American historian Kyle Burke writes about Robert Welch, the man who paved the way for the paranoid American right. Many liberals thought of Welch and his John Birch society as irrelevant anachronisms. Burke shows the distressing extent to which Welch still influences the American right.
Book referenced: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the revolution of American conservatism EDWARD H. MILLER 464pp. University of Chicago Press. $30.
In recent years, conspiracies have moved to the centre of American political and cultural life in an unprecedented fashion, especially for those on the Right. Millions now adhere to the QAnon conspiracy theory, including one-third of Republican voters, as well as rising stars of the Party itself, such as the congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. Conspiracy has been at the core of Donald Trump’s politics, from his insistence that President Barack Obama was born in Africa to his claims that Ted Cruz’s father had a part in the JFK assassination. Trump has often flirted with QAnon, too, ranting about the “Deep State” plot against him. This is a world in which Robert Welch (1899-1985), the founder of the John Birch Society ( JBS), would have been right at home. Indeed, as Edward Miller explains in his terrific biography, A Conspiratorial Life, Welch did as much as anyone to bring it into being: “all of us are strapped into the roller coaster in the fantastical theme park of Welch’s political imagination”.
Welch loomed over the landscape of American conservatism and anti-communism for more than four decades, weaving a tapestry of conspiracy theories that perhaps millions believed. His influence peaked in the 1960s, but his ideas and acolytes remained potent forces long after the JBS faded away and Welch died. Yet many historians have relegated him and his organization to the margins of the history of American conservatism. In their telling, the JBS played an important early role in the conservative movement but soon lost its potency and appeal. Many on the right came to see the group and its leader as too kooky, too radical, and too much of a liability. As a result, the JBS entered into terminal decline in the early 1960s. It became increasingly irrelevant as conservative activists and leaders sought to shed radicalism for respectability.
Miller’s biography seeks to give Welch and the JBS their proper due. “Rather than a story of rise, fall, and impotence”, he writes, “this book is a story of survival, growth, and significance.” The author succeeds, in part, because he had access to Welch’s personal papers, which no historian had consulted hitherto. He also succeeds because the moment in which he is writing has shown that the right never fully abandoned the world of conspiracy that Welch helped to dream up. It is all around us. Viewed through the lens of our current era, Robert Welch appears to be very important indeed.
Welch descended from a family of preachers and minor slave-owners in North Carolina’s Chowan County. He enjoyed a comfortable childhood and was, by all accounts, precocious, reading at the age of two. By twelve, he had enrolled at the University of North Carolina, where he impressed his peers and professors. As a teenager in the years around the
First World War, he considered and abandoned careers as a naval officer and a lawyer, briefly attending the US Naval Academy and Harvard Law School. One night, perched at his desk and staring out at Oxford Street near Harvard’s campus, Welch ruminated on “the surest and shortest road to financial success”. By dawn, the answer was clear: candy. Welch would make and sell confections.
The first few years were lean as Welch learned the trade. However, by 1927, his firm was employing more than 100 workers and his products – above all Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies – were thriving on the national market. He was a millionaire. Then came the Depression. Leveraged to the hilt, Welch lost everything and went to work instead for his younger brother, James, who had followed in Robert’s footsteps by setting up in the candy business. It was a humiliation for Robert. And there he would stay there for the rest of his life, earning a robust salary, though never as much as he felt he deserved.
It was during the Depression that Welch’s politics crystallized. He had inherited a deep antipathy towards federal intervention from his white peers in the South, but the New Deal honed and sharpened it. Welch joined a chorus of conservative corporate elites and middling business folk, mainly from the Midwest, who saw in the Roosevelt administration a creeping socialism. According to Welch’s worldview, leftists at home, allied with communists abroad, were working to collectivize the economy and with it American life itself.
Welch’s penchant for conspiracy swelled during the Second World War. He joined the America First Committee, a coalition that argued against US intervention in Europe and, at times, sympathized with the fascist powers. In Welch’s view, the Roosevelt administration had engineered a “backdoor to war”, while the US alliance with the Soviet Union only served to bolster socialism at home and abroad.
Welch got weirder. By the early 1970s, he had taken a giant leap beyond the notion of a mere communist bid for world domination.
In the postwar years, Welch moved into the political arena. He ran and lost a campaign in 1950 to become the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, a bid that highlighted his failings as a candidate. Awkward and introverted, he stammered and rambled from the rostrum, failing to convince voters. Behind the scenes, things were different. Welch joined the board of the National Association of Manufacturers, which was in the vanguard of the anti-New Deal movement. He developed close friendships with leading conservatives, such as Clarence Manion, soon to be the host of the nation’s most popular right-wing radio programme, The Manion Forum, and enlisted himself in Senator Robert Taft’s failed quest for the 1952 Republican presidential nomination. As Welch’s star was rising, the Cold War turned his stream of conspiracy thinking into a raging river.
The proceedings of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunts caused him to see evidence of subversion in every nook and cranny of American life, from the highest levels of government to local school boards. Possessed of an enormous intellect and an ego to match, Welch was convinced that he had uncovered a great truth in an age of lies.
The paranoia extended into Welch’s view of the world abroad, which in turn shaped how he saw things at home. Communist forces were gaining ground in Eastern Europe and, more importantly, Asia. Welch came to believe that a cabal of traitors in President Harry Truman’s State Department had deliberately ceded China to Mao Zedong’s communist forces. Joseph Stalin was directing world affairs, and secret communists in the upper echelons of the US government were helping him. Stalin, Welch wrote in his infamous book May God Forgive Us (1951), was even behind Truman’s dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.
In the 1930s, Welch tended to think liberals were unwittingly inviting socialism upon the nation. By the 1950s, he had concluded that liberals and many others were actively working to bring communism to the US. Most terrifyingly, for him, these traitors included President Dwight Eisenhower, whom Welch asserted was in fact a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy”.
This was conspiracy of an entirely different order. As such, it required a robust patriotic response, one that Welch presumed he was destined to lead. In 1958, he founded the John Birch Society, named after an American missionary who died during the Chinese Communist Revolution and whose death, Welch believed, had been covered up by Truman. The JBS was to serve two main functions. First, it would educate Americans about the real dangers facing their country, a booming refrain in the echo chamber of the conservative media. Second, it would turn those educated citizens into political activists, guiding into office candidates who could foil the conspiracy and save the nation.
Organized into local chapters that operated under the aegis of Welch’s national office, the JBS quickly gained members and membership dues. At its peak in the mid-1960s it had around 30,000 members, according to Miller, though Welch liked to put the figure closer to 100,000. Whatever its size, the JBS’s influence radiated far beyond its membership. Its publications sold well to a certain set of anti-communist Americans, and leading conservative intellectuals and media figures ran with Welch’s fanciful notions in print and on radio and television. On the streets and at the polls, JBS members propelled the Republican senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign that, despite its crushing defeat to Lyndon B. Johnson, strengthened the conservative movement’s grasp over the Republican Party. In the wake of Goldwater’s defeat, conservative activists and leaders within the party marginalized moderates while mustering support for candidates such as Ronald Reagan, who both harnessed and softened the extremist rhetoric of Welch and the JBS.
As the JBS played a key role in guiding grassroots conservative mobilizations across the country, Welch’s mind went into overdrive. He latched on to the fanciful notion that communists had infiltrated public health departments, using fluoride to enfeeble American brains and bodies in preparation for the coming communist occupation. Cribbing from the white supremacists in his midst, he claimed that communists ran civil rights organizations, with the aim of stoking the chaos that would enable a totalitarian state to take control. Meanwhile, communist agents at the helm of the Johnson administration had engineered a phony war in Vietnam, while leading US diplomats were working through the United Nations to establish a one-world government. Welch believed this stuff.
Hysterical and nightmarish, Welch’s worldview circulated throughout the right. Increasingly divorced from reality, it did not lack opponents.
Most Americans simply laughed Welch and the JBS off as a bunch of right-wing lunatics. Historians such as Richard Hofstadter saw them as part of a dying lineage, the “paranoid style in American politics”. This presented a problem for some conservatives, chief among them William F. Buckley, the editor of the National Review, who cast himself as the gatekeeper for respectable conservativism. Buckley and Welch had seen each other as allies for a time, and Buckley was no stranger to conspiracy or controversy. He himself had long argued that civil rights activists were agents of international communism. However, by 1962, he could no longer countenance Welch, who was, as Buckley put it, “damaging the cause of anti-communism” with his wacky pronouncements. Other conservatives joined the attack on the JBS. One opined that Welch had “done more to injure the cause of respectable conservatism than to act effectively against communism”. Hurt and betrayed, Welch struggled to salvage his organization’s reputation as membership and revenue began a slow decline after 1965.
Welch got weirder. By the early 1970s, he had taken a giant leap beyond the notion of a mere communist bid for world domination. There was a conspiracy behind the conspiracy: the Bavarian Illuminati, founded in 1776. They were the real puppet masters, pursuing their 200-year-old quest for global domination. This did little to bolster Welch’s image as a sane person, while internal squabbles and cronyism hamstrung the JBS.
Yet, as Miller explains, Welch retained significant power in the conservative movement. As he spun tales during the 1970s of the devilish Illuminati, he also turned his attention to cultural and religious matters – pornography, abortion and the equal rights amendment, all shoehorned into his evolving notion of conspiracy. Flush with funding from the Texas oil billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt, Welch mobilized a series of ad-hoc groups that allied with evangelical and new right organizations. It may be too much to call the 1970s “the best decade in the John Birch Society’s history”, as Miller does, but it is clear that Welch and his group had found renewed life in the changing currents of conservatism.
In this way, Miller argues, Welch and the JBS formed an important cog in the political machinery that brought Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980. Yet, by then, the JBS was falling apart. Bills went unpaid, chapters closed, and staffers turned on each other. Welch, who had managed the group with a tight fist, held his grip until a major stroke debilitated him in 1983. He died two years later, unable to recognize his wife.
The JBS limped through the next few decades, though Miller gives us little of that story. The organization’s fortunes then took a turn for the better when Trump took office, at least in terms of support for its ideas: its leadership, now based in Wisconsin, won’t release membership figures. JBS publications continue to rant about the Illuminati, the UN and the Council on Foreign Relations, and liberal plots to build a totalitarian state at home. Republican leaders, from Trump and Taylor Greene down to many on the local level, have embraced and propagated these notions. So, too, have influential figures such as the radio host Alex Jones, whose carnival parade of conspiracy theories follows in the steps of Welch and the JBS.
In Miller’s hands, the story of Robert Welch shows that there was no real dividing line between the responsible and radical right. The two fed off, and drew strength from, each other. In the end, Miller writes, “Welch was never excommunicated by William F. Buckley, Jr., and his conspiratorial style of politics remained extremely potent after his death”. Today, Welch’s ghost lingers over American politics, even though few invoke his name or remember his organization. But in the age of Birthers and Stop the Steal, QAnon and 8Chan, the story of Robert Welch is key to understanding how and why such a large proportion of the American right seems to have lost their bearings, and their grip on reality.