Today's post by Professor Thomas Mallon took this blogger back to his sophomore year in college. The blogger was an eager-beaver student in the second college course in the US history survey. The prof offered bonus credit on exams for attending for example appearances by Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society and William Worthy of the Fair Play For Cuba Committee. More recently, this blogger encountered issues of American Opinion (now The New American since 1985) on a visit to see his mother after her marriage to a man who was a member, or a supporter, of the John Birch Society. With those close encounters with the JBS, this blogger now is persuaded that when Dumbos/Teabaggers proclaim themselves to be conservatives they are trying to conceal their Bircher identities. If this is (fair & balanced) political labeling, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
A View From The Fringe
By Thomas Mallon
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
I have several reasons for keeping a half-century-old “Goldwater for President” poster on a wall of my university office. It serves as a reminder of youthful political passion (I turned thirteen the day before Lyndon Johnson crushed the Arizona senator at the polls), and it pays tribute to the plainspoken candidate’s libertarian anti-Communism. It also, I suppose, offers my own bit of micro-aggression toward those colleagues—which would be all of them—who find Goldwater’s world view, if they know it, even more abhorrent than antique.
There were things about him not to like, chief among them his constitutionally based refusal to vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. There was also his ongoing attempt, in the run-up to the nomination and throughout the Presidential campaign, to thread the needle in the matter of the John Birch Society. Founded in 1958 by the businessman Robert Welch, the society was the most robust political fringe group of its day, intent upon thwarting any U.S.-Soviet coöperation, withdrawing America from the United Nations, exposing Communists in the federal government, and impeaching Chief Justice Earl Warren. Rick Perlstein, in his 2001 book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, summarizes the trimming strategy: “Goldwater would take the line that Robert Welch was a crazy extremist but that the Society itself was full of fine, upstanding citizens working hard and well for the cause of Americanism.” Throughout the 1964 race, Goldwater availed himself of Bircher money and manpower at the risk of being soldered, by his opponents, to the Birchers’ more addled views, the most notorious of these being Welch’s suggestion that Dwight Eisenhower had consciously acted as an agent of the international Communist conspiracy.
The association of Goldwater and the society helped to take both of them down. By 1968, Richard Nixon, a needle-threader extraordinaire, had captured the Presidency and cemented an identification with conservatism despite being loathed by the Birch leadership for a lack of true belief. Nixon had famously withheld his applause when Goldwater declared, at the 1964 Convention, that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”; two years before that, he had been badly bruised by the society during his failed run for the governorship of California. (Screeching Bircher resistance during the Republican primary had left him exhausted for the general election.) After Nixon reached the White House, the dignified, mainstream sufferings of the “silent majority,” not the rants of the Birchers, became the engine of his feinting, flexible conservatism, which pivoted most audaciously with his decision to visit China in 1972.
No destination could have been more infuriating to the JBS, China being where its eponymous idol, a twenty-seven-year-old American missionary turned military intelligence officer, met his death at the hands of Mao Zedong’s Red Army, on August 25, 1945—becoming, in Welch’s estimation, “the first casualty” of the Cold War. Welch did not discover Birch’s story until 1953: in his brief book The Life of John Birch, published the following year, he describes how “all alone, in a committee room of the Senate Office Building in Washington, I was reading the dry typewritten pages in an unpublished report of an almost forgotten congressional committee hearing. Suddenly I was brought up sharp by a quotation of some words an army captain had spoken on the day of his death eight years before.” Welch tells his readers it is “no accident” that neither he nor they heard of Birch until years after his death—never mind that Welch’s own awareness, however deferred, came from reading the official transcript of a legislative hearing.
In Before the Storm, Perlstein describes Welch as a “very curious” combination of “arrogance and innocence,” and Terry Lautz, Birch’s most recent biographer, believes that the founder may have envied Birch’s religious certainty and seen in him “the heroic figure that he always wanted to be,” something beyond a prosperous executive in his brother’s candy business. (The James O. Welch Company’s most distinguished product was Pom-Poms, my nickel-a-box confectionary preference during the years of Goldwater’s ascendancy.) The subtitle of Welch’s book—“In the story of one American boy, the ordeal of his age”—reveals an author who can’t wait to be off to the races, and by the second page of his foreword Welch is in full gallop toward his goal of exemplarity: “even the purity of character and nobility of purpose of a John Birch can atone for only a small part of so much human vileness. But there is strong encouragement in finding so firm an entry on the credit side.”
D. J. Mulloy, in The World of the John Birch Society, published in 2014, shows how Welch’s anti-New Deal views, ordinary enough in a businessman, contained an “embryonic” radicalism that expanded during the early years of the Cold War. He describes Welch’s “belief that both his great political heroes, Robert Taft and Joseph McCarthy, had been ‘betrayed’ at crucial points in their careers by the Republican political establishment”—an entity that remains a given to both far-right Republicans and mainstream journalists. It has no clear counterpart in the Democratic Party, which even in periods of insurgency (Eugene McCarthy’s candidacy, say, or George McGovern’s) is rarely imagined to be operating by directives whispered from on high. Taft’s defeat by the Eisenhower vanguard at the 1952 Convention was especially embittering to Welch, “providing one of the principal launching pads for his career in conspiracism,” according to Mulloy. Two years later, in The Life of John Birch, Welch argued that “suppression” of the truth about Birch’s killing was “a minor chore” for the Communist conspiracy within the American government.
For a full understanding of that conspiracy, Welch directed his readers to “go back further”: past urgings by Dean Acheson and Henry Morgenthau, in 1933, that the U.S. recognize the USSR; past the prior radicalization of American labor unions; even past the social-welfare experimentation of Bismarck’s Germany, which resulted in more “minute controls over the lives of its subjects than had been seen since the time of Constantine.” As the years went on, Welch became lengthily fixated on the Illuminati of the eighteenth century. But, in 1954, the immediate aim of his lives-of-the-saints prose (“love for his parents that amounted almost to reverence. . . his deep and glowing affection for his brothers and sisters”) was to make John Birch into the first Bircher. The conditional-perfect tense provided much help: “he would never have been willing to accept peace, even for a short time, when purchased by a tolerance of such evils as he would soon have seen the Communists spreading across China and the world.”
Most treatments of Birch’s life have tended to present it as a short preface to the history of the society carrying his name. But now, in John Birch: A Life (2016), Terry Lautz reverses the usual proportions and presents a biography of Birch in which the society figures as a sort of epilogue. Lautz has the kind of credentials—a trustee of the Harvard-Yenching Institute; a member of the Council on Foreign Relations—guaranteed to give fits to any Bircher past or present, but his book is thorough, judicious, and, except for a few overdone academic references to Cold War “paranoia,” respectful of larger historical realities. Even conservatives near the mainstream’s right bank will be hard-pressed to see it as another anti-anti-Communist undertaking.
John Birch went to China in 1940 not to fight Communists but to create Christians. He was born in India, in 1918, during the overseas missionary service of his parents, a three-year period that ended in “frustration and disappointment” for Ethel and George Birch, whose evangelical zeal conflicted with the more material progress being pursued by the missionary Sam Higginbottom, their boss at the Allahabad Agricultural Institute.
Birch grew up with six siblings in New Jersey and Georgia, absorbing the fundamentalist outlook of parents ever more opposed to liberal American Protestantism, and entered Mercer University, in Macon, Georgia, in 1935. Slim and attractive, he was also, according to Lautz, “obstinate, passionate, and headstrong.” The most notable Stateside episode of his brief life involved participating in a thirteen-member student group against five professors whose theological views they deemed heretical. The accusing students were a decided minority on the Baptist campus, and charges against the faculty were dismissed after a ten-hour hearing. Birch went on to graduate at the top of his class but found himself “shunned” by a portion of its members. He began to feel that he had been used, provoked into the fight by some of Macon’s townie Baptist ministers. Lautz rejects arguments that he was a temperamental extremist of the Robert Welch sort, and some signs of a greater maturity and forbearance in Birch’s postgraduate years support this view, though it’s worth noting that Welch, in his own biography of Birch, says of the Mercer episode, “In the ardent certainty and fervor of his own early faith, he had been guilty of intolerance—or of what might be so construed by many people.” This is a mouthful coming from the founder.
Birch followed Mercer with a year of study at a Fort Worth Bible institute run by J. Frank Norris, a fundamentalist radio preacher. Seeing great potential in Birch, Norris kept track of the evangelist after pointing him to the Sweet Baptist Mission in Hangzhou, China, where he arrived in September, 1940. After a year in the country, then at war with Japan, Birch moved at some peril to Shangrao, about two hundred miles away. In time, he became skilled in Mandarin, an attainment that likely reflected not only professionalism but also a respect for the Chinese that exceeded the norm for proselytizers. (There is evidence from Birch’s Georgia youth that he recognized his own racial prejudice and struggled to overcome it.) Birch’s love of China, and his oft-expressed intention to stay there, eventually dissuaded his mother from making efforts to repatriate his body.
By April, 1942, Birch had become discouraged by illness, hunger, and missionary “bureaucrats” far from the scene. He wrote a letter volunteering for service, preferably as a chaplain, with the American Military Mission to China. Before getting a reply, he fortuitously encountered some of Jimmy Doolittle’s Raiders, who had landed a plane near Quzhou after their famous air raid on Tokyo. “They saw a gaunt Western man with several-days’ growth of beard,” Lautz writes, “and one of the airmen exclaimed, ‘Well, Jesus Christ!’ The missionary replied, ‘That’s an awfully good name, but I am not he.’ ” Birch began playing what his biographer calls a “useful but limited role in assisting the Doolittle Raiders”—aid that would later be puffed up by J. Frank Norris and, finally, by Welch—and went on to serve as “the eyes of the 14th Air Force,” the Flying Tigers, led by General Claire Lee Chennault. He retained his ambition to do evangelical work in Tibet once the war ended, but by the middle of 1945 he was depleted by malaria—“physically and mentally exhausted.” When he received a final military assignment in August—just after the Japanese surrender was announced and at the beginning of renewed conflict between the Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces—he was, Lautz writes, “showing signs of paranoia” and possible post-traumatic stress disorder.
This last mission involved searching for documents left behind by the Japanese in Jiangsu Province and assessing the state of the local railways and roads. Birch’s party ran into a group of Red Army soldiers; the Americans were told to disarm. Birch became angry and insulting; things quickly escalated and he was shot. Immediately afterward, at least one of the Communist soldiers mutilated his face “beyond recognition with a bayonet or knife.” Mao Zedong apologized for the killing to the American general Albert Wedemeyer, but came away from their meeting feeling “incensed and humiliated” by Wedemeyer’s insistence on “being able to send American troops anywhere in China without necessarily informing the Chinese beforehand.”
Lautz conscientiously presents the killing as a fog-of-war incident in which Birch’s “frustration and exhaustion” may have impaired his judgment. Still, if the author’s evenhanded effort shows more respect to John Birch than to the ideological martyrology that followed, it is remarkable that he finds it necessary to note how “all of the damage done by the likes of McCarthy and Welch paled by comparison with the massive ideological witch hunts in China under Mao.” The inclusion of this wildly self-evident stipulation—a sort of bland, unconscious concession—says something, in its small way, about the long-standing pervasiveness of American anti-anti-Communism, a quiescent orthodoxy that drove some conservatives to extremes.
There was indeed something slipshod, if not sinister, about the initial reports of Birch’s death: Ethel Birch was first told that her son had been killed by “stray bullets.” Sturdier information came her way later, but requests for a full accounting from the Pentagon and the O.S.S. left her convinced of a whitewash and even susceptible to the theory that his own government had ordered his murder. She gave Welch her permission to use John Birch’s name for the society, but she hoped to see her son accorded a religious rather than a political martyrdom.
Headquartered in Belmont, Massachusetts, near both Harvard and the Welch candy company, the society’s membership peaked, in the early to mid-nineteen-sixties, at between sixty thousand and a hundred thousand. Instructed by the JBS “blue book” and kept up to date by its magazine, American Opinion, members participated, during the organization’s first decade, in those efforts to cancel U.S.-Soviet summits and impeach Chief Justice Warren, circulating petitions, conducting letter-writing campaigns, and screening informational filmstrips. But the Birch leadership fought its deadliest battles against non-rogue elements of the conservative movement. Trying to thread the same needle as Goldwater, William F. Buckley, Jr., had National Review show Welch the conservative door in 1962; three years later, the magazine shut it on the whole society.
D. J. Mulloy sees the Birchers as having “played a crucial role in conservatism’s revival” because of these internecine smackdowns: the society helped “by providing something for more ‘respectable’ conservatives to define themselves against and differentiate themselves from.” This seems a stretch: the more that mainstream conservatives downplayed the Birchers’ influence, the more effectively liberal-minded media and politicians tended to overestimate it—and to condemn moderate conservatives for insufficiently distancing themselves from the society. What Mulloy calls the society’s “uncanny ability. . . to draw attention to itself and its causes and activities” can better be attributed to the Birchers’ liberal opponents than to themselves. Conservatives both mainstream and fringe were surrounded by what Mulloy, Perlstein, and others see as a much larger civic “consensus.” E. J. Dionne, in his new book, Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism—From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond (2016), recalls the conservative strategist Richard Viguerie explaining to him how direct-mail fund-raising, which came of age in the Goldwater campaign, “created lines of communication among conservatives unimpeded by mainstream media.” If moderates and liberals didn’t feel similarly impeded, it’s because by and large they weren’t.
The aggrieved sense of being divorced from the nation’s ethos helped to push some conservatives beyond the pale, into the exhilarating battle (and fellowship) that the Birch Society, operating locally in kaffeeklatsch-size chapters, seemed to offer. Claire Conner, in Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right (2013), tells of growing up in Chicago during the fifties and sixties after “the John Birch Society became my parents’ lifelong obsession.” (Her father, Jay, she says, spent thirty-two years on the society’s National Council.) Conner’s memoir has its affecting moments, but much of its dialogue is recalled with a kind of camera-ready convenience meant to penetrate the thickest skull: “Suddenly Dad erupted, ‘The goddamned liberal press smeared us again.’ He raged on about extremism, loyalty, and conspiracies. ‘We are patriots!’ he screamed. ‘Do you hear me? We are patriots! ’ ”
Jay Conner particularly admired Fred Koch, a Bircher businessman whose travels in the Soviet Union during the nineteen-thirties engendered a hatred of Communism and organized labor. Claire Conner’s treatment of Koch’s now famous sons, Charles and David, devotes no attention to how they have moved away from their father’s more outré positions. She tends to ring the sort of conspiracy bells her parents once did, as when she describes the funding of President George W. Bush’s Inaugural balls in 2001: “Much later”—really?—“America learned that a lot of that cash had come from big corporations that did business, or wanted to do business, with the federal government.”
Conner is routinely confounded by revelations of the nefarious, but when she learns, in 2007, “that the FBI had investigated the John Birch Society as part of its Subversive Trends of Current Interest Program,” she expresses none of the alarm that typically greets the discovery of similar Cold War surveillance of the left. The former sort can be presented, even in Birch histories less personal than hers, as pardonable or consoling. Mulloy may seem to have reservations about how Governor Pat Brown had California’s attorney general investigate the society’s activities in 1961, but when Perlstein asserts that President Kennedy “ordered an aide to begin preparing monthly reports on the right” and “asked the director of audits at the IRS to gather intelligence on organizations receiving tax exemptions,” he doesn’t break into a new paragraph, let alone a sweat.
The most interesting facet of Conner’s unfortunate youth involves her having been a student at the University of Dallas, and a witness to the Presidential motorcade, on November 22, 1963. “Did the Birch Society have anything to do with this?” she asks her father, just afterward, over the phone. “He hung up without answering,” Conner tells the reader; the gesture is meant to be read as furtiveness, not indignation. For fifty years, the judgment that the far right was at least indirectly guilty of Kennedy’s killing has been a mainstream position. From William Manchester’s The Death of a President (1967) to Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis’s Dallas 1963 (2013), the argument is made that a hateful climate created by extreme conservatives—particularly General Edwin Walker, a Dallas resident and perhaps the most famous Bircher after Welch—somehow hastened the President’s killing. It simply does not matter that Lee Harvey Oswald, a defector to the Soviet Union, had espoused an ill-tutored form of Marxism from the time he was a teen-ager, or that seven months before killing Kennedy, Oswald, with the same rifle, shot at and nearly succeeded in killing Walker. In April, we are supposed to believe, he was shooting at hate; by November, he was shooting from it.
J. Allen Broyles, in a book published the year after Kennedy’s death, The John Birch Society: Anatomy of a Protest, wrote, “The assassination of President Kennedy brought home to all thoughtful people our laxity in allowing the creation of an atmosphere in which assassination is not only possible, but almost expected.” Broyles makes three references to General Walker in his slender volume, but none to Oswald’s attempt on his life. “Communism killed Kennedy” remains one of the few defensible statements that the John Birch Society ever issued. Of course, Welch added his own evidence-free explanation of how Oswald received his orders from the American portion of the international Communist conspiracy.
In 1989, the John Birch Society moved its headquarters to Appleton, Wisconsin, the hometown of Senator Joseph McCarthy, a fact usually mentioned with just-sayin’ brevity in histories of the JBS. Reporting from the time of the move, however, indicates that the choice of a new location derived from its proximity to the business enterprises of the society’s CEO at the time, G. Allen Bubolz.
The diminished society can also today be found on the Web, its friendly home-page banner showing, when I clicked my way to it, a happy, ethnically diverse group of young people, one of them literally wrapped in the American flag. Issues highlighted by the Web site include energy (support for the nuclear variety), immigration (a call for the enforcement of “existing laws”), and trade agreements (opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership). None of these positions are especially radical, but it takes only a minute to find the rabbit holes: “Agenda 21 seeks for the government to curtail your freedom to travel as you please, own a gas-powered car, live in suburbs or rural areas, and raise a family”; the fight against ISIS “is a charade to help build the New World Order”; the most troubling aspect of “Our Nation’s Expanding Refugee Program” appears to be “the UN’s role” in it. One page on the site displays “Myths vs. Facts” about the society, an exercise that ends up striking a visitor as less defensive than vestigial: six of the nine myths, including how “the JBS considers public water fluoridation part of a Communist mind-control plot,” relate to controversies from the society’s half-century-old heyday.
Scholars and survivors of the society are frequently determined, beyond what is warrantable by the facts, to see the spectre of Birchism in any full-throated contemporary manifestation of conservatism. In 2008, with the election of Barack Obama and “a financial crisis that paralleled the Great Depression,” Claire Conner found herself, as so often, stunned, this time by a realization that “the slumbering John Birch Society was about to be born again.” In Why the Right Went Wrong, Dionne quotes Columbia professor Alan F. Westin’s prediction from 1962—“The future of the Birch Society and the radical right will very largely be shaped by the way business, conservatives, and the Republican Party police the boundaries of their movement”—and updates it with the observation that “those boundaries were to become quite porous with the rise of the Tea Party.” Even the levelheaded Terry Lautz, in describing Ted Cruz’s September, 2013, filibuster against funding for Obamacare, declares that “this effort to restrict government in the name of protecting individual freedoms was entirely consistent with both the principles and tactics once advocated by Robert Welch.” Cruz’s off-the-deep-end positions on a number of matters, including climate change, are amply and regularly on display, but how, exactly, does the use of parliamentary procedure by an elected senator square with Welch’s pamphleteering fantasies about twenty-five thousand traitors in our midst?
“All thoughtful people”—Broyles’s phrase for that civic consensus—might ask themselves if they sometimes aren’t guilty of erasing the boundaries they would have responsible conservatives “police” by exhibiting a tendency to see and speak of conservatism as a single fairly despicable continuum. It was Goldwater who walked conservatives into a trap fifty years ago, embracing the word “extremism” without in fact being an extremist himself. The result was to make the term forever available as a kind of branding iron to be applied from left to right.
These are deeply depressing times for moderate conservatives who are donating their time and money and shredded nerves to fending off the takeover of the Republican Party by far-right elements and non-ideological egomania. As they do so, they nonetheless find themselves routinely equated with the very forces to which they are intramurally opposed. D. J. Mulloy’s book quotes Robert Welch’s old complaint that he was excoriated while his “compatriots on the ideological battle ground”—the mainstream conservatives of his day—were “accorded by the Left all the respect and privileges of a ‘loyal opposition.’ ” Today’s temperate conservative feels less secure of such status. He listens to his party being called “crazy” and accused of “insanity” in editorials by the nation’s newspaper of record; finds himself tiptoeing through the watch-your-language world of the American university (where the Free Speech Movement took off during the year of the Goldwater campaign); and endures more and more instances of left-wing triumphalism, such as the New York City Council’s recent proclamation honoring Ethel Rosenberg’s one-hundredth birthday. Clinging to neither guns nor religion, and anything but blind to red-state fevers past and present, he wonders only if those on the other side of our ever more emotive and reflexive politics can at least see him apart from company he isn’t even keeping. Ω
[Thomas Mallon is a professor of English at George Washington University. He has received both a Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowship as well as the Vursell prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for distinguished prose style. Mallon was elected as a new member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012. See his books (fiction and non-fiction) here. Mallon received a BA (English) from Brown University as well as an MA and PhD (both English) from Harvard University.]
Copyright © 2016 The New Yorker/Condé Nast Digital
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License..
Copyright © 2016 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves