damaged the Society’s claim to respectability. One Midwestern Congressman known for his open advocacy of right-wing movements felt it wise recently to seek out liberal leaders from his community and explain privately that he did not support the Birch movement. Increasingly, those “solid” figures who joined the group when it was operating privately will have to face public disapproval of the Society, and this will probably cause some falling away among border-line conservatives.
In the longer perspective, however, there are three specific factors which deserve mention in assessing the Society’s potential growth. The first is the authoritarian character of the group and the centralized control exercised by Robert Welch (a situation which has led Senator Goldwater to criticize Welch directly). According to the charter of the Society, Welch is the absolute leader; there is no accounting of dues or contributions; there is no representative process or democratic system for selecting programs or defining positions; and Welch has the power (which he has used) to expel any member or chapter for reasons sufficient to him, without right of hearing or appeal on the expulsion. This has produced widespread criticism of Welch as a “little Hitler” and the Society as a group run on fascist lines. However, Welch has stressed again and again that members can disagree with him; that he doesn’t expect any member to carry out a project which violates his conscience; and that the Society definitely opposes an “enforced conformity” within its ranks. The controls, Welch explains, are needed to prevent Communist infiltration of the Society (which he believes has already begun or will certainly begin as the Society becomes more effective) and infiltration by hate-mongers. This blend of leader-principle and group self-protection has great appeal to right-fundamentalists and even to some right-wing conservatives. The authoritarian set-up makes fine ammunition for liberal and main-stream-conservative fire, but this is not likely to harm Welch a bit in his recruiting among fundamentalists.
A second factor is Welch himself. The fantastic allegations he has made in The Politician—even though the book has not been endorsed by the Council and is, indeed, repudiated by some members—have branded him as an unbalanced figure and convinced many staunch conservatives that Welch is a truly dangerous leader. The conservative Los Angeles Times recently did a thorough exposé of the Society and wrote a stinging editorial which read Welch out of the conservative camp. Out of self-defense, Republicans in California joined in with the Times (especially in condemning Welch’s attacks on Eisenhower), for the Birchers were proving so effective in pulling the Republican party to the far right that some counterattack was felt to be essential. Welch himself has been highly equivocal about The Politician. He insists that it was a “private” letter and never published, though he does not deny its authenticity. In the May 1961 issue of the Bulletin, he alludes to “questions or criticism from some of our most loyal members” relating to The Politician. To these, he replies that “the considerations involved in connection with many such matters are varied, overlapping, involved, and with too many ramifications to be explained in short compass. There are even times when, for reasons of strategy, we take an oblique approach to a specific objective, and fully to explain every step of our course would seriously handicap our effectiveness.” Having decided not to say anything at all, Welch assured members that if he “could give . . . the whole background of events” then objections might turn into approval, and with this, he dropped the subject of his magnum opus.
Those members and leaders of the Society who find anything to criticize in The Politician (and many have fully endorsed the charges it featured) have stressed that Welch is entitled to his personal views and that their disagreement with him on Ike or the two Dulles brothers indicates how free and diverse the Society is.
In all probability Welch’s talents as an organizer, salesman, proselytizer, and unifier of right-wing ranks overweigh (for the right-wing aristocracy) his tactical blunder in The Politician. Since he controls the Society fully, he is not likely to be replaced, and, indeed, there is no indication that an acceptable replacement is available either in the Society or outside it. As long as he heads the Society, however, The Politician will severely limit his credibility outside fundamentalist strongholds.
A third factor relating to the Birch Society’s immediate prospects is the question of anti-Semitism. Repeated charges have been made that the Society is a genteel endorser of anti-Semitic persons and literature. Welch has recommended to his members such anti-Semitic publications as Russell Maguire’s American Mercury and Merwin K. Hart’s Economic Council Newsletter. Hart—who often talks about a conspiracy of “Zionists and their confederates” controlling America and whose organization was described by a Congressional committee investigating lobbying as one which relies on “an ill-concealed anti-Semitism”—is presently leader of the Birch Society’s Manhattan Chapter No. 26. In addition, such openly anti-Semitic spokesmen as Conde McGinley have rushed to endorse the Birch Society. In the March 15, 1961 issue of Common Sense, McGinley wrote: “Inasmuch as we have received many inquiries from all over the United States regarding the John Birch Society, we want to go on record. We believe this to be an effective, patriotic group, in good hands.”
On the other hand, Welch has always appealed to all religions, has urged Jews; to join the Society, and has warned that. it is a “Communist tactic to stir up distrust and hatred between Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants, Negroes and Whites.” Much of the April 1961 issue of his Bulletin is devoted to a discussion of the allegation that the Society is anti-Semitic, and what Welch has to say there is well worth close examination.
He opens by noting that “the most vicious” charges leveled against him have come from “such notorious anti-Semites as Lyrl Clark Van Hyning (Women’s Voice) and Elizabeth Dilling (the Dilling Bulletin) on the grounds that my various committees and supporters are nothing but a ‘bunch of Jews and Jew-kissers.’. . .” He then cites the names of Jewish members of the Society such as Willi Schlamm, Julius Epstein, Morrie Ryskind, the late Alfred Kohlberg, and Rabbi Max Merritt, and indicates that it has been endorsed by the American Jewish League Against Communism (a Jewish right-fundamentalist group). Next, Welch explains that he probably has “more good friends of the Jewish faith than any other Gentile in America.” When he was in the candy manufacturing business in Massachusetts, he recalls, he had many Jewish customers; he drank coffee in their kitchens at midnight, borrowed money from them and lent them money in return, and engaged in every kind of business and social activity with Jews.
Turning to some specific accusations, Welch admits that he used a pamphlet by Joseph Kamp as a source for his book, May God Forgive Us, and also paid Kamp a hundred dollars to go through The Life of John Birch to find errors. This was in 1954. But later, he says, he became “aware of both the fact and the weapon of anti-Semitism in America, and I wanted no part of the whole argument.” He had nothing further to do with Kamp after the 1954 contact, but he adds that he still simply doesn’t know enough to say whether Kamp is really anti-Semitic.
Welch goes on to relate that a person who had been trying to convert one local chapter into “a hotbed of anti-Semitism” was dropped from the Society, and he pledges that the Society will never become a haven for anti-Semitic feeling “so long as I am directing its policies.” After several additional paragraphs explaining why no member of the Jewish faith can also be a Communist (and pointing out that Karl Marx was “probably the most vicious anti-Semite of all times”), Welch concludes with the following warning:
There is only one real danger in the charge of anti-Semitism today, to the man who actually is not anti-Semitic. It is that the utter (and in some cases malicious) unfairness of the charge may cause him to react with anger against Jews in general, and then begin to let some of his feeling creep into his writings or his speeches. That brings on even more vitriolic attacks, with a few more straws to support them. And so the development continues until the man in question winds up actually becoming violently anti-Semitic. And he seldom realizes that this was the Communist game and purpose all along, of which the majority of Jews who innocently helped the Reds to implement it were as unaware and innocent as the ordinary Methodist who supports the National Council of Churches. And many an anti-Communist fighter of great promise in America has had his career ruined and his effectiveness destroyed by letting himself fall into that carefully prepared trap.
This will never happen to him, Welch declares; to his “thousands of Jewish friends” he pledges, “I shall remain your friend, no matter what happens. . . .”2
All the evidence available at the moment suggests the presence of a certain ambivalence in the Birch Society on the matter of anti-Semitism. Welch himself seems to be personally without bias toward Jews, and he wants the Society to reflect this position. Yet there is no doubt that some local leaders and members are well-known anti-Semites. With one after another of the rabbinical associations and major Jewish civic groups speaking out in complete condemnation of Welch and his movement, there will be rising pressures to respond to the “Jewish attacks.” Probably, Welch will continue to allow some light flirtation with the more sophisticated anti-Semitic spokesmen. But it is a testimony to American maturity and the activities of Jewish defense agencies that open anti-Semitism is seen as a dead end today for any “middle-of-the-road right-wing organization.”
One final aspect of the Society should be noted. Welch’s writings have a remarkable combination of fantastic allegation and sweet reasonableness. Along with his proposals advocating drastic action against the Communist agents all over America will go reminders to be polite while making menacing telephone calls to local officials, to exercise self-restraint when attacked unfairly, and to take no action which violates “moral principles.” “It is a major purpose of the John Birch Society,” he often explains, one “never to be overlooked by its members, to help in every way we can—by example as well as precept—to restore an abiding sense of moral values to greater use as a guide of conduct for individuals, for groups, and ultimately for nations.” If there are some right-fundamentalists to whom this sort of passage sounds a bit like the National Council of Churches, the total blend of warm-hearted, main-street vigilantism is still appealing to the majority of Welch’s followers.
Whatever the specific prospects for the Birch Society—and I consider them unhappily bright—the 1960’s will surely be years of expansion for the fundamentalist right in this country. Several things point toward that conclusion.
First, this will be a decade of immense frustration for American foreign policy. We will witness increased neutralism among the new nations; increased militancy among the non-white peoples over questions of color; constant military and scientific pressures from the Russians and, soon, the Chinese Communists; diminished American influence in the United Nations; greater conflict in Latin America; and continued outlays of foreign assistance which do not “buy loyalties” or “deliver votes” on critical issues. If the United States can simply prevent these situations from exploding, most informed students of diplomacy would think we had done well. But cutting losses inflicted by the stagnant 1950’s and preparing hopeful future positions is not going to appeal to the right-fundamentalist masses (or the frantic pacifist variety on the left either). The right is unshakable in its faith in unilateral solutions and its belief that each loss for America can be traced to a Communist agent or “Comsymp” in the CIA, at the New York Times, in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, or at the Yale Law School. And the inescapable strategic retreats of the early 1960’s (Laos is a good example) will lend fuel to the fires on the right.
Second, the domestic racial issue also poses a serious threat of a rise in right-fundamentalism. In the 1960’s, the struggle for Negro equality will move increasingly into areas outside the South. Lower-middle-class and middle-class resentments against Negro neighbors and Negro competitors are bound to increase. The crescendo of Negro militancy and the spreading use of government power to enforce civil rights will peel away the already thinned layers of toleration in many sectors of the Northern and Western population. In this area of public policy, groups like the Birch Society—which are not explicitly anti-Negro but oppose compulsory integration—have a promising position, and the reservoirs of white hostility, unless carefully and wisely channeled by both white and Negro liberal leaders, could fill the well of the fundamentalist right to overflowing.
Third, there exists the distinct possibility of an unprecedented coalition of Catholic and Protestant right-fundamentalists in the 1960’s. Only those who know little about the history of American Catholicism would assume that this is a monolithic community. Yet many factors suggest that the 1960’s may see an even deeper division of American Catholics into warring ideological factions than has obtained at any time in the past. Already some influential Catholics are complaining bitterly that President Kennedy has joined the “Liberalist Establishment,” that he has been “selling out” Catholic Church interests, and that the administration of the first Catholic President may go down in history as the “softest on Communism.” This is far from the dominant view among American Catholics. Indeed, it may represent the last thrashing of the old, super-loyalist element in the American Catholic community—a group which will be goaded to extremism by the sight of an a-clerical, literate, sophisticated Catholic liberal in the White House. Under these conditions, and with the magic memory of Joseph McCarthy to help bridge the chasm of the Reformation, the fundamentalist Protestants and the fundamentalist Catholics may enter into an alliance (possibly inside the Birch Society).
But perhaps the central question mark for right-fundamentalism in the 1960’s is not issues or groups but a man—Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. At the moment, he is the beloved crusader of the right and he has given his fundamentalist supporters every possible encouragement. Before very much longer, however, as the jockeying for position in 1964 begins, Goldwater will have to decide whether he wants to be a Republican presidential hopeful and Senate leader or the head of an ideological crusade. If he chooses two-party politics, Goldwater will have to undercut the Birch Society, for it could embarrass him by its extremism, and it is not under his control. (Already, Gold-water has called on Welch to resign because of his authoritarian controls and his charges against Eisenhower.) Many experienced observers of Washington politics doubt whether Goldwater has the personality and the paranoia to become a fundamentalist ideologue and wander in a political wilderness. However, if Goldwater should lose the Republican nomination to someone like Nelson Rockefeller and if he were to decide that there was no hope for his ambitions within the GOP, he could mold the fundamentalist right into a cohesive movement which would assume immediate political influence.
These, then, are the factors which point to a resurgence of the far right wing in the 1960’s. But, it should be said on the other side, a rejuvenated and expanded liberal movement is also likely to develop in the United States during the next few years. The signs are already present on American college campuses, where a decade of student apathy and fatalism is giving way to a revival of both liberal and (respectable) conservative political commitment. Whether the Kennedy administration will move from its first year of dreary if realistic compromise to give direction and enthusiasm to the liberal cause remains to be seen. At any rate, the resources are there to be marshaled, and they are potentially our greatest protection against the mounting right-fundamentalist threat.
1 This was published by Welch before February 1958 under the slightly more modest title of One Man’s Opinion.
2 One other bit of information bearing on Welch’s attitude is that he has been consistently anti-Nasser, viewing the Arab nationalists as aiding the Communists in gaining control of the Middle East.