The John Birch Society and the birth of the far-right rage machine

American politics is arguably the product of Robert Welch, a far-right activist who was mostly ignored by conventional journalists and historians
Photo: Marco Verch/Flickr

Episode Summary

William Faulkner’s line that “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” is certainly true in regards to today’s Republican Party, which, quite literally, is an outgrowth of a conspiracy revolution that began in the 1940s and fifties, and never really stopped. 

A key figure in the through-line of American reaction is Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, a conspiracy group that he founded in 1958, which still exists today.

The John Birch Society has many interesting stories of its own. And we’ll discuss that in this episode, but Welch and his group  are also important in their placement relative to other Republicans. And also how people outside the GOP responded to them,  particularly Democratic and progressive elites.

There’s a tendency among elite Democrats to think that the radicalization loop that the Republican Party has been stuck in is just somehow irrelevant, that people will automatically know that right-wing extremists are foolish and crazy, and so therefore, they don’t need to be countered. But as we’ve seen, this is a terrible error.

Joining me for an in-depth discussion about all this is Edward H. Miller.  He is a teaching professor at Northeastern University and the author of A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society and the Revolution of American Conservatism, which just recently came out. He’s also the author of Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy, which he published in 2015. 

The unedited video of our conversation follows. A transcript of the edited audio follows.


Transcript


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today, Ted. 

EDWARD H. MILLER: Oh, it’s a great pleasure to be here. Thank you very much for having me on your show. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, all right. So I guess before we get details of what we’re talking about here, tell us a little bit, how did you become interested in this material about right-wing extremism in 20th century America? 

MILLER: I attended Boston College for my PhD and I took a seminar with professor Seth Jacobs at Boston College. And it was a graduate seminar on from 1865 to the present, and I read Lisa McGirr’s book Suburban Warriors. It’s a classic, came out in 2001 and it explored the rise of the conservative movement and the suburban warriors of Southern California, looking at the grassroots and how they got involved initially in the early 1960s, and how they came to California and how they helped elect the Governor Reagan in 1966 and then pursued social issues throughout the seventies. And then finally supporting Reagan in 1980. 

They also were very much active in the (1964) Barry Goldwater campaign and having read, having read Suburban Warriors, I became interested in other epicenters of American conservatism. And I wondered if there were more. And she mentioned in her book that there were more in Atlanta which Kevin Kruse had explored in White Flight.

And I came upon Dallas, Texas, and I looked at Dallas, Texas, and in very much the same way. I explored, I did a study of Dallas, Texas called Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy that took a look at the individuals, the grassroots figures, as well as the elites, who led a movement for conservatism, getting involved in the Goldwater campaign, getting involved in the Reagan campaign in the 1980s, as well as 1976 when he ran against Gerald Ford for the nomination.

So it was a great moment in my career to discover a topic that I became really fascinated with. And then the rest is history. 

I started to pursue that topic. And I had an advisor at the time who mentioned, instead of Dallas, instead of heading all the way down to Dallas to do your dissertation, why don’t you study the John Birch Society?

And I said well, I’m not really, I’m not really sure I know enough about the John Birch Society. I looked at the archives at Brown University where they’re located. And at the time, I thought it was an organization that was not as important as it is. And I thought it would be an outlier and it would not help my professional career, to be honest, to study that.

But I continued to heed his wisdom and pursued that as my next book. I’m looking at Robert Welch and I became interested in biography.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Okay. So the John Birch Society, I think you’re right that a lot of people haven’t heard about them. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. One of them being that sort of Republican elites tried to take attention away from them. And we’ll get into that. But it also kind of fits within this larger tendency among sort of centrist pundits, or, liberal, conventional, liberal professors to think that, right-wing extremism is just the fringe of the fringe. It’s not relevant to anything. And nobody cares about what they think. And this is a tendency that’s, unfortunately, very consistent in American history. And we keep seeing that over and over again. 

Even in terms of the history of American conservatism, writing it, for a long time, the only people who wrote about this movement that came along and literally took over a political party were the people who agreed with it. And there were no academics just writing a neutral history. There were a handful of progressive historians that were writing about it. Otherwise, it was just not something that historians were interested. 

They wanted to have the 50,000th book about Adolf Hitler and World War II. Because of course we need more of those, right? But something that happened in your own country, a party getting taken over by crazy people, ‘well, that’s not interesting.’ Would you agree that people kind of did that in historian academic world?

MILLER: No, I think it’s absolutely true. The conservative movement, the narrative of the conservative movement was shaped significantly by one of its most important inventors, William F. Buckley, who was a prolific writer and there’s the phrase, “If you write the history, that’s how it’s remembered.” And he, that’s what he did. 

He continued to write a lot about the history, not in a monograph form, but in essays and articles. And he was very much a gatekeeper of American conservatism. And him and other folks like George Nash who explored the intellectual history of American conservatism, determined that there were three strands of American conservatism. An anticommunist strand, a traditionalist strand, as well as a libertarian strand. 

And both of those folks were very instrumental in determining what historians looked at. And so, a famous historian said in, I think it was the early 1990s, he said, ‘Well, how come we don’t have any books on American conservatism?’

And there it began. And we started to see a plethora of historians exploring American conservatism, starting of course, with the McGirr book, which is probably the most famous. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then of course we got Rick Pearlstein who has done a number of interesting books. But even once he got started, I still think there was this tendency of, you could just kind of ignore and only I would say, really in the the 2000s did things really get started in the academic world to try to look at this stuff. 

And there’s just so much material that really hasn’t been written about. And in your case with Robert Welch and the John Birch Society. And that ignorance, despite all these many great volumes that have come out, you still have David Brooks— the New York Times columnist, who now says he’s a moderate Democrat— he wrote a column this week that came out in which he lumped Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Goldwater and said that they were in the same tradition. Even though the entire point of the Barry Goldwater political career was that Dwight Eisenhower was, if not a commie, a sympathizer and a liberal. 

MILLER: Yeah, just to give you a rundown about their ideological background, Dwight Eisenhower expanded Social Security, he expanded education, he passed a scientific bill that would add more engineers in the United States. He built the interstate highway system. 

Goldwater, he wanted to take all those things apart. He he wanted to decrease the size of the government and introduce less regulation. He spoke of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

And there were five times in 1954 that Dwight Eisenhower refused to use nuclear weapons, despite the fact that his Joint Chiefs of Staff and his vice-president were encouraging it. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yep. 

MILLER: So there’s a dramatic difference. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. There’s this tendency, I think for a lot of elite centrists or liberals that the only Republicans that they know are well-groomed articulate people like David Brooks or like William F. Buckley and so, to their minds, they don’t think that these people could have any radical ideas because: ‘Well, look, they know how to use a salad fork. They eat soup with a spoon.’ 

They keep doing it. Like they did this with David Duke when he was a young activist, ‘I’m against the KKK. I’m a former KKK member, but then look, I can wear a suit and I look nice on TV.” And they were putting him out there all the time.

And then they did this with successive far-right figures over the decades. And more recently with some of these alt-right people. I remember there was this Mother Jones story, which I think will live in infamy in which the lead of the story was about how this white nationalist, he knew how to use chopsticks to eat togarashi tuna. And that was the lead of the story! 

MILLER: Their culinary habits may have been different, but their statements weren’t obviously different. William F. Buckley said that the white race was the advanced race in a National Review article. And that would be something that would be abhorrent today. He argued that he was for paving over voting rights rather than opening them up. So he was very open to this idea of limiting democracy. There was also other statements he said that the 14th and 15th amendment were inorganic accretions to the Constitution. Those are important amendments that provided voting rights for African-Americans as well as equal rights to African-Americans, at least in theory. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then his first book, God and Man at Yale, was quite literally him urging Christian conservatives to cancel professors at Yale University. It was just this long litany of: ‘Professor So-and-So doesn’t believe in the resurrection, Professor So-and-So said this thing about John the Baptist , Professor So-and-So might be an atheist, Professor So-and-So is a communist.’ 

Just this endless attempt to cancel people. And then at the same time, going around and saying that they are the oppressed ones. That’s just this consistent behavior, and Donald Trump, for all the terrible things he did, one thing he did was that he showed people that there is this tradition in Republican far right politics to, try to oppress everyone else, while saying that you are the victim. 

MILLER: Yeah, no, I agree. I think that it is at least given us an opportunity and we’re seeing that today, there are a number of studies that are coming out. John Huntington’s work, my work on Robert Welch, there are other historians who are exploring the far right, that are going to be on the shelves very soon.

And also the global far right. We’re starting to combine what was going on around the world to what was going on in the United States. We’re starting to see it as a global movement. So I think that’s an important step we’re starting to see figures embrace what Kim Phillips-Fein called the “baroque strangeness” of American conservatism and the charlatans. And the quote losers, the people who we thought lost, ultimately have turned out to be the winners in politics.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. That’s a great segue into talking about your book here. So, Robert Welch. Who was Robert Welch? The John Birch Society still exists today. So what is the John Birch Society and who was Robert Welch? 

MILLER: Robert Welch was born in North Carolina in 1899 was first a candy manufacturer and a very precocious individual. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at the age of 16. He actually started to attend there at age 12. And before a brief career in the news business, he decided to attend Harvard Law School, dropped out of Harvard Law School because he was unhappy with Felix Frankfurt’s political philosophy. And then became a very successful candy manufacturer. He created such childhood favorites is the Sugar Daddy, Junior Mints, the Sugar Babies. And there were other types of candies and he did very well in his own career. After that, his business failed due to the crash in 1929.

And then he went to work for his brother. After many successful years, his brother was even better at business in the booming 1950s as he was in the 1920s, Welch decided to get involved in politics. 

He had, he always had a an interest in politics. He ran for lieutenant governor and lost, came in second for the Republican nomination in 1950. But what he did was, he started an organization called the John Birch Society, which was a far right organization that pursued free markets and single issue goals such as ending the career of Earl Warren, impeaching Earl Warren, prohibiting fluoride, getting the United States out of the UN. 

SHEFFIELD: So his first book, let’s talk about that, tell the audience about his first book is I think that’s another key to understanding him.

MILLER: Yeah he was always interested in, he was an intellectual. He was very upset by the the firing of (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur by Truman. And he wrote a book called May God Forgive Us. 

And this book posited that it was Stalin, not Truman, who fired MacArthur. It was a conspiracy. It was a conspiracy of the State Department to lose the Korean War. And it was a conspiracy among the State Department to lose China. This is really a book about China. He is a member of a group that is fascinated with China and Formosa [Taiwan]. 

SHEFFIELD: And that idea, sort of has come back again, this obsession with China now. 

MILLER: Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: And that’s one thing I do want to emphasize to people in this episode is that so many of the ideas of Robert Welch, of his conspiracy theories, his targets of his theories, just the general ideas of them, like the fluoride, that was the precursor to being concerned about vaccines that we see today. And the obsession with communists and now we’re seeing that with critical race theory and antifa obsessions. 

Basically, I think the easy way to understand the career of Robert Welch is that he was a proto-Alex Jones in a lot of ways, but a smarter version of him. Would you say that’s an accurate summation of him ?

MILLER: I think that, if you take a look at the styles that Alex Jones has, Robert Welch is not, does not have that animated, pumped up style. Robert Welch would drone on about that the fluoride is going to get into your system and it’s going to enervate the vigor of the American public. And we’re going to turn to communism and that we’re on a slippery slope to losing the sovereignty of the United States, but he would do so in a way that was not that is not as histrionic. That’s not as dramatic. If you look at his films, they are a lot more calm, and he would present himself in a way that— it was just a different style than Alex Jones. He wouldn’t be dressed up in a frog suit. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Okay. Well, I guess I should clarify, not in terms of their personal style, but in terms of their entrepreneurship, their conspiracy factories. Alex Jones has made multiple films, so did Robert Welch. They both made multiple films. They both had multiple publications. And they both were actively, constantly trying to get into Republican politics and align themselves with candidates. Alex Jones was Ron Paul, he was endlessly flacking for him for decades before he started working for Donald Trump 

MILLER: I’ll use a line from The Wire. ‘Everything has to fit together in the mind of Robert Welch, everything kind of connects.’ And this connects to that. He has a worldview in which there are elites who make the decisions, first it’s the communists, and then it’s the insiders who are establishment folks who live on the East Coast and are financiers. And then it’s the Illuminati because it changes from being communist conspiracy and it turns into something bigger than a communist conspiracy. It turns into a very much like the Bilderbergers, as Alex Jones would say. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think, and there’s another parallel besides in the QAnon movement also, it has this fantastic, gigantic conspiracies that no one ever can really see. And the reason that they’re real is that you can’t see them. 

MILLER: Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: So yeah. All right. So Welch was obsessed with Dwight Eisenhower and so his first book, it was attacking him and then he kept doing that throughout his career. And that was the topic of his next book. Can you talk to you about that one? 

MILLER: What happens is Welch gets involved in the Taft campaign in 1952— 

SHEFFIELD: Tell everybody who that was. 

MILLER: Robert Taft was an Ohio senator, very very conservative. He was called Mr. Republican. Just a little bit to the left of Joseph McCarthy. And a little bit more logical than Joseph McCarthy, although Taft sort of embodies the same attitudes of Joseph McCarthy without the ridiculousness of Joseph McCarthy. And certainly without the alcohol that Joseph McCarthy imbibed every day.

But Welch gets involved in the 1952 election for Republican president, the nomination for the Republican presidency. And he notices something about what’s going on, because he’s always thinking in sort of conspiratorial terms. And he’s always thinking about: It’s not right, he says the folks who are associating with the Eisenhower people. He comes to the conclusion that Eisenhower is a— Welch comes to the conclusion and he writes a letter about this. It’s just a personal letter to a friend and then it grows into a larger letter and he basically says that it’s my opinion, it’s my belief that if you take all these things together, it’s beyond a reasonable doubt that Eisenhower is a communist. And he backs it up with all this evidence that ‘where did they find this individual in the Army? Where did they where did this individual come out of all of a sudden to win a nomination that was very clearly in the hands of Robert Taft before Eisenhower pulled it away from him. And then what happened in Texas with the switch of the delegates — I explain it more in the book, but there’s a switch in among delegates in Texas.

Welch says that basically that the election was stolen from Robert Taft by Eisenhower, with the assistance. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And as a theory, it’s totally absurd. The idea that the chief general of the United States, the Supreme Commander of the entire armed forces who won World War II isn’t going to be a popular guy. It is an asinine idea that he would have to steal an election. 

MILLER: Or again, that he’s a communist at all. Eisenhower is a patriot. Is a devoted patriot, probably the most, one of the most devoted patriots in the history of the country. It’s Dwight Eisenhower.

SHEFFIELD: And this is another parallel with today though, with the idea that Joe Biden stole the election from Donald Trump, even though Donald Trump was literally the most unpopular American president in modern history, since the invention of opinion polls, he is the most unpopular president ever.

And so the fact that he lost an election, is not a conspiracy . You can’t really challenge that on any credible grounds, but they did. 

MILLER: And Taft was an aloof politician. He was a very good politician. He was elected. He did well in Ohio. He was from Ohio, but he certainly was not a popular general with a with a national backing. He didn’t have the support of 

SHEFFIELD: And universal name recognition. 

MILLER: He didn’t have the name recognition. He had the support of the McCormick newspapers in Chicago. He had the backing of folks in the Midwest, but Eisenhower had the East the Northeast, which was very important at the time. He had the newspapers in the East. He had the backing of the rank and file. And he was this smiling gregarious— anybody who came near him, saw that he had a innate ability to lead. And Taft was not like that Taft was dour. And he looked like a professor, and he didn’t have the the charisma of an Eisenhower.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. But this was such an explosive thesis, that Welch actually kind of tried to circulate the book in secret, to a large degree initially. But eventually, it got out and he kept trying to whip people up against Eisenhower, Republicans, and it never worked.

But at the same time, it kind of laid a groundwork of resentment against Eisenhower among a certain set of Republicans. And so that led, I would say, not directly, but it kind of that metastasized to some degree, into the founding of National Review, which came out a couple of years later, I think it was 1955. And the point of National Review was that Dwight Eisenhower is a liberal and he’s a RINO [Republican in Name Only], and he needs to be drummed out of the Republican party. That was the point of National Review in the beginning, right? Buckley hated Eisenhower, he just didn’t think he was a communist. 

MILLER: Oh yes. He was concerned with— the masthead of National Review said: ‘Stop, we’re trying to get history to stop. We don’t want any more Social Security legislation. We don’t need anything else. No more New Deal legislation. We don’t need any more countries taken over by Stalin. 

SHEFFIELD: Roll back. We have to roll 

MILLER: It back. Yes. Liberation. Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: And so, but, and that’s why he (Buckley) got the letter, I would say that— 

MILLER: Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: Eisenhower was because he was seen as somebody who had hated him. Even though initially, Buckley and Welch were kind of going for the same goals to oppose Eisenhower and roll back the welfare state and engage in nuclear war with the Soviet Union, they eventually came to hate each other. Can you talk about that relationship? Because its very complicated, and this is probably the biggest area where the media bias of conservative historians has incorrectly described in a lot of people’s minds about how that, that transpired the events between the two of them.

MILLER: Yeah, well, as I said before, Buckley was a gatekeeper and he supported Nixon. Wasn’t probably his first choice in 1960, but Buckley was with Nixon. As time passed, Buckley, his goal became to elect a conservative Republican in 1964. There was a a moment in 1960 at the Republican National Convention in which Goldwater got up on stage and said if we want to take this party back, and I believe we can, we’ve got to work together, but Nixon’s your man.

So Buckley, in roughly 1961 comes to the conclusion that Welch is a problem. This idea of conspiracy encroaching into the conservative movement is problematic. So he suggests, initially rather gently that, that Welch step aside to the editing room not— he doesn’t condemn the Society or anything like that. 

SHEFFIELD: And that’s a critical point, I think to note, because there is this false narrative that right-wing historians have put out there to claim that he was against the whole Society. But he wasn’t. 

MILLER: No. 

SHEFFIELD: He was specifically, and this was something that Barry Goldwater also was working with him to try to, they wanted the Bircher votes and they wanted their loyalty, but they wanted to control them.

MILLER: Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: And to be the ones that controlled the conspiracy theories. And so— 

MILLER: Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: That’s what the attacks against Welch personally were about, but I’m sorry, go ahead. 

MILLER: Barry Goldwater said, these are pretty good guys. I know these guys. I have some guys on my staff, they’re on my staff. They’re part of the the John Birch Society. This is not a bad group of people. It’s their leader that’s the problem. It’s Welch who is ultimately, the person who should be. The smoking typewriter as Buckley puts it, has to be extinguished. 

And he doesn’t succeed with that despite the fact that there is a myth, I would say, that Welch is drummed out of the conservative movement. And that’s the argument. That’s essentially the argument of my book. That’s the argument of A Conspiratorial Life, that despite the fact that there’s an effort to move him aside, it didn’t happen.

He (Buckley) tried to make that case, but as time has passed, we’ve realized that, hey, well, they didn’t go away. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and the John Birch Society still exists. 

MILLER: It still exists. 

SHEFFIELD: Continuously. Yeah, and in fact, Glen Youngkin, who just won the gubernatorial election in Virginia, he campaigned at an event that was held by the John Birch Society. So that just gives you an idea of the influence that they have. 

MILLER: I make an argument in the book that the Reagan revolution was in part created by the John Birch Society. Now you say: ‘Whoa, that’s a provocative statement.’ But I took a look at the evidence. It was the most surprising aspect of all my research. When I went back and I took a look at the issues that Reagan ran on: abortion, against the ERA, tax cuts. These were all driven by the John Birch Society prior to these organizations being driven by the Republican Party. People like the Moral Majority. These cultural, and these social issues, and these economic issues that really, that put Reagan over the top in 1980. 

SHEFFIELD: One thing about Welch, I think that he has in common with a lot of these other early conservative movement figures is that he was a southerner. If you look at almost all of these organizations that popped up in the forties and the fifties, they were headed by southerners.

And that’s an aspect of the history, and of the personal history of American conservatism that I think hasn’t really been picked up a lot. 

MILLER: Yeah. Excuse me. So I think my voice is I’ve lost my voice a little bit, but yeah. He’s from North Carolina growing up in a section of North Carolina and he almost has a Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer life growing up. He cavorts on this old Southern mansion with his brothers and sisters, and he’s the favorite child because he’s the brilliant, studious one who doesn’t have to do the chores.

But at the same time, he’s encouraged to pursue his studies, and his parents give him a great opportunity to see the South. At the age of 10, he’s sent off to Elizabeth City in North Carolina— on his own, by the way— which is a fascinating town of hobos and vagabonds and all these. It was a bustling community and he gets to see this at a young age.

And he experiences all this via himself in this hotel. His parents pick them up for the weekend, bring him back to his home. So he really is a child of the South. He is a child of the South, but he becomes a Northern transplant in his late teens, 19, moves to Boston. But his family, his ancestors owned slaves and they were highly successful farmers. He is very much in the Southern tradition.

SHEFFIELD: And not just him, though. So Buckley was from Texas— 

MILLER: That’s right. 

SHEFFIELD: And Mexico. And a lot of these other, like Clarence Manion, where was he from? Tell us a little bit about him. 

MILLER: Well, Clarence Manion was the Dean of Notre Dame and his great influence on— this is sort of an interesting this is an interesting thing. He has a tremendous influence on Welch. He opposes the war.

SHEFFIELD: Well, he wasn’t just an academic. He was a talk radio host. 

MILLER: That’s right. Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And that’s important because, again, most people’s understanding of early American conservatism is filtered through this idea that National Review was the only right-wing media outlet that existed. 

MILLER: Oh yeah.

SHEFFIELD: And that wasn’t true at all. 

MILLER: No, no. 

SHEFFIELD: Clarence Manion was just massively popular— 

MILLER: Oh yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: — as a radio host. He was in a lot of ways, kind of a mixture, he would mix in religious stuff with political stuff and was very integral. And then it’s an aspect of things— like there’s an attempt now, people like David Brooks that are trying to claim that these early, far right figures were not Christian nationalists or were not interested in Christian supremacy and things like that, opposing, atheists or feminism. But the reality is they were, they hated those things. But I’m sorry, you were telling a story about Clarence Manion there. 

MILLER: It got me thinking about the importance of Clarence Manion to the movement. Welch was a member of the America First Committee.

And Trump of course, ran on this concept of America First, a nationalism. And what Manion says is that he’s against the war. Primarily because if we go to war in Europe— 

SHEFFIELD: World War II, you’re talking about. 

MILLER: —we will be influenced by Europe. We don’t want to be influenced by Germany. We don’t want to be influenced by France. Because we are different. We are in the British tradition, we are in a tradition before the French Revolution, he says is critical because in the French Revolution, it was a key moment in the history of civilization, because they’re basically saying that rights come from man, not from God. And in the American Revolution, rights come from God, which the conservatives argue is still the case in the United States and in England.

So it’s a key point that Manion convinces Welch to be true. And Welch embraces this concept. I think it’s the key point that Manion brings to the conservative movement. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, that’s an interesting observation, and it definitely is relevant to today. Because if you listen to pretty much any Republican speech, they almost all say that line.

MILLER: We don’t want to be part of old Europe. That was kind of part of the attitudes of 20th century Republicanism. And these folks are also Asia firsters. They believe that as we had talked about before that China is critical to the future of the world. They see the American mission as a continuation of that westward expansion, starting in the 13 Colonies, and moving westward. Moving into the Pacific. In the Spanish American War, we acquired Guam in 1898. We acquired Hawaii, the Philippines from the Spanish American war. Then in 1946, we gave back the Philippines. 

But this idea of Formosa or Taiwan is critical. And many of the people of Welch’s ilk, including William Knowland, who was known as the Senator from Formosa, are fascinated with— they think the future of the 21st century is the East. And that’s part of the themes that we see today.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. That’s true. 

So Barry Goldwater and his activists were able to sort of foist him onto the Republican party in 1964. And what was the role that the John Birch Society played during that campaign and the general election?

MILLER: The John Birch Society was critical. They were the grassroots leaders. It was kind of a unspoken rule, among the Goldwater folks, that you don’t want to advertise too much that you’re a member of the John Birch Society. You don’t want to advertise that you’re a member of the John Birch Society, but they are the folks who really get the Goldwater campaign moving. They’re the folks who really are pushing the campaign against Lyndon Johnson. And even before President Kennedy was assassinated, they thought that they were running, they were going to be running against President Kennedy in 1964. They are very much involved in the efforts to support Barry Goldwater.

And interesting ly enough, Robert Welch was not an individual who particularly supported candidates. The John Birch Society was primarily an educational organization. And I can’t remember a letter in which Robert Welch says that he wants a particular president to be president, but he does so when it comes to Barry Goldwater, he says that, ‘I like Barry Goldwater. I hope he becomes president someday.’ And his word carries a lot of weight. So a lot of his supporters are going to go wild about Barry because of that. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Okay. And then what was the reaction that they had after Goldwater got crushed so badly?

MILLER: They’re disappointed. And there’s this sense that, there’s a narrative that that’s it for the John Birch Society, that they’re a thing of the past. But Welch is savvy. That was actually his nickname in college because it was, he was so great at math.

And what he does is, he comes up with all these— he re-invigorates the John Birch Society. He says, all right, we’ve got to refashion this, he’s a salesman. And he says, what we’re going to do is we’re going to develop these ad hoc committees.

The John Birch Society, he says, has a bad reputation. He’s not that hopeful to get more members joining, but he establishes these ad hoc committees, like MOTOREDE (Movement to Restore Decency) or Support Your Local Police, SYLP, which is kind of a “Blue Lives Matter” organization. There are other acronyms that he comes up with, TRIM, Tax Relief Immediately. And what these ad hoc groups are, they’re led by members of the John Birch Society, but you don’t have to become a member of the John Birch Society to join it.

So, if you’re interested in tax reform, sure. You’re going to sign up with TRIM. If you don’t like what’s going on as far as the teaching of sex education in your kids’ schools, you’re going to sign up with MOTOREDE. 

SHEFFIELD: And it was an antecedent of this anti critical race theory stuff, where they were encouraging— 

MILLER: Yes. 

SHEFFIELD: —people to show up at their school boards 

MILLER: And that’s exactly one of the first things he says, you have to get involved in your PTA. It’s critical. You have to become a member of the school board. Actually, Welch is an elected member of the Belmont school board. It’s the only elected position he ever holds. He’s elected in Belmont. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Where is Belmont? 

MILLER: Oh, well, Belmont is, Belmont is close to Arlington. It is in Massachusetts. It is right outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts, kind of the greater Boston area, very affluent community. 

SHEFFIELD: Okay. And he was also very big in Southern California. The biggest area for the John Birch Society was in particular Orange County, California. 

MILLER: Yep.

SHEFFIELD: What was the reason do you think that they got so big in Orange County, California? 

MILLER: Oh, that’s a good question. It’s a complicated answer. Because there’s so many different things that are going on in Southern California at the time. You have, first of all, aerospace is growing. You have a significant military presence. You also have some liberal elite that conservatives are not happy with. A lot of these folks who are coming into California are from Texas and the South. 

SHEFFIELD: And the Republican Party that was here in California was a more moderate organization.

MILLER: Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: Than they were used to, and that they preferred. They were kind of the locus of Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial victory as well. 

MILLER: Yeah. Yeah. Welch doesn’t support Reagan because interestingly Reagan supports the most liberal abortion bill in the country in 1967 now Welch says he’s not a conservative after that. This shows how far ahead the John Birch Society was, as far as these issues, think about it today. That Ronald Reagan was not conservative enough for them. They were ahead on the abortion issue. They were ahead of the the Moral Majority. Folks like W.A. Criswell, who is the pastor of the largest Baptist church, was pro-choice in the late sixties. 

Now the John Birch Society is comprised about 50% Catholic. What happens is, Bill Buckley’s brother, James Buckley, is elected senator from New York. Buckley wins in ‘70, Nixon sees this and says: ‘I can win in 72 by being pro-life.’ 

All of a sudden the switch begins in 72. And along with that switch among Nixon, is the switch among the Protestant evangelicals. They become pro-life, along with the conservative Catholics, but conservative Catholics, like John McManus, who was Robert Welch’s right-hand man, was a strong supporter of pro-life policies as early as the sixties, mid sixties. 

SHEFFIELD: And by that time Welch was, he was starting to get up there in age. And he didn’t really there was a question within the organization of who was going to take it over from him. But he kind of— like a lot of authoritarian personalities or leaders— was against having anybody that was too close to him in the minds of the membership.

So he didn’t really push a lot of that. What, what happened after he basically passed away what happened after he passed away? Was there a power struggle within the John Birch Society or, 

MILLER: Yeah, there’s a significant power struggle. That’s the advantage of doing a biography, I didn’t follow the continuation really of the John Birch Society, but there is a significant power struggle.

Larry McDonald becomes the president of the John Birch Society for a brief period after Welch is no longer president. But there continues to be a power struggle. Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, and one of the other crucial figures that was in the same group with Welch was Billy James Hargus. Tell us a little bit about him.

MILLER: Well, Billy James Hargis was interesting figure of the Christian Crusade, and he was one of the first, one of the first Southern Baptists who really gets involved in politics. And Welch and Billy James Hargis kind of back each other together, Welch reprints some of his material, and especially his material concerning sex education, and the other issues concerning morality.

It’s kind of a precursor to the Moral Majority. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and he was one of the first televangelists. 

MILLER: Televangelist, yeah. Now Welch, he writes a really important letter. It’s called the Roemer letter, and he basically said I’m not a fundamentalist. I grew up as a fundament. But I don’t adhere to a fundamentalist philosophy. And this is important, because this is able to attract people like Tim LaHaye, and you can see Tim LaHaye in some John Birch Society videos, a young Tim LaHaye in the 1960s. 

SHEFFIELD: Although but Tim LaHaye was a fundamentalist. 

MILLER: Yeah, he is. Yes but what happens is Welch, even though he’s not a fundamentalist, Tim LaHaye says: ‘I usually don’t go into ecumenical organizations, but I will make an exception because of this Roemer letter. Welch is saying that I’m not a fundamentalist, but he’s coming clean. He says, he believes in Jesus, he believes in as long as people live a life of morality, that’s all it matters. And LeHaye is very interested in this.

And that’s why about 50% of the John Birch Society members wind up being Protestant. So LaHaye is able to join this and signs up as well as Billy James Hargis. 

SHEFFIELD: And Hargis specifically, he was also working with, he was also involved with a lot of these traveling revival things which the John Birch Society integrated itself into them in different ways. One of the things they would do is that they would have a core of national speakers and then they would bring in local pastors and clergy. And they kind of eventually tried to sort of use that as a recruiting base for political candidates to also try to bring them in as well.

MILLER: Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: And one of the people that they were pushing heavily, which is kind of interesting in retrospect, was Ezra Taft Benson who was Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of agriculture. 

MILLER: Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: Welch, a number of times tried to get him to run for president. And actually he did one time very early on. It was an abortive campaign.

MILLER: He was Mormon. 

SHEFFIELD: And he was Mormon. Yeah. And they kept pushing around the margins with other different candidates. What was the relationship with Welch and the American Independent Party? Have you looked at that at all? 

MILLER: I haven’t really looked at that. I didn’t explore that enough to comment on that. 

SHEFFIELD: Oh, okay. All right. 

Well, what about in terms of race where was Robert Welch in terms of segregation and civil rights? 

MILLER: That’s a great question. He believed that the civil rights movement was driven by the communists. And for instance, during the Birmingham in 1963 when those terrible pictures of where the policemen are hitting the children, and the African-Americans who are in the streets, and there are dogs. Welch comes up with this rather preposterous theory that what occurred was, there was a agitator who hit a dog, and that this caused the whole melee.

And then, the photo was taken. I think most people have seen the photo, the terrible photo of a German shepherd one of Bull Connor’s German Shepherd’s attacking an individual. But Welch comes to this preposterous conclusion. 

Now it really disappoints me. He could have been so much more human, on the issue of race. Because he grew up in a majority African-American community. And it was one of the things that it’s very clear on. There were also some instances where he would he would use a dialect in front of African-American individuals. He would try to mimic African-Americans in front of their presence.

But there were members of the John Birch Society who were African-American, they were like Manning Johnson wrote Color, Communism, and Common Sense . And Manning Johnson basically said, he said that he was a former communist. He was trained and learned in his training that there was going to be an all-black part of the South. And Welch believed this. 

And he promoted Manning Johnson’s work. Manning Johnson was killed in a car accident, which led to, as you can imagine, more conspiracy theories about what happened to Manning Johnson. But it’s highly likely that there was no wrongdoing, but it’s one of those situations where, in my book and how I interpret it, I think he could have been better. And certainly he was more like Eisenhower when it came to those issues.

SHEFFIELD: But I guess that’s not what the people who were in his movement wanted. Even before his famous vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Barry Goldwater. 

MILLER: Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: That the American right was against civil rights. 

MILLER: Mm-hmm. And remember he’s also, Welch attends the 1956 state’s rights convention and speaks at it, where T. Coleman Andrews is the nominee. T Coleman Andrews only got a small percentage of the vote. But to be honest, the statements that I have seen that Welch made are less vicious than anything that William F. Buckley said. Buckley said decolonization should be something that we should pursue when Africans stopped eating each other. That’s terrible. I’ve never heard that. I’ve never seen that in, in something that Robert Welch said. Not that I’m justifying anything where he stands, but, in the comparative lens of these things, also, when it came to, he had a lot of Jewish friends.

So it’s complicated, very complicated. But then there are some statements that are problematic, but it’s very complicated to make judgments on these as an historian. Because you hear things from people in a comparative light that are worse, it’s still disappointing to hear.

And it’s one of the, one of the hard parts about writing a book about somebody who lived throughout the 20th century. It’s it’s it’s heavy, that’s a heavy, that’s a heavy load. And I had there was, there were some moments where it is difficult. History can be hard to write.

I think that’s something that It has to be considered cause it’s, it’s wrong, it’s morally, it’s against my values and that’s something that’s hard to see. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, that’s true. 

So let’s maybe end with one of your last chapters, I guess it’s the last one I think, is about. 

MILLER: And actually I wanted to say, this came, I just, one other thing that a lot of these issues with race and the antisemitism came late because I discovered it in another archives later on in the process. And it was tough to find these things after you’ve got a book and you don’t see— I’ll tell you that the archivist that has the greatest material of far right. It’s Ernie Lazar in his archives. It’s just incredible what he has. But this came late in the process of this discovery, so I just wanted to point that out. 

SHEFFIELD: Okay. So, and we touched on this a little bit, toward the end of his life, Welch, your last chapter on it is “Making Morning in America,” so the relationship between the Birch Society, Welch, and Ronald Reagan. Maybe just walk us through a short summary of that chapter a bit, if you don’t mind. 

MILLER: Take the issues of tax cuts. Welch had the TRIM committees. He was active in the propositions in California to lower the property tax. Birchers were heavily involved in that. Take the ERA. Much ink has been written about Phyllis Schlafly and her role in the ERA, but I would argue that Welch and the Birch Society were equally involved in stopping ERA. These are the issues. Take abortion, as I explained before. That was a big part of getting the Moral Majority. Of getting the folks like James Robison on the stage there in Dallas, when Reagan was invited to Dallas at the end of his campaign, when he said, ‘I know you can’t endorse me, but I, I can endorse you.’ All those issues are pursued by the John Birch Society in the 1970s, a time when the John Birch Society was the traditional narrative, is it was moribund. So it completely changes the perspective of this organization as ineffective by late 1960s, as I, saw it.

SHEFFIELD: So did he change, Welch, change his perspective on Reagan ever? 

MILLER: I think it was just the issues. He wasn’t active in electing candidates, he was just pushing the issues. It was tax reform through TRIM. It was ERA. He was just creating the infrastructure for these issues that Reagan latched upon and the individuals of the Birch Society, and these ad hoc committees naturally gravitated towards the candidate who embraced them. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right, how were, what were in his final years, Welch’s? What was that like for him? The Society itself, he had created multiple different organizations but the JBS kind of started hitting some financial hard times because of the way he had structured things. And that was kind of a preoccupation of his latter part of his life, right? 

MILLER: Yeah. It’s also some of the most interesting, I think it’s probably the most interesting part of the book, because in comes a, kind of a, this big burly, Texas billionaire by the name of Bunker Hunt, H.L. Hunt’s son, who is a fascinating character who deserves a book by himself. He’s, he tries to corner the silver market and it’s, there’s, I devote a whole chapter to it.

And basically, he provides the money for the John Birch Society to survive into the 1970s. And as Welch dies in 1985. He has a stroke 83, and he’s kind of— by the end, he’s in decline, but the organization is like a conglomerate. They have a magazine. They have the bulletin. They have the speakers bureau. They have the other organizations, many corporations. And he’s, he is, he’s still the president of the organization, and he speaks at the organizations, and it’s his job to kind of go down and talk to Bunker who is, he’s all into the Illuminati and the Bilderbergers, and he’s got all these theories about— He’s ultimately bailed out by the federal government after his problem with trying to take over the silver market, which American taxpayers pay for.

SHEFFIELD: So much for being against socialism, right? (laughs) 

MILLER: No No. And by 1984, everybody’s meeting at Bunker’s house in Dallas, because that’s where the convention is. So there’s this big barbecue at Bunker’s palatial mansion in Dallas in 1984 for the renomination of the president.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. And JBS is still around today. Have you, did you, I know you didn’t write about it, but they seem to have increased their influence in recent years. Would you say that? 

MILLER: I, I haven’t really followed the present. I’ve always been interested in the past and I’m interested in the the history of how things develop, but, it’s, I always say that it takes about 50 years to figure out how organizations influence. And I think, whether it’s the JBS, or another organization, we talked about Alex Jones. We talked about QAnon. We talked about other organizations. 

SHEFFIELD: And actually, speaking of Jones specifically, he has actually said that his worldview was formed directly by Birch and— 

MILLER: Yeah. Yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: —material, but he said that, 

MILLER: Or people involved in Taiwan, people who are fascinated with Taiwan, they might’ve read Robert Welch’s book on John Birch. And, I think that there’s a lot of different roads from it. It’s not just the John Birch Society. Today it can be some level of Republican politics and that, that sparked an interest. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, so just a last question here. And I’ve mentioned this earlier, at the top of the show I think that there is a tendency among establishment centrist, or liberals to kind of just ignore this stuff. And did you see that in materials about Robert Welch and the John Birch Society during his lifetime, when in your research, did you see that at all that tendency? 

MILLER: There, there are a number of new works that are coming out that are on the far right. It’s kind of the, it’s going to be a cottage industry.

SHEFFIELD: Oh, no, I’m saying just specifically, why do you think it didn’t wasn’t 

MILLER: Why did it not? Well, that’s a good question. I think that the Well, there have been some. But I think it goes back to the gatekeepers.

This is William F. Buckley is the primary gatekeeper and he is the person who determines how things shape out. And generally, I think there’s been a movement, maybe not culturally, but economically, but politically, if we take a look at the courts today where there’s been a significant shift to the right. And the right has been more successful in making sure that their version, it gets out there.

Look at the Dinesh D’Souza books. They sell much more, much better than my books will sell. The books of Bill O’Reilly. These are history books that he’s writing. I wouldn’t consider them the greatest history books, but these are a lot more popular. And these are the books that people are buying, and this is the perception that people have. 

Historians, maybe we have to do a better job in getting the word out there and getting these books more accessible, and getting the, in getting the truth out there to more people to a greater audience.

I try in my research to reach a general audience, not just academia. This is a book that can be read by historians, but maybe we have to do a better job in presenting our past to a broader audience. Some people have tried, but we’ve got our work cut out for us, I think in explaining it.

SHEFFIELD: Well, I, yeah, I think that’s a good remark to end on there. We could probably go on all day. 

MILLER: Absolutely. 

SHEFFIELD: So, but I don’t want to do that to everybody. So, but yes I do appreciate you coming on today, Ted. So you’re you’re on Twitter, you’re eh_miller. And then your book is called A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism. So thanks for being here today, Ted. 

MILLER: Matthew, thank you very much for having me on. And it’s been a real pleasure. I’ve enjoyed it.

SHEFFIELD: Well, so that is our show for today, everyone. I appreciate you guys for tuning in, and of course this will be available in audio version over at Flux.community. And this show is one of several podcasts you can get over there. We’re a nonprofit media organization that focuses on in-depth coverage of politics, of religion, of media, and society, and understanding how they all fit together. 

The mainstream media doesn’t understand a lot of the history and understand how it all kind of fits together. And that’s important in understanding what’s going on today. So please do check that out. 

And please do tell your friends or your family about the show, if you like it. We’ve started up production again this year, and so far we’ve gotten thousands and thousands of views and listens. 

But we need a lot more because this is just such a big topic to fight for pluralism and try to preserve and understand how things are in the country, and how we can best push back against authoritarianism. So, with that I appreciate everybody joining me and I will see you next week. Thanks. I’m Matthew Sheffield.

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.