U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thinking With And About The Birchers: A Blog Experiment

Mulloy-World-of-the-JBSEarlier this year I read and reviewed D.J. Mulloy’s The World of the John Birch Society: Conspiracy, Conservatism, and the Cold War (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014) for the American Studies Journal. The review will appear in AMSJ’s winter 2015 issue (Vol. 54, No. 4). Because the initial draft far exceeded (i.e. more than doubled) my allowed word limit for the review, I thought I’d bring some of that excess here—for reflection and discussion.

The John Birch Society has arisen, as a conversation topic, many times here at the blog. I brought it up in a critique of George Nash’s Conservative Intellectual in America: Since 1945 (which engendered a spirited comments section). I also mentioned JBS earlier this year, with a preliminary comment on Mulloy’s work:

That world [of JBS], which Mulloy covers during the 1950s and 1960s, was dominated by a paranoid, suspicious, and conspiratorial sensibility that melded emotion and reason (unhealthily, I believe). No one was ever anti-communist enough. Pink and red-tinted glasses colored their worldview. Their shrillness, on that topic in particular, can be fairly compared with today’s most radical Tea Party adherents, who see everything as diabolically connected to a sinister Obama “plan” (e.g. the Twitter hashtag #thanksObama began, I think, by capturing some of that crowd but now makes fun of it). But I wouldn’t hazard an argument that the darker #thanksObama crowd is quantitatively worse or more prevalent or perverse than any hypothetical “#thanksEisenhower” crowd might have been. (The JBS began by arguing about Dwight’s brother Milton, but eventually argued, famously, that Dwight was also weak on communism.)

I wrote that in the midst of my reading, desiring to get the word out on the book and Mulloy’s work. Now to my review, but first a note: This experiment with “review leavings” is new to me, so I apologize for any awkwardness in what follows. Obviously this isn’t a full review, and therefore doesn’t fully cover the book’s topics.

Here’s the first lame draft of my review’s thesis (spruced up considerably for AMSJ): In The World of the John Birch Society, D.J. Mulloy makes a convincing case for viewing the John Birch Society as a group that was, paradoxically, both mainstream and ultra-right wing. Their conspiratorial sensibility was, Mulloy argues, less a social aberration than many historians today realize. I added this for emphasis: If there is another study that more thoroughly underscores the historical continuity of past and present far right-wing ideology in America’s society and politics, I have not seen it. I can still go with that.

There was no room in the review to discuss Mulloy’s background, but few are more qualified to analyze the JBS story. This book fits into Mulloy’s general research agenda on political extremism and “ultra groups” in the United States. That agenda includes a special interest in the relationship between political rhetoric and intellectual history. He has published two other works on post-1945 American militia groups and their politics, Homegrown Revolutionaries: An American Militia Reader (University of East Anglia Press, 1999) and American Extremism: History, Politics and the Militia Movement (Routledge, 2004). A work on JBS is clearly a natural extension of Mulloy’s interests.

I wanted to recount Welch’s most prominent publication to help contextualize JBS’s formation and early popularity, as well as to establish a deeper continuity with the present. For, in the Society’s foundational text, Robert Welch’s Blue Book (1961), he argued that the “increasing quantity of government…has constituted the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.” He added that the “greatest enemy of man is, and always has been, government”—”the larger…that government, the greater the enemy” (p. 11). To Welch and Birchers, individual responsibility and freedom constituted real conservatism and Americanism. This part of their ideological program allowed conservative politicians such as Barry Goldwater and conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley to associate, for a time, with the Society (Goldwater and Buckley are covered in chapter three). Bircher resistance to the Civil Rights Movement could also be linked to their belief in the dangers of excessive government, and consequent support for states’ rights (p. 108). Even while Republican Party leaders rejected connections to the Society after 1964, the group remained relevant for many years after because their anti-statist ideology. Indeed, it is this aspect of the Mulloy’s work that speaks to the present-day extremism, demonstrating the persistence of ultra-style thinking and action in American political culture.

Given my professional interest in the history of education, I was struck by Welch’s view of JBS as an “educational organization.” The Birchers, Mulloy argues, maintained a “faith in the persuasive power of all things textual” (p. 127). The Society dispensed knowledge about the internal communist threat through a speakers bureau, reading rooms, and publications (periodicals, new and reprinted books). Welch’s “bibliophilic tendencies” led to creation of over 400 American Opinion libraries, a publishing division (Western Islands), and two magazines (a weekly, Review of the News, and a monthly, American Opinion) with a total circulation of approximately 50,000 (p. 181, 187, 193n33). The Birchers also operated a weekly radio program, called Are You Listening, Uncle Sam?, broadcast on more than one hundred stations (p. 187).

This led me to some criticism of Mulloy’s book. Given these numbers, and if Welch’s self-assessment of JBS is right (and I think Mulloy concurs), then the organization ought to be analyzed as an educational institution. But it wasn’t. What of its teaching techniques? How did its leaders adjust its messages for different audiences? How did it target adult learners? Or children? How did the organization recruit, rate, and reward its instructors? How were citizen students recruited and retained? What of the economics of the publishing house? Who controlled editing, peer review, and “fact-checking”? Did other bookstores carry JBS-Western Island titles?

If a group wants to set up an alternate worldview or sensibility, then it must (or will naturally) seek converts. Converts are made by education. Mass numbers of converts can only be quickly and efficiently made by educational institutions. Those structures will be mimetic, since teaching techniques will be similar (for the sake of efficiency, hence the faith in texts and lectures).

Once the door of criticism was opened, other topics arose. There were, to me, many other interesting and significant questions that Mulloy either could not address or chose not to answer. What of JBS as a cult? Given its quiet nature, hierarchical structure, and Welch’s eventual devolution into Adam Weishaupt’s Illuminati conspiracy theory, the Birchers almost beg for analyses as a religious entity (p. 182-85). The reader is left to wonder how other 1960s thinkers countered the false beliefs of Birchers. What legal, rational, and socially acceptable means of resistance were used to push back against the group’s fantastical beliefs and “educational literature”? And if Birchers were seen as potentially dangerous and organized resistance was rare, why was that so?

These critical questions did not diminish my enthusiasm for Mulloy’s book. Indeed, his narration the background he brought to the topic enabled my musings. Finally, for the present, if those repulsed by far-right rhetoric and thinking might obtain some sense of historical understanding on the topic, perhaps better coping mechanisms might emerge. If concerns are engaged (if not fully shared), perhaps shared solutions might result.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Dylan was going to sing this on the Ed Sullivan show in 1963. CBS told him he couldn’t; he refused to appear. It also was pulled from his Freewheelin’ album on Columbia Records after a number had been pressed.

    “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”

    Well, I was feelin’ sad and feelin’ blue
    I didn’t know what in the world I wus 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
    Yee-hoo, I’m a real John Bircher now!
    Look out you Commies!
    Now we all agree with Hitler’s views
    Although he killed six million Jews
    It don’t matter too much that he was a Fascist
    At least you can’t say he was a Communist!
    That’s to say like if you got a cold you take a shot of malaria
    Well, I wus lookin’ everywhere for them gol-darned Reds
    I got up in the mornin’ ’n’ looked under my bed
    Looked in the sink, behind the door
    Looked in the glove compartment of my car
    Couldn’t find ’em . . .
    I wus lookin’ high an’ low for them Reds everywhere
    I wus lookin’ in the sink an’ underneath the chair
    I looked way up my chimney hole
    I even looked deep down inside my toilet bowl
    They got away . . .
    Well, I wus sittin’ home alone an’ started to sweat
    Figured they wus in my T.V. set
    Peeked behind the picture frame
    Got a shock from my feet, hittin’ right up in the brain
    Them Reds caused it!
    I know they did . . . them hard-core ones
    Well, I quit my job so I could work all alone
    Then I changed my name to Sherlock Holmes
    Followed some clues from my detective bag
    And discovered they wus red stripes on the American flag!
    That ol’ Betsy Ross . . .
    Well, I investigated all the books in the library
    Ninety percent of ’em gotta be burned away
    I investigated all the people that I knowed
    Ninety-eight percent of them gotta go
    The other two percent are fellow Birchers . . . just like me
    Now Eisenhower, he’s a Russian spy
    Lincoln, Jefferson and that Roosevelt guy
    To my knowledge there’s just one man
    That’s really a true American: George Lincoln Rockwell
    I know for a fact he hates Commies cus he picketed the movie Exodus
    Well, I fin’ly started thinkin’ straight
    When I run outa things to investigate
    Couldn’t imagine doin’ anything else
    So now I’m sittin’ home investigatin’ myself!
    Hope I don’t find out anything . . . hmm, great God!

      • Update: This song is mentioned on pp. 30-31. FWIW, another group, the Chad Mitchell Trio (also from the folk genre) composed a song about the Birchers around the same time as time (early 1962), titled “The John Birch Society” and live recorded in March 1962 in Greenwich Village. – TL

      • then there’s the inimitable phil ochs’ “i like hitler” and its verse dedicated to the JBS:

        I like Hitler, Jolly Jolly Hitler
        I like Hitler and Mussolini too

        I like Franco in Spain
        And I’ll have to maintain
        That Batista was
        Really quite all right

        Trujillo was my man
        Henry Ford/Hendrik Verwoerd would understand
        What this country
        really needs is apartheid

        Loyally we Birch along
        Birch along, Birch along
        Loyally we Birch along
        Back to the good old days

        God save the king.

        song was written by michael brown who i don’t think was ever a member of the trio although john denver was and roger mcguinn was a sideman as he was for the limeliters.

        ochs turned the song “I’ve got Sixpence” (which appeared on his 1963 “camp favorites” album of campfire songs on Cameo) into the John Birch Society put-down “I Like Hitler,” which, although never commercially released, found its way into his early set lists.

        FWIW i would be more inclined to to put the mitchell trio, pp&m, journeymen, kingston trio, limeliters, and others of that ilk into a genre more along the lines of “folkish pop.” while i don’t pretend to be able to define or know what folk music is (talk about a can of worms) i know what it ain’t and it ain’t this stuff.

  2. Tim–great piece! I have a question about the class character of the JBS. To what extent were core Birchers wealthy? I have a general sense that the appeal of the far right in the early 60s was concentrated among the very rich, as in the case of HL Hunt, Robert Welch, and Fred Koch(sr)? Sometimes I think the pushback against Hofstadter has made us nervous about analyzing the class politics of conspiratorialism/paranoia, but to my mind, it is as essential to consider the class situation of the JBS, just as one must consider the class situation of the SDS (primarily petty-bourgeois, public-college educated, Catholic and Jewish) the class situation of Reagan Democrats (recently asset-enriched homeowner proletarians) or the class situation of the Tea Party (which I would characterize as haute bourgeois employers).

    So–where does the JBS fit in, class-wise?

    • putting together a quick list of 34 SDS luminaries shows that more than half attended private colleges (two of the 32 attended both). While this is not a scientific or all inclusive study I think it may hold true for a larger group.

      • One survey in the early 1970s found the typical John Birch Society member was middle or upper-middle class, Republican and Protestant. He was also fairly young and well educated: the majority of the sample was under 40 at time of recruitment and had completed at least three years of college. A later survey in the mid 1980s found the membership then was disproportionately Southwesterners, young, urban, male, and Catholic. They were consistently conservative on secular issues, antigovernment, and negative toward communism. The evidence does not support liberal notions that irrationality, social strains, or status anxiety explained their beliefs.[

  3. Kurt: Mulloy covers the demographics on pp. 11-12 of the text. That part of his text derives primarily from prior research by Barbara S. Stone (1974 article) and Clyde Wilcox (1988 article), but also some of the work done by Lisa McGirr and Eckard V. Toy Jr.

    First off, they Society was not composed primary of older, less-well-off, and less-educated males from low-status jobs. Birchers were relatively young (median age 44) men AND women who were well-educated of “substantial incomes” (p. 12). They were not irrational or strange, but rather rational actors, Republican, and conservative, holding negative attitudes “toward Communists, symbols of the Left, and the eastern establishment” (from Wilcox). Wilcox and others found Birchers primarily in the South and West of the U.S., “especially in California, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas.” The group had no religious mission, despite the cults and creeds of Bircher adherents. So the research differs some from the second comment of Publius above. – TL

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