A new history of the John Birch Society suffers from its author’s insistence on equating the movement with today’s conservatives.
Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right, by Matthew Dallek (Basic, 384 pp., $32)
The moment the reader realizes the degree to which Matthew Dallek went native in writing Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right arrives late—on page 286 of a 288-page book. “We need to find space in our periodization of American politics for fringe traditions in general and the rise of Birchers in particular,” Dallek insists. “Call that period, from 1958 to 2022, the Bircher Years.” It undoubtedly came as a surprise for most readers to learn that they had lived the period of their entire lives in this epoch. Given that the group’s decline started more than a half century ago, the author by necessity depicts the “organization that did more than any other” to catalyze the “extremist takeover of the American right” as something like a time bomb that ticked for decades before detonating with Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. Dallek, in portraying an all-powerful John Birch Society (JBS) in a manner akin to how its members talk of Bilderbergers and the Trilateral Commission, fails to heed Nietzsche’s warning to avoid staring into the abyss, lest it stare back into you.
This lack of self-awareness strikes as particularly ironic given how Dallek shines in emphasizing that the JBS—an anti-Communist group founded in Indianapolis when candymaker Robert Welch lectured an audience of 11 accomplished men over two days (a la Joseph Stalin or Fidel Castro) in December 1958—embraced many of the conspiratorial tactics it deplored in Communists. “The use of front groups soon became a Birch Society calling card,” Dallek observes, later adding how “its organizing approach partly drew on the model of communist cells.” Like the Communist Party, the JBS conducted much of its business in secret, with strict security measures. A humorous story relayed in Birchers sees anti-Communist witness Herbert Philbrick alarmed when discovering doors locked from the outside at an early meeting convened in Manhattan by Welch. Eddie Opitz of the Foundation for Economic Education joked, “We must be a captive audience!”
Rather than laugh it off, the FBI informant informed—who else?—the FBI. This launched a prolonged monitoring campaign. By relying on reports from an enthusiastic group of private citizens, the FBI could benefit from violations of the civil liberties of JBS members as it disclaimed any involvement in illegalities.
Dallek’s most significant contribution involves revealing a “previously undisclosed counterintelligence operation waged by the [Anti-Defamation League] to infiltrate and dig up damaging information about the John Birch Society.” He notes how the so-called Birch Watchers tried to bait JBS leaders by issuing racist statements in their presence and how they even “posed as disgruntled Birchers to infiltrate white supremacist groups and assess the society’s existing ties to them.” He reveals that, in addition to the FBI, the press received reports that compiled the most unflattering material and that the targets of such operations “sometimes found their careers in jeopardy.”
The code-name-using Birch Watchers included cops, bankers, and others privy to sensitive information. Dallek writes: “They obtained chapter membership lists, ran credit reports on individual Birchers, ferreted out their employment records, traced their financial transactions, wrote down their license plate numbers, obtained a codicil to a Bircher donor’s will, stumped them with tough questions during call-in radio shows, set up a Birch chapter meeting on false pretenses so an ADL target could be ‘interviewed,’ and studied their personal and professional associations. Some of the scariest or most unflattering bits ended up in the press.”
One suspects that some of the scariest or most unflattering bits did not end up in Dallek’s book. He notes in his acknowledgments that the ADL “kindly allowed me to review some of the historical records in its archives.” Some of the historical records?
The author repeatedly rationalizes heavy-handed tactics against the JBS based not on facts but fears. He writes that the group “hinted at physical violence” and points to the concern that its “tactics could turn violent.” Yet, in an age rife with bombings, assassinations, and riots, the group’s tactics never did. Lee Harvey Oswald, months prior to murdering John Kennedy, had attempted to assassinate leading Bircher Edwin Walker. Still, swaths of the population prepped to expect violence from JBS members concocted their own conspiracy theories once the perpetrator’s identity disappointed. “Even if Birchers had not pulled the trigger,” Dallek writes, “they had seemingly put the president in the crosshairs.” Indeed, Society members embraced oddball ideas arrived at through cui bono logic and ideologically affirming conspiracy theories. But, of course, Americans hold a right to eccentricity of belief, and this alone could never justify treating the JBS on a par with the Black Panthers or Weatherman.
At least the Anti-Defamation League, working in tandem with the press and elites to defame political enemies, took the trouble to observe the words and actions of Birchers. Many Birchers from the group’s 1960s heyday are still around, but Dallek, treating his subjects as a leper colony, remarkably does not bother to interview them. The Birchers produced a monthly publication, American Opinion, which morphed into The New American, and it, too, strangely provides little fodder for Dallek in explaining what JBS members believed. Ditto for the great number of books—None Dare Call It Conspiracy, Shadows of Power, The Creature from Jekyll Island—peddled at Bircher bookstores and information tables.
National Review’s crusade against the John Birch Society, which strikes as part turf war, a bigger part intellectual-activist culture clash, and the biggest part a we’re-not-with-those-guys public announcement, at least relied on JBS literature and speeches. It expanded beyond Robert Welch to include, by 1965, the Society itself. The campaign lost the magazine some subscriptions, donors, and contributors, but it gained the Right credibility. Nevertheless, Dallek isn’t convinced by National Review’s protracted, and costly, criticisms of Welch: “Ideologically, [William F.] Buckley was not as far from the Birchers as has been claimed.” Buckley’s 1962 takedown of Welch, minimized by Dallek to buttress his shaky thesis that today’s conservative movement owes more to the Birchers than the Buckleyites, proved so effective (in contrast with a National Review misfire the previous year) precisely because it merely spotlighted the JBS leader’s language. Readers came away believing Welch a crackpot, not because of how Buckley characterized him but because of the words Welch used, which Buckley included in between quotation marks in the un-bylined article.
In contrast, we hear little from Birchers in Birchers. We hear much about them from people harboring contempt for them. Birchers found it terribly convenient to cast liberals whom they battled domestically as closet Communists. Dallek finds it terribly convenient to cast conservatives whom he dislikes as Birchers in disguise. Author and subject share this intellectually lazy and ideologically self-flattering habit.
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