Scholarly Studies

Chip Berlet

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John Birch Society

Robert Welch introduced the idea of the John Birch Society at an Indianapolis meeting he convened on December 9, 1958 of 12 "patriotic and public-spirited" men. The first chapter was founded a few months later in February 1959. The core thesis of the society was contained Welch's initial Indianapolis presentation, transcribed almost verbatim in The Blue Book of the John Birch Society, and subsequently given to each new member. According to Welch, both the US and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the US government would betray the country's sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist new world order managed by a "one-world socialist government." The Birch Society incorporated many themes from pre-WWII rightist groups opposed to the New Deal, and had its base in the business nationalist sector discussed earlier.

Welch was born in 1899 and worked "in the candy manufacturing business all of his adult life," for many years as the vice president for sales and advertising of the James O. Welch Company, founded by his brother. He was on the board of directors of the ultraconservative National Association of Manufacturers for seven years starting in 1950, and chaired NAM's Educational Advisory Committee for two years. It was at NAM, during the height of the Red Menace hysteria, that Welch honed his Americanist philosophy. Welch toured the country chairing meetings on the state of American education, and producing a 32-page brochure "This We Believe About Education," that "concluded that in America parents--and not the State--have the ultimate responsibility for the education of their children." 200,000 copies of the brochure were distributed by NAM.

Welch served as vice chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party finance committee in 1948, and unsuccessfully ran for Lt. Governor in the 1950 Republican primary. Welch supported the ultraconservative Taft over the more moderate Eisenhower by running as a Massachusetts Taft delegate to the 1952 Republican convention. In 1952 Welch wrote May God Forgive Us, a study alleging "subversive influences" by government officials and their allies to shape "public opinion and governmental policies to favor the Communist advance." The book was published by the ultraconservative Henry Regnery Company, which in 1954 also published Welch's The Life of John Birch, which told the story of a fundamentalist missionary in China who became an intelligence agent for General Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers. Birch was killed by Chinese communist soldiers while he was on a mission at the end of WWII. In February of 1956 Welch started publishing a magazine, One Man's Opinion, and in January 1957 he left the candy business to devote his energies to "the anti-Communist cause."

Welch saw collectivism as the main threat to western civilization, writing "both the Greek and the Roman civilizations did perish of the cancer of collectivism, and the civilization of Western Europe is doing so today." This view was shared by many conservatives of the day, and had been developed by such conservative intellectuals as Hayek. The ingredient that Welch added was an "uncompromising conspiracy theory of world events, one that blamed domestic rather than foreign enemies for the spread of communism," as Diamond summarized. Although critical of Oswald Spengler's intellectual snobbery, Welch agreed with Spengler's thesis in Decline of the West, of a "cyclical theory of cultures," but Welch argued that western European civilization was being prematurely put at risk by a conspiracy to promote the decay of collectivism.

According to the JBS theory, liberals provide the cover for the gradual process of collectivism, therefore many liberals and their allies must actually be secret communist traitors whose ultimate goal is to replace the nations of western civilization with one-world socialist government. "There are many stages of` welfarism, socialism, and collectivism in general," wrote Welch, "but communism is the ultimate state of them all, and they all lead inevitably in that direction." A core tenet of the JBS was that the US is a republic not a democracy, and that collectivism has eroded that distinction. That this distinction was largely a semantic trick--used to cover the essential autocratic elitism of Welch and the JBS philosoph--was examined by Lester DeKoster, a conservative Christian who warned of the JBS anti-democratic agenda in his monograph titled The Citizen and the John Birch Society.

The JBS concern that collectivism, statism, and internationalism would be ushered in through a subversive communist conspiracy naturally evolved into the JBS "Get US out of UN!" campaign, which alleged in 1959 that the "Real nature of [the] UN is to build One World Government (New World Order)." Behind much of this concern was opposition to communism not only on economic, ideological, and pragmatic geopolitical grounds, but also because it was seen as a godless conspiracy. The influence of fundamentalist Christian beliefs on Birch doctrine are often obscured by the group's ostensible secular orientation. As Welch put it, "This is a world-wide battle, between light and darkness; between freedom and slavery; between the spirit of Christianity and the spirit of anti-Christ for the souls and bodies of men."

Welch's magazine, renamed American Opinion, became the official JBS publication in 1959, as chapters began to be built. In January 1960 the Birch Society had 75 chapters and 1,500 members, and by September 1960 there were 324 chapters and some 5,300 members. In March of 1961, according to Welch, there was "a staff of twenty-eight people in the Home Office; about thirty Coordinators (or Major Coordinators) in the field, who are fully-paid as to salary and expenses; and about one hundred Coordinators (or Section Leaders as they are called in some areas), who work on a volunteer basis as to all or part of their salary, or expenses, or both." Estimates of Society membership by the end of 1961 ranged from 60,000 to 100,000. The actual membership figures are shrouded in secrecy and often disputed. Broyles argues that in 1966 the actual active membership was more like 25,000 to 30,000, but this seems a low, and active members are outnumbered by paid members in most groups.

No matter what the actual membership, the JBS pioneered grassroots lobbying, combining educational meetings, petition drives, and letter writing campaigns. One early campaign against the second Summit Conference between the US and the Soviet Union generated over 600,000 postcards and letters, according to the Society. A June 1964 Birch campaign to oppose Xerox Corporation sponsorship of TV programs favorable to the UN produced 51,279 letters from 12,785 individuals.

Much of the early Birch conspiracism reflects an ultraconservative business nationalist critique of business internationalists networked through groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The CFR is viewed through a conspiracist lens as puppets of the Rockefeller family in a 1952 book by McCarthy fan, Emanuel M. Josephson, Rockefeller, 'Internationalist': The Man Who Misrules the World. In 1962 Dan Smoot's The Invisible Government added several other policy groups to the list of conspirators, including the Committee for Economic Development, the Advertising Council, the Atlantic Council (formerly the Atlantic Union Committee), the Business Advisory Council, and the Trilateral Commission. Smoot had worked at FBI headquarters in Washington, DC before leaving to establish an anticommunist newsletter, The Dan Smoot Report. The shift from countersubversion on behalf of the FBI to countersubversion in the private sector was an easy one. The basic thesis was the same. In Smoot's concluding chapter, he wrote, "Somewhere at the top of the pyramid in the invisible government are a few sinister people who know exactly what they are doing: They want America to become part of a worldwide socialist dictatorship, under the control of the Kremlin."

In a 1966 speech, Welch coined the name "The Insiders" to describe the leaders of the conspiracy. The Birch Society seems unable to make up its mind if the Insiders are direct descendants of the Illuminati Freemason conspiracy, although the basic concept is clearly related. During the late 1980's and early 1990's the Birch leadership downplayed the connection, while in the late 1990's, the Birch book list began sprouting titles seeking to prove the link to the Illuminati Freemason conspiracy. Many Birch members, and founder Welch himself, expressed support for this thesis, sometimes in writing, sometimes at Birch public meetings. According to the theory, there is an unbroken ideologically-driven conspiracy linking the Illuminati, the French Revolution, the rise of Marxism and Communism, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the United Nations. Of course, not all Birch members agreed with everything that Welch or the Society proposed. Welch's famous book, The Politician, caused a stir even among many loyal Birch members who were shocked by Welch's assertion that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was "a dedicated conscious agent of the communist conspiracy."

Birch Society influence on US politics hit its high point in the years around the failed 1964 presidential campaign of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater who lost to incumbent President Lyndon Johnson. Welch had supported Goldwater over Nixon for the 1960 Republican nomination, but the membership split with two-thirds supporting Goldwater and one-third supporting Nixon. A number of Birch members and their allies were Goldwater supporters in 1964 and some were delegates at the 1964 Republican convention.

The John Birch Society White Book was a spiral-bound collection of all JBS Weekly Bulletins issued in the previous year and handed to every new member. The Bulletins in the 1964 White Book contain chatty and anecdotal information about the campaigns important to the JBS. A major effort was conducted under the slogan "Impeach Earl Warren," which was reported to be generating 500 letters per day to members of Congress. The JBS also sought to restore prayer in school, repeal the graduated personal income tax, stop "Communist influences within our communications media," and stop the "trend of legislation by judicial fiat."

The phrase "legislation by judicial fiat," was widely interpreted within the JBS as opposition to federal assistance to the goals of the civil rights movement over the objections of persons insisting that state's rights should supersede federal laws. During its heyday in the mid-1960s the Birch response to the civil rights movement and urban unrest was to launch two "campaigns under the banners of Support Your Local Police, and Expose The 'Civil Rights' Fraud.

The "Support Your Local Police" campaign opposed the use of federal officers to enforce civil rights laws. "[T]he Communist press of America has been screaming for years to have local police forces discredited, shunted aside, or disbanded and replaced by Federal Marshals or similar agents and personnel of a national federalized police force," one article complained. Another reason articulated for opposing the civil rights movement was that it was a creation of Communists, and Birch members were urged to "Show the communist hands behind it." According to a 1967 personal letter from Welch to retired General James A. Van Fleet inviting him to serve on the Birch National Council:

==="Five years ago, few people who were thoroughly familiar with the main divisions of Communist strategy saw any chance of keeping the Negro Revolutionary Movement from reaching decisive proportions. It was to supply the flaming front to the whole 'proletarian revolution,' as planned by Walter Reuther and his stooge, Bobby Kennedy"

Despite its opposition to civil rights, throughout this period the JBS had a handful of black conservative members who supported this position on philosophical grounds involving states rights, economic libertarianism, and opposition to alleged communist subversion of the civil rights movement.

The JBS simultaneously discouraged overt displays of racism, while it promoted policies that had the effect of racist oppression by its opposition to the Civil Rights movement. The degree of political racism expressed by the JBS was not "extremist" but similar to that of many mainstream Republican and Democratic elected officials at the time. This level of mainstream racism should not be dismissed lightly, as it was often crude and sometimes violent, treating Black people in particular as second-class citizens, most of whom had limited intelligence and little ambition. In Alan Stang's book published by the JBS, It's Very Simple: The True Story of Civil Rights, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is portrayed as an agent of a massive communist conspiracy to agitate among otherwise happy Negroes to foment revolution, or at least promote demands for more collectivist federal government intrusion.

The same is true with JBS levels of personal and political antisemitism. When crude antisemitism was detected in JBS members, their membership was revoked. The most celebrated incident involved Birch leader Revilo P. Oliver who moved over to work with Willis Carto and the Liberty Lobby after being forced to resign from the Birch Society for making antisemitic and White supremacist comments at a 1966 Birch rally.

The Birch Society promoted the book None Dare Call It Conspiracy by Gary Allen who included a dubious discussion of the Rothschilds and other Jewish banking interests as part of a sketch of a much larger conspiracy involving financial and political elites and the Council on Foreign Relations. Allen explicitly rejected the idea that by focusing on the early roll of the Rothschilds in investment banking he was promoting a theory of a Jewish conspiracy:

==="Anti-Semites have played into the hands of the conspiracy by trying to portray the entire conspiracy as Jewish. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The traditionally Anglo-Saxon J. P. Morgan and Rockefeller international banking institutions have played a key role in the conspiracy. But there is no denying the importance of the Rothschilds and their satellites. However it is just as unreasonable and immoral to blame all Jews for the crimes of the Rothschilds as it is to hold all Baptists accountable for the crimes of the Rockefellers.

Nicely put, yet Allen used insensitive loaded language concerning the "cosmopolitan" nature of the "international bankers," and he slipped when comparing Jews to Anglo-Saxons, mixing issues of race, ethnicity, and religion. He seemed sincere in rejecting overt and conscious antisemitism and did not seem to be cloaking a hidden hatred or distrust of Jews, but he included a hyperbolic and inaccurate assessment of the role of the Rothschilds, Warburgs, and other Jews compared to the non-Jewish banking interests that grew along with industrial capitalism. The problem was unintentional, but still real, and the stereotype of a Jewish establishment was clearer in Allen's other work, as Mintz explained, "A conspiracist unimpressed by anti-Semitism could construe the material differently from a confirmed sociological anti-Semite, who could find a codification of his fears and anxieties."

In a similar fashion the Society promoted conspiracist theories that involved mild antisemitism, and Welch once buttressed his claims of the Illuminati conspiracy by citing notorious British antisemite Nesta Webster. At its core, however, the Birch view of the conspiracy does not reveal it to be controlled or significantly influenced by Jews in general, or a secret group of conniving Jews, nor is their evidence of a hidden agenda within the Society to promote suspicion of Jews. The Society always struggled against what it saw as objectionable forms of prejudice against Jews, but it can still be criticized for having continuously promoted mild antisemitic stereotyping. Nevertheless, the JBS was closer to mainstream stereotyping and bigotry than the naked race hate and genocidal antisemitism of neonazi or KKK groups. When the Society promoted a historic tract about the conspiracy, it was usually their reprint of Robison's Proofs of a Conspiracy.

In a sense, the Birch society pioneered the encoding of implicit cultural forms of ethnocentric White racism and Christian nationalist antisemitism rather than relying on the White supremacist biological determinism and open loathing of Jews that had typified the old right prior to WWII. Throughout its existence, however, the Society has promoted open homophobia and sexism.

The Society's anti-communism and states rights libertarianism was based on sincere principles, but it clearly served as a cover for organizing by segregationists and White supremacists. How much of this was conscious, and how much unconscious, is difficult to determine. That the Birch Society clearly attracted members with a more hate-filled (even fascistic) agenda is undeniable, and these more zealous elements used the JBS as a recruitment pool from which to draw persons toward a more neonazi stance on issues of race and culture. As Birch members assisted in building grassroots support for Goldwater's Republican presidential bid in 1964, critics of the JBS highlighted the group's more unsavory elements as a way to discredit Goldwater, who was labeled an extremist. For the JBS, however, Goldwater was a compromise candidate. JBS records from 1964 reveal Birch misgivings about the political reliability of Goldwater. Newspaper articles from the Birch archives show Goldwater quotes that conflict with Birch dogma heavily underlined and sporting rows of question marks; yet a racist and antisemitic attack on Goldwater by the White supremacist Thunderbolt, is labeled "Poison," with a bold pen stroke.

After Goldwater was soundly drubbed in the general election, Welch tried earnestly to recruit another politician to accept the Birch torch-former Alabama Governor George Wallace. "It is the ambition and the intention of Richard Nixon, during the next eight years, to make himself the dictator of the world," warned Welch in a November 11, 1968 post-election letter to Wallace. "The people of this country are ready for an anti-Communist crusade behind some political leader who really means it," wrote Welch urging Wallace to adopt the Birch platform.

The more pragmatic conservatives and reactionaries who had been fundraising and organizing specialists during the Goldwater campaign would form the core of what became known as the New Right. Although many New Right and new Christian Right activists were groomed through the Birch Society, the group's core conspiracism, passionate and aggressive politics, and its labeling by critics as a radical right extremist group tainted by antisemitism and racism, were seen as impediments to successful electoral organizing. The Birch Society became a pariah. In the late 1970's the New Right coalition of secular and Christian conservatives and reactionaries emerged as a powerful force on the American political landscape, and was influential in helping elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. The eclipsed Birch Society saw its influence dwindle even further after Reagan took office, and further still after they attacked Reagan's policies.

When Robert F. Welch died in 1985, the Birch Society had shrunk to less than 50,000 members. There then ensued an internal struggle over who would grab the reins of the organization. The victors even alienated Welch's widow who denounced the new leadership from her retirement home in Weston, MA. Magazine subscriptions, often a close parallel to membership, fell from 50,000 to 30,000 to 15,000.

The collapse of communism in Europe and the end of the Cold War might have signaled the end of the Birch Society, but the UN role in the Gulf War and President Bush's call for a New World Order unwittingly echoed Birch claims about the goals of the internationalist One World Government conspiracy. As growing right-wing populism sparked new levels of cynicism regarding politicians, and economic and social fears sparked rightist backlash movements, the Birch Society positioned itself as the group that for decades had its fingers on the pulse of the conspiracy behind the country's decline. Between 1988 and 1995 the Birch Society at least doubled, and perhaps tripled its membership to over 55,000.

In the Birch Orbit
Conspiracist anti-communism similar to that offered by the JBS was widespread on the nativist right during the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to the books by Gary Allen, Robert Welch, Dan Smoot, and Alan Stang are enough books in the genre to fill several library shelves.

Among the most influential leaders of the countersubversion movement against the global communist conspiracy following the McCarthy period was Dr. Fred Schwarz and his California-based Christian Anti-communism Crusade. A tireless lecturer, Schwarz in 1960 authored You Can Trust the Communists (to be Communists) which sold over one million copies.Schwarz's newsletter once suggested that communists promote abortion, pornography, homosexuality, venereal disease and mass murder as ways to weaken the moral fiber of America and pave the way for a communist takeover.

The assault on America by forces of godless communism were central themes in three other widely distributed books which were used to mobilize support for the 1964 Goldwater campaign. The best known book was Phyllis Schlafly's A Choice, Not an Echo which suggested a conspiracist theory in which the Republican Party was secretly controlled by elitist intellectuals dominated by members of the Bilderberger banking conference, whose policies were designed to usher in global communist conquest.Schlafly's husband Fred had been a lecturer at Schwartz's local Christian Anti-communism Crusade conferences. The title "A Choice, Not an Echo" became one of Goldwater's campaign slogans.

Schlafly elaborate on the theme of the global communist conspiracy and its witting and unwitting domestic allies in The Gravediggers, a book on military preparedness co-authored with retired Rear Admiral Chester Ward. Ward, a member of the National Strategy Committee of the American Security Council was also a lecturer at the Foreign Policy Research Institute which formulated many benchmark Cold War anti-communist strategies.The Gravediggers, claimed U.S. military strategy and tactics was actually designed to pave the way for global communist conquest. The Gravediggers was tailored to support the Goldwater campaign.

Often overlooked because of the publicity surrounding A Choice, Not an Echo was John Stormer's, None Dare Call it Treason, which outlined how the equivocation of Washington insiders would pave the way for global communist conquest. None Dare Call it Treason sold over seven million copies, making it one of the largest-selling paperback books of the day. The back cover summarizes the text as detailing "the communist-socialist conspiracy to enslave America" and documenting "the concurrent decay in America's schools, churches, and press which has conditioned the American people to accept 20 years of retreat in the face of the communist enemy." Stormer updated his text in the late 1980's to expand on his theory, shifting his focus from anti-communism to claim secular humanism now played a key role in undermining America.

One of the core ideas of the US right is that modern liberalism is an ally of collectivism and a handmaiden for godless communism. 




Democracy is a process,
not a specific set of institutions

Democracy is a process that assumes
the majority of people, over time,
given enough accurate information,
the ability to participate
in a free and open public debate,
and can vote without intimidation,
reach constructive decisions
that benefit the whole of society, and
preserve liberty,
protect our freedoms,
extend equality, and
defend democracy.

-Chip Berlet





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