The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 15, 2018

REFERENCE DESK
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John Birch Society
Max Schulz - 12/30/10

An extremist anticommunist organization, the John Birch Society was kicked out of the ranks of reputable conservative groups in the mid-1960s, enabling conservatism to continue making inroads in mainstream culture as a legitimate political philosophy.

The group was started in 1958 by businessman Robert Welch and named in honor of an American intelligence officer killed in 1945 by the communists in China. Welch and his followers would say that John Birch was “the first casualty of World War III.” The society aimed to prevent subversive communism from making headway in the United States but, unfortunately, Welch was given to making sweeping generalizations about communist influence in the United States, and his reckless charges often boomeranged and harmed the cause of anticommunism. Historian George Nash, in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945, called his group “the prime symbol of right-wing extremism.”

Welch first got his group in trouble with others on the Right when he charged that President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had actively abetted the communist conspiracy in the United States. The society also suggested “the true cause of our imminent danger [is] a semi-secret international cabal whose members sit in the highest places of influence and power worldwide. The American branch of this power elite is most visibly manifested in the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which for many years was headed by David Rockefeller, with its members holding key positions in government, the military, business, labor, education, finance, and the media. The CFR’s international cousin is the Trilateral Commission.” The mainstream press used Welch’s conspiratorial statements in an attempt to discredit conservatism as a whole.

William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review, conscious of the harm Welch was bringing to legitimate anticommunism, sought to read him out of the mainstream conservative movement. National Review was careful to condemn Welch but not his organization, on the theory that most members were likely unaware of Welch’s irresponsible charges. But by 1965, according to Nash, “the distinction between Welch and his followers no longer seemed tenable, and the editors of National Review, in a special feature section, condemned the entire society.” In a withering attack on the society and its “psychosis of conspiracy,” National Review listed its various wild claims (such as the society’s contention that the country was dominated by communists) and demonstrated why the John Birch Society should play no role in formulating a workable conservative and anticommunist agenda in the United States.

The successful repudiation of Welch and his organization by the standard bearers of American conservatism has gone down as one of the defining episodes in the march of the conservative movement to national acceptance. Though its influence was all but destroyed by its expulsion from the conservative movement, the organization has soldiered on throughout the years. Among its priorities are getting the United States out of the United Nations, and, according to its promotional materials, providing “both the core and the cutting edge of principled opposition to the ‘new world order.’” During Ronald Reagan’s administration, the society further marginalized itself by denouncing Reagan as soft on communism. Welch died in 1985, just a few short years before Reagan’s policies helped defeat Soviet communism.

Further Reading
  • Nash, George H. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. 2nd ed. Wilmington, Del.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1998.
  • Smant, Kevin J. Principles and Heresies: Frank S. Meyer and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2002.
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