What Was The John Birch Society? Anti-Communist Fervor Of The Groovy Era

Culture | December 8, 2020

The Civil Rights Movement was a favorite target of the John Birch Society. Source: Southern Policy Law Center

The John Birch Society was the grassroots network of the American anti-Communist crusade of the '50s, '60s and '70s. Society members, called "Birchers," saw a constant struggle against Communist infiltration, and it was no coincidence that the group was founded the year after the death of commie witch-hunt king Senator Joseph McCarthy. The John Birch Society -- which, by the way, still exists -- embraced and propagated conspiracy theories long before the internet even existed, uniting like-minded people in a far-right community through pamphlets, radio shows and boycotts. Though lampooned by mainstream culture as a bunch of red-fearing kooks, the John Birch Society had an ambiguous significance: Was this the crazy fringe of American conservatism, or the purest form of it?

One of the John Birch Society's causes. Source: (Political Dictionary).

Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, attended the U.S. Naval Academy as well as Harvard, but did not graduate from either institution. He ended up working as an executive in his brother’s candy company, the James O. Welch Co. After World War II, he began reading Communist literature, and decided that New Deal programs such as Social Security, were part of a Soviet plot to take over America. He eventually retired and left the candy industry; after he discovered John Birch’s story in 1953, he formed the John Birch Society in 1958.

It Was Named After A Man Who Died In China

John Birch, whose story inspired the name of the John Birch Society. Source: (Veteran Tributes)

John Birch was born in India in 1918 to missionary parents, growing up with his six siblings in New Jersey and Georgia. He went to Mercer University in 1935 and became part of a thirteen-member student group who opposed the viewpoints of five professors because they believed they were heretical if they, for example, mentioned evolution. After graduating from Mercer, Birch went to a Fort Worth Bible institute, run by J. Frank Morris. In 1940, Birch went to China as a Christian missionary and then a military intelligence officer. On August 25, 1945, he was killed by Red Army soldiers after an encounter with them. In a way, this made Birch the first casualty of the Cold War. 

A Small Group With Many Sympathizers

Robert Welch, the founder. Source: (IMDb)

At first, the Society had very few members, including Fred Koch, who was one of the Society’s important financial backers. The group’s membership was just under 100,000 and, according to Time magazine, by 1966, they had a budget of $6 million. The Society was organized in cells of 20 to 30 members and addressed themselves as Americanists. It is estimated that, though the number of dues paying members was low, around 4 to 6 million people were sympathizers by the time the organization was four years old. Many of the members’ names were kept secret. 

They Crusaded Against Communism

John Birch Society placard at a 1963 rally. Source: (Calisphere/Los Angeles Times Photographs Collection)

The John Birch Society was, at its core, an anti-Communist group, rooted in conspiracy theories and a mission to save the Christian and Constitutional values of America. An extreme right organization, they engaged in broad accusations and were opposed to public water fluoridation, as well as the Civil Rights Movement, alleging that people of color were plotting to divide the country. Among their core principals were the following: American withdrawal from the United Nations, the exposure of Communists in the American government, the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren, and the end of any U.S.-Soviet cooperation. Some of their wilder claims included the statement that Kennedy was killed by his Soviet bosses as well as claims of Jewish conspiracies. In 1961, Welch told Society members that the American government was almost completely under the control of the Communists. However, it was not just the American government but other world governments as well. 

Relegated To The Fringes

Source: (City Journal).

At first, the Society was embraced by conservatives like Barry Goldwater, who refused to vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Goldwater thought that Robert Welch was an extremist, although he believed that the group was full of fine people. Goldwater tried to distance himself from the Birchers and their less plausible beliefs, such as the belief that Eisenhower had acted as an agent of the Communists. William F. Buckley, the founder and editor of the National Review, and, at the time a rising Conservative voice and at one time loosely connected to the Society, also denounced the extremism of the group and sought to distance conservatives from the Society.

Their Tactics To Stop Communism

Source: (Urban Americana).

The John Birch Society employed several tactics: they ran in local government campaigns, watched libraries for book acquisitions and tried to get certain books banned. They started letter writing campaigns and circulated petitions as they tried to get around mainstream media. They set up boycotts of stores which sold products from Communist countries and tried to get local governments to impose financial penalties on those that did. Young members were instructed to tell their cell leaders if their teachers exhibited any signs of being Communist. At the height of the organization, groups that subscribed to Birchian conspiracy theories had 500 radio broadcasts each week, and the Society itself produced a program on 100 stations, as well as a magazine, American Opinion.  

Tailor Made For Parody And Ridicule

Sterling Hayden in 'Dr. Strangelove.' Source: IMDB

The John Birch Society's enthusiasm for conspiracy theories made it a target of ridicule -- for instance, the character of General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb is clearly a Bircher. He believes the United States has become overrun with Communists and that unknowing Americans are being influenced by fluoridated water. As he is more or less launching World War III, he explains his reasoning for doing so to Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake:

"Do you realize that in addition to fluoridating water, why, there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk... ice cream. Ice cream, Mandrake, children's ice cream. You know when fluoridation first began? Nineteen hundred and forty-six. 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It's incredibly obvious, isn't it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That's the way your hard-core Commie works."

Today, this sounds over-the-top, but it's not far off from actual Bircher-speak of the early '60s.

Mad Magazine And Bob Dylan Spoofed The John Birch Society

Mad magazine interviews a JBS policeman, with art by Joe Orlando. Source: fireden.net

Mad magazine frequently poked fun at the Birchers, and self-proclaimed patriots in general, leading a retired brigadier general named Clyde J. Watts to publicly proclaim that Mad was “the most insidious Communist propaganda in the United States today.” Mad pushed back on Bircherism with "Mad Interviews A John Birch Society Policeman" (September 1965 issue), in which a local cop explained his duties, which seem to be less about public safety and more about hunting imaginary Communists. The cop explains that his "Birch Society training" enables him to spot secret "pinkos" -- who tend to be young protesters, people not born in the U.S., and anyone with an ethnic-sounding name.

In an early folkie parody, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" from 1962, Bob Dylan tried to get into the Bircher mentality: 

Well, I was feelin' lowdown and blue,
I didn't know what in the world I was gonna do,
Them Communists they wus comin' around,
They wus in the air,
They wus on the ground.
They wouldn't gimme no peace...
So I run down most hurriedly
And joined up with the John Birch Society,
I got me a secret membership card
And started off a-walkin' down the road.
Woah boy, I'm a real John Bircher now!
Look out you Commies!

The Decline Of The John Birch Society

Source: (Wikipedia)

On April 8, 1967, The Saturday Evening Post published “Mutiny in the Birch Society” portraying the Society as being in decline. Welch’s claims had gone a bit too far. Conservatives were distancing themselves from him. American attitudes about Communism were changing as well, as people were beginning to question whether the anti-Communist crusade was worth it as America was embroiled in the Vietnam War.  

It Is Still Around

Recent John Birch Society protesters in Belfast, Maine. Source: (PenBay Pilot).

The John Birch Society still exists today, publishing a bi-monthly magazine, The New American, as well as its website. It claims that it is an educational and not a political organization and one of its main aims is “to expose a semi-secret international cabal whose members sit in the highest places of influence and power worldwide.”

Tags: Communism | Conservatism | John Birch Society | Politics

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!