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A Time magazine profile lambasts the racist, anti-Communist John Birch Society (JBS—see December 2011), in what is many Americans’ first exposure to the group. It delineates the organization’s penchant for secrecy, its domination by its “dictatorial” leader, Robert Welch, and its hardline battle against almost every element of the federal government as “agents of Communism.” Forty to 60 percent of the federal government is controlled by Communism, the JBS believes. Time calls the organization “a tiresome, comic-opera joke” that nonetheless has cells in 35 states and an ever-widening influence. In Wichita, Kansas, JBS student members are trained to inform their cell leaders of “Communist” influences they may detect in their classroom lectures, and the offending teacher is berated by parents. A Wichita businessman who wanted to give a donation to the University of Wichita decided not to donate after being hounded by local JBS members, who wanted the university to fire professors and remove selected books from its library. “My business would be wrecked,” the businessman explains, “if those people got on the phone and kept on yelling that I am a Communist because I give money to the school.” Nashville, Tennessee, JBS members organize community members to verbally attack neighbors whom they suspect of Communist affiliations. JBS’s current priority, Time writes, is to bring about the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren. Welch, who obtained his wealth from his brother’s candymaking business, believes that Social Security and the federal income tax are all part of the “creeping socialism” that is taking over the federal government. He retired from the business in 1957 and founded the JBS shortly thereafter, naming it for a US Navy captain killed by Chinese Communist guerrillas after the end of World War II. Welch’s seminal tract, “The Politician,” accuses President Eisenhower and his brother Milton Eisenhower of being Communist plants, and accuses both men of treason against the nation. (Time 3/10/1961)
Author W. Cleon Skousen, a supporter of the John Birch Society (JBS—see December 2011), writes an article attacking the Time profile of the JBS (see March 10, 1961) as being part of an orchestrated Communist attack on the organization. The article came about after the international Communist Party “ordered” the “annihilation” of the JBS, Skousen says. Skousen denies the group’s penchant for secrecy, saying that it was openly set up in 1958 as a network of “study groups” examining the threat of Communism to American society. The organization, he writes, is nothing more than “a study group program with a strong bias in favor of traditional American constitutionalism.” By 1960, the JBS earned the enmity of competing conservative groups, Skousen says, because the organization “had rallied together most of the best informed and hardest working patriots in many cities.” However, he writes, JBS members tend to be part of other conservative movements as well. The JBS worked to defeat a bill, slated to be introduced in January 1961, that would largely defund the House Committee on Un-American Activities “so it could not investigate the Communist Party.” Skousen says that JBS efforts derailed the bill, handing the American Communist Party “an overwhelming defeat.” After the bill was defeated, Skousen says, “a manifesto… from Moscow” ordered the destruction of the JBS, as it posed the primary danger to “Communist progress” in the US. The Time magazine profile of the JBS was part of that effort, Skousen says, after the organization was attacked in the pages of the Daily People’s World, a West Coast publication that Skousen says was “the official Communist newspaper” of that area. Within days, the information in the article was reprinted in Time’s own article, which reached far more people than the People’s World. “[T]he thing which astonished me,” Skousen writes, “was the rapidity with which the transmission belt began to function so that this story was planted in one major news medium after another until finally even some of the more conservative papers had taken up the hue and cry.” Skousen calls the article a Communist plant filled with fabrications and lies. He says that JBS leader Robert Welch’s accusations that President Eisenhower and other pro-American world leaders are Communists were made in “private communication[s] to his friends” and were never part of official JBS principles, and took place well before Welch founded the JBS in 1957; therefore, Skousen writes, to report Welch’s characterizations is to smear the JBS. Skousen also denies any racism or anti-Semitism on the JBS’s part, and uses a sympathetic 1963 report by the California Senate Factfinding Committee to “prove” his claims. The report concluded that Welch and the JBS have “stirred the slumbering spirit of patriotism in thousands of Americans, roused them from lethargy, and changed their apathy into a deep desire to first learn the facts about communism and then implement that knowledge with effective and responsible action.” Skousen concludes that while Americans are free to disagree with JBS principles and actions, any criticism of the organization should be considered potential Communist propaganda designed to smear the organization and reduce its effectiveness. If the criticism does not come from Communists themselves, it plays into Communist hands. As he claims to have been told by “[a] former member of the Communist Party National Committee,” “The Communist leaders look upon the stamping out of the John Birch Society as a matter of life and death for the Party.” (Skousen 1963)
This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is co-sponsored by the far-right, openly racist John Birch Society (JBS—see March 10, 1961 and December 2011). CPAC spokesman Ian Walters says this is the first time the JBS has sponsored the conference. In the 1960s, influential conservative pundit William F. Buckley denounced the society and its founder Robert Welch as “idiotic” and “paranoid.” Buckley’s condemnation effectively exiled the group from mainstream conservatism for half a century. Welch had accused then-President Dwight Eisenhower of being a “conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy” and said the government was “under operational control of the Communist Party.” Buckley argued that such paranoid rantings had no place in the conservative movement or the Republican Party. Lisa Depasquale, CPAC’s director for the American Conservative Union, which runs the conference, explains why the JBS is now a sponsor, saying: “They’re a conservative organization. Beyond that I have no comment.” (Karl 4/19/2010)
Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum compares the “tea party” movement to earlier organizations, each formed, he writes, to oppose Democratic presidencies. “[T]oo many observers mistakenly react to the tea party as if it’s brand new, an organic and spontaneous response to something unique in the current political climate,” he writes. “But it’s not. It’s not a response to the recession or to health care reform or to some kind of spectacular new liberal overreach. It’s what happens whenever a Democrat takes over the White House. When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League (see August 23, 1934 and After). When JFK won the presidency in the ‘60s, the John Birch Society flourished (see November 1963). When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the ‘90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it’s the tea party’s turn.” While differences between the various groups are substantive, Drum writes, the similarities are overwhelming. Drum notes that industrialist Fred Koch, an early backer of the Birchers (see 1940 and After), gave way to his sons, David and Charles Koch, who helped launch the organization that would become FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, both of which are major funders and organizers of the tea party movement (see 1979-1980 and 1984 and After). Tea partiers rely on a 50-year-old radical reinterpretation of the Constitution, W. Cleon Skousen’s The 5000 Year Leap; Skousen’s anti-Communist polemics were popular with the Birchers. And Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society (JBS—see March 10, 1961 and December 2011), believed that the 17th Amendment, which affirms the direct election of US senators, was what Drum calls “a poisonous concentration of power in the federal government.” Tea partiers and Fox News hosts hawk this same theory today (see October 16, 2009, April 8, 2010, and June 11, 2010). Drum writes that, far from being motivated by personal economic hardship (tea party supporters tend to be more affluent and less affected by the economic downturn than the average American—see April 14, 2010) or even because of a dislike of President Obama because of his race, the tea party exists because “[e]ver since the 1930s, something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly nonpolitical middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories.”
Constitutional 'Purity' - One similarity is the focus of each group on what they term the “purity” or “sanctity” of the US Constitution, even as they apply their sometimes-radical reinterpretations of constitutional mandates. “The Liberty Leaguers… spoke of it with ‘worshipful intensity,’” Drum writes. “The John Birch Society—which is enjoying a renaissance of sorts today (see July 22, 2007, August 4, 2008, October 10, 2008, April 13, 2009, April 19, 2010, and August 24, 2010)—says of itself, ‘From its earliest days the John Birch Society has emphasized the importance of the Constitution for securing our freedom.’ And… study groups dedicated to the Constitution have mushroomed among tea partiers” (see May 2010).
Fear of 'Creeping Socialism' and Tyranny - Drum writes: “Other shared tropes include a fear of ‘losing the country we grew up in,’ an obsession with ‘parasites’ who are leeching off of hardworking Americans, and—even though they’ve always received copious assistance from business interests and political operatives—a myth that the movement is composed entirely of fed-up grassroots amateurs” (see 1984 and After, Late 2004, January 2009 and After, February 17, 2009, February 19, 2009 and After, March 13, 2009 and After, April 14, 2009, April 15, 2009, May 29, 2009, July 27, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 5, 2009, July 3-4, 2010, and August 30, 2010). Above all, though, is the recurring theme of “creeping socialism and a federal government that’s destroying our freedoms.” The American Liberty League fought to stop the Roosevelt administration from establishing Social Security, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and what Drum calls an “alphabet soup of new regulatory agencies.” In the 1960s, the John Birch Society (JBS) felt the government was being overrun by Communism and “collectivism.” Drum notes that JBS founder Robert Welch’s mantra, “Less government and more responsibility,” echoes central tenets of tea party beliefs. In the 1990s, then-Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA) became House Speaker in large part because of his opposition to the Clinton administration and his leadership in the right’s battle to defund federal social-net programs. Today, tea partiers echo the JBS in their insistence that Obama is a closet Marxist or socialist, and echo fears from earlier groups that Obama, the Democrat, intends to turn American democracy into a tyranny.
Conspiracy Theories - Drum echoes conservative writer Jonathan Kay by noting the tea partiers’ “insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories” (see February 4-8, 2010). Welch argued that the federal government was bowing to Communist manipulation by fluoridating the water supply (see 1945 and After), but more importantly, promoted the idea that a mysterious group of “insiders” had been running the world since at least 1776, when the Illuminati took over most European governments. The “insiders” continued their influence, Welch avowed, through the years, taking over France after the French Revolution, Russia and other nations after the advent of Communism, and continued to exercise control through such organs as the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission. The same groups are at the center of many conspiracy theories embraced by numerous tea partiers. Drum points out the fondness of the “anti-Clinton zealots” for their “colorful and ever-growing bestiary of shadowy plots,” most surrounding their belief that Clinton was a rapist, a murderer, and a drug peddler. Similar conspiracy theories were promulgated by the JBS about John Kennedy. “Today’s conspiracy theories are different in detail but no less wacky—and no less widespread,” Drum writes. The “birther” conspiracy theory, which holds that Obama is not a natural-born citizen, is quite popular with tea party supporters, and many more believe that Obama intends to place conservatives such as themselves in internment camps, a theory peddled by the JBS in the early 1960s. And many believe that ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the now-defunct community service organization, somehow took control of the Democratic Party, destroyed banks by forcing them to make loans to indigent minorities, crashed the economy, and installed Obama into power.
Effectiveness Improving over Time - Drum writes that each iteration of this right-wing phenomenon is more successful than the last. The Liberty League made no impact whatsoever on President Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election attempt. In 1964, the JBS succeeded in helping right-wing libertarian candidate Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) win the Republican presidential nomination. In the 1990s, Gingrich rode the wave of far-right activism to become speaker of the House, and the activism culminated in the impeachment of President Clinton and the election of President George W. Bush. Drum predicts that the latest wave, the tea party movement, will for all intents and purposes take over the Republican Party. In each iteration, moderate Republicans resisted the wave of right-wing change, but, Drum believes, not enough moderate Republicans exist in any position of power to resist the tea party transformation. The GOP has been shifting ever rightward since the 1970s, Drum notes, and the tea party movement has profited from a transformed media environment, where it can present its ideology almost nonstop on Fox News and rely on social media such as Facebook to connect with new recruits. Drum calls the paradigm shift “the mainstreaming of extremism.” In 1961, Time magazine disparaged the JBS as “tiresome” (see March 10, 1961); in 2009, it hailed Fox News personality Glenn Beck as “gifted.” Moderates have virtually no chance in today’s environment of pushing back against the tea party’s rightward surge. “Unlike the Birchers, or even the Clinton conspiracy theorists, the tea partiers aren’t a fringe part of the conservative movement,” Drum writes. “They are the conservative movement.” Drum believes that even with all the tea party’s current success, it will eventually burn itself out, “while its broader identity becomes subsumed by a Republican Party that’s been headed down the path of ever less-tolerant conservatism for decades. In that sense, the tea party movement is merely an unusually flamboyant symptom of an illness that’s been breeding for a long time.” (Drum 9/2010)
John F. McManus, the head of the far-right, anti-Communist John Birch Society (JBS), releases a booklet through the organization entitled “Reality vs. Myth” that attempts to, in the words of the JBS, “set the record straight” about what the organization is and is not. According to McManus, the JBS has never held anti-Semitic or racist views, or tolerated such within its organization. All such assertions come from “enemies” of the organization, often from persons or organizations with Communist affiliations (see March 10, 1961 and 1963), he writes. (McManus 2011)
History of Anti-Communism - The organization was founded in 1958 by candy magnate Robert Welch, a former Massachusetts Republican Party official who began railing about what he considered the “pervasive” influence of Communism in all aspects of American society, particularly in the federal government. Liberals are inherently opposed to freedom and democracy, Welch argued, because liberals are in favor of collectivism/socialism, and therefore are witting or unwitting traitors to the individualist tenets that underlie the US Constitution. The JBS became a vocal opponent of the United Nations, alleging as early as 1959 that the UN intended to establish a “New World Order” (NWO) or “one-world government” (see September 11, 1990). The JBS has also portrayed itself as a fundamentally Christian organization, and views Communism and other non-American forms of government as inherently “godless.” Since the end of World War II, the organization has asserted, the US government has been actively attempting to implement “godless Communism” in place of a Constitutional democracy, including a 1958 claim by Welch that then-President Eisenhower was “a dedicated conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” Some “Bircher” officials have touted the NWO as being rooted in the alleged Illuminati Freemason conspiracy. In 1964, the JBS enthusiastically supported the presidential candidacy of Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), though a large number of members supported Eisenhower’s vice-president, Richard Nixon (R-CA) over Goldwater. The organization opposed John F. Kennedy (D-MA), accusing him of being a traitor and a Communist dupe (see November 1963), accusations it had also leveled against Eisenhower. After Goldwater’s defeat, Welch attempted to land the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace (D-AL), as a standardbearer for the JBS. (Political Research Associates 2010) McManus insists that the JBS’s overarching loyalty is to the Christian Bible, the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. ” Our organization was created to uphold the truths in the Declaration and the limitations upon government in the Constitution,” he writes. “Not alone in such an endeavor, we welcome all who treasure what our nation’s Founders produced.” (McManus 2011)
Less Overt Racist, Anti-Semitic Stances - During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the JBS painted the civil rights movement as a Communist conspiracy, accusing “ignorant” and “uneducated” African-Americans of either being witting or unwitting dupes of a Communist conspiracy against America. It launched a powerful and well-organized assault on the civil rights movement, calling it a “fraud” and labeling it the “Negro Revolutionary Movement.” Some JBS publications and officials also asserted that the nation’s financial system was controlled largely by Jews with little if any loyalty to the US, and in some instances actively working to undermine and destabilize America’s economy. Such assertions led many to characterize the JBS as a racist and anti-Semitic organization, characterizations that the organization has always disputed. It has touted its very small number of African-American and Jewish members as proof of its claims not to be institutionally racist or anti-Semitic. In 2010, the liberal Political Research Associates (PRA) wrote: “The JBS… 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 [one JBS publication], 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.” PRA also went on to note that one of its founders, Revilo P. Oliver, was forced to resign from the JBS after making anti-Semitic and racist comments at a 1996 JBS rally. And, the PRA wrote, “When crude antisemitism was detected in JBS members, their membership was revoked[,]” though the organization still held that anti-American Jews were attempting to do damage to the nation’s economy. “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. 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.” (Political Research Associates 2010) McManus calls attempts to point out the JBS’s history of implicit racism and anti-Semitism as deliberate, dishonest attempts to “stigmatize” the group, usually by persons and organizations who are working to implement a one-world government and see the JBS as a roadblock to that goal. “There was no evidence that the Society was racist, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, or subversive of good order,” McManus claims. “But that didn’t stop many from making such charges.… There were some attempts to defend JBS against the flood of vicious characterizations but these were overwhelmed by widespread and undeserved nastiness. No private organization in our nation’s history had ever been treated so unfairly.” He calls efforts to show the JBS as racist “vicious” and false. “If truth were told,” he writes, “the John Birch Society should be congratulated nationally for its important work in diffusing racial animosities.” (McManus 2011) Many prominent white supremacist leaders used their membership in the JBS to help promote their more overtly racist organizations (see 1970-1974 and 1973). Former Ku Klux Klan leader Johnny Lee Clary has said the JBS “is just a political version of the KKK, without the name of the KKK. They center on the political ideas of the Klan and are not as vocal in public on the ideas of the racial superiority, but they attract the same people and say the same things behind closed doors.… They are racist, and full of hate and are officially listed as a hate group with several civil rights organizations throughout the USA” (see April 13, 2009). Among other non-white leaders, the JBS has labeled South Africa’s Nelson Mandela as a “Communist tyrant” (see December 11, 2009).
Reframing Itself - In the late 1970s, the JBS saw its influence waning as more modern organizations comprising what some have called the “New Right” came to the fore. In the 1980s, the JBS lost even more influence after attacking Reagan administration policies. It managed to revive itself by toning down its anti-Communist rhetoric and emphasizing its warnings about the New World Order and positioning itself as a long-time advocate of right-wing, muscularly patriotic popularism. Author and journalist Andrew Reinbach notes that the JBS provided an ideological “seed bank” for many of the tenets currently embraced by the various “tea party” organizations on the right (see February 4-8, 2010 and February 15, 2010), an assertion echoed by conservative journalist Matthew Boyle. (Reinbach 9/12/2011; Boyle 11/29/2011) McManus credits the JBS with helping bring about the impeachment of then-President Clinton, stopping the establishment of a free-trade entity in the Western Hemisphere, and putting an end to what it calls “the drive to a sovereignty-compromising North American Union.” McManus says JBS efforts to “educate” the world about the UN has prevented that organization “from becoming the tyrannical world government intended by its founders.” He writes that the JBS successfully thwarted the federal government’s alleged plans to federalize all American law enforcement, and credits the JBS’s black membership with preventing wholesale rioting and insurrection during the Civil Rights Era. He touts the JBS as being one of the primary organizations that blocked the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. And he credits the JBS with being among the first organizations to warn about what it calls the dangers of illegal immigration. He touts the support of, among others, presidential candidate Ron Paul (R-TX—see 1978-1996 and July 22, 2007) and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan (see June 12, 2009, June 20, 2009, July 16, 2009, and October 18, 2011 and After) as validating the organization’s ideology and positions, and notes that in recent years, the JBS was an official sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference (see April 19, 2010 and February 9-11, 2012). And he claims that attempts to paint tea party organizations as far-right, racist, or homophobic are similar to the efforts by Communists and NWO conspiratists to destroy the Society. He concludes by writing to prospective members: “Don’t allow yourself to be influenced by the false image created by the Society’s enemies. Our country is under attack and The John Birch Society offers a workable plan to combat it.” (McManus 2011)