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Logo of the JBS
|Type||Educational and political advocacy group|
|Headquarters||Grand Chute, Wisconsin|
Logo of the JBS
|Type||Educational and political advocacy group|
|Headquarters||Grand Chute, Wisconsin|
Businessman and founder Robert W. Welch Jr. (1899–1985) developed an elaborate organizational infrastructure in 1958 that enabled him to keep a very tight rein on the chapters. Its main activity in the 1960s, says Rick Perlstein, "comprised monthly meetings to watch a film by Welch, followed by writing postcards or letters to government officials linking specific policies to the Communist menace". After an early rise in membership and influence, efforts by people like conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. and National Review led the JBS to be identified as a fringe element of the conservative movement, mostly in fear of the radicalization of the American right.
Originally based in Belmont, Massachusetts, it is now headquartered in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, with local chapters in all 50 states. The organization owns American Opinion Publishing, which publishes the biweekly The New American.
The organization claims to identify with Christian principles, seeks to limit governmental powers, and opposes wealth redistribution, and economic interventionism. It opposes collectivism, totalitarianism, and communism. It opposes socialism as well, which it asserts is infiltrating U.S. governmental administration. In a 1983 edition of Crossfire, Congressman Larry McDonald (D-Georgia), then its newly appointed president, characterized the society as belonging to the Old Right rather than the New Right.
The society opposed the 1960s civil rights movement and claimed the movement had communists in important positions. In the latter half of 1965, the JBS produced a flyer titled "What's Wrong With Civil Rights?", which was used as a newspaper advertisement. In the piece, one of the answers was: "For the civil rights movement in the United States, with all of its growing agitation and riots and bitterness, and insidious steps towards the appearance of a civil war, has not been infiltrated by the Communists, as you now frequently hear. It has been deliberately and almost wholly created by the Communists patiently building up to this present stage for more than forty years." The society opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming it violated the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and overstepped individual states' rights to enact laws regarding civil rights. The society opposes "one world government", and it has an immigration reduction view on immigration reform. It opposes the United Nations, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and other free trade agreements. They argue the U.S. Constitution has been devalued in favor of political and economic globalization, and that this alleged trend is not accidental. It cited the existence of the former Security and Prosperity Partnership as evidence of a push towards a North American Union.
The society has been described as "ultraconservative", "far right", and "extremist". The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the society as a "'Patriot' Group". Other sources consider the society as part of the patriot movement.
The society was established in Indianapolis, Indiana, on December 9, 1958, by a group of 12 led by Robert Welch, Jr., a retired candy manufacturer from Belmont, Massachusetts. Welch named the new organization after John Birch, an American Baptist missionary and United States military intelligence officer who had been shot by communist forces in China in August 1945, shortly after the conclusion of World War II. Welch claimed that Birch was an unknown but dedicated anti-communist, and the first American casualty of the Cold War.
Fred Koch, founder of Koch Industries, was one of the founding members. Robert Waring Stoddard, President of Wyman-Gordon, a major industrial enterprise, was also among the founders. Another was Revilo P. Oliver, a University of Illinois professor who later severed his relationship with the society and helped found the National Alliance. A transcript of Welch's two-day presentation at the founding meeting was published as The Blue Book of the John Birch Society, and became a cornerstone of its beliefs, with each new member receiving a copy. According to Welch, "both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country's sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a 'one-world socialist government.'" Welch saw collectivism as the main threat to Western Civilization, and liberals as "secret communist traitors" who provided cover for the gradual process of collectivism, with the ultimate goal of replacing the nations of western civilization with a one-world socialist government. "There are many stages of welfarism, socialism, and collectivism in general," he wrote, "but Communism is the ultimate state of them all, and they all lead inevitably in that direction."
The society's activities include distribution of literature, pamphlets, magazines, videos and other educational material while sponsoring a Speaker's Bureau, which invites "speakers who are keenly aware of the motivations that drive political policy". One of the first public activities of the society was a "Get US Out!" (of membership in the UN) campaign, which claimed in 1959 that the "Real nature of [the] UN is to build a One World Government". In 1960, Welch advised JBS members to: "Join your local P.T.A. at the beginning of the school year, get your conservative friends to do likewise, and go to work to take it over." One Man's Opinion, a magazine launched by Welch in 1956, was renamed American Opinion, and became the society's official publication. The society publishes the biweekly publication The New American.
By March 1961 the society had 60,000 to 100,000 members and, according to Welch, "a staff of 28 people in the Home Office; about 30 Coordinators (or Major Coordinators) in the field, who are fully paid as to salary and expenses; and about 100 Coordinators (or Section Leaders as they are called in some areas), who work on a volunteer basis as to all or part of their salary, or expenses, or both". According to Political Research Associates (a progressive research group that investigates the far right), the society "pioneered grassroots lobbying, combining educational meetings, petition drives and letter-writing campaigns. One early campaign against the second summit between the United States and the Soviet Union generated over 600,000 postcards and letters, according to the society. In that same year Welch offered $2,300 in prizes to college students for the best essays on "grounds of impeachment" of Chief Justice Warren, a prime target of ultra-conservatives. A June 1964 society campaign to oppose Xerox corporate sponsorship of TV programs favorable to the UN produced 51,279 letters from 12,785 individuals."
In 1962, William F. Buckley, Jr. editor of the main conservative magazine the National Review, denounced Welch and the John Birch Society as "far removed from common sense" and urged the GOP to purge itself of Welch's influence.
In the late 1960s Welch insisted that the Johnson administration's fight against communism in Vietnam was part of a communist plot aimed at taking over the United States. Welch demanded that the United States get out of Vietnam, thus aligning the Society with the left. The society opposed water fluoridation, which it called "mass medicine" and saw as a communist plot to poison Americans.
The JBS was moderately active in the 1960s with numerous chapters, but rarely engaged in coalition building with other conservatives. It was rejected by most conservatives because of Welch's conspiracy theories. Ayn Rand said in a 1964 Playboy interview, "I consider the Birch Society futile, because they are not for capitalism but merely against communism ... I gather they believe that the disastrous state of today's world is caused by a communist conspiracy. This is childishly naïve and superficial. No country can be destroyed by a mere conspiracy, it can be destroyed only by ideas."
Former Eisenhower cabinet member Ezra Taft Benson — a leading Mormon — spoke in favor of the John Birch Society, but in January 1963 the LDS church issued a statement distancing itself from the Society. Antisemitic, racist, anti-Mormon, anti-Masonic, and various religious groups criticized the group's acceptance of Jews, non-whites, Masons, and Mormons. These opponents accused Welch of harboring feminist, ecumenical, and evolutionary ideas. Welch rejected these accusations by his detractors: "All we are interested in here is opposing the advance of the Communists, and eventually destroying the whole Communist conspiracy, so that Jews and Christians alike, and Mohammedans and Buddhists, can again have a decent world in which to live."
In 1964 Welch favored Barry Goldwater for the Republican presidential nomination, but the membership split, with two-thirds supporting Goldwater and one-third supporting Richard Nixon, who did not run. A number of Birch members and their allies were Goldwater supporters in 1964 and some were delegates at the 1964 Republican National Convention.
In April 1966, a New York Times article on New Jersey and the society voiced — in part — a concern for "the increasing tempo of radical right attacks on local government, libraries, school boards, parent-teacher associations, mental health programs, the Republican Party and, most recently, the ecumenical movement." It then characterized the society as "by far the most successful and 'respectable' radical right organization in the country. It operates alone or in support of other extremist organizations whose major preoccupation, like that of the Birchers, is the internal Communist conspiracy in the United States."
Welch wrote in a widely circulated statement, The Politician, "Could Eisenhower really be simply a smart politician, entirely without principles and hungry for glory, who is only the tool of the Communists? The answer is yes." He went on. "With regard to ... Eisenhower, it is difficult to avoid raising the question of deliberate treason."
The controversial paragraph was removed before final publication of The Politician.
The sensationalism of Welch's charges against Eisenhower prompted several conservatives and Republicans, most prominently Goldwater and the intellectuals of William F. Buckley's circle, to renounce outright or quietly shun the group. Buckley, an early friend and admirer of Welch, regarded his accusations against Eisenhower as "paranoid and idiotic libels" and attempted unsuccessfully to purge Welch from the Birch Society. From then on Buckley, who was editor of National Review, became the leading intellectual spokesman and organizer of the anti-Bircher conservatives. In fact, Buckley's biographer John B. Judis wrote that "Buckley was beginning to worry that with the John Birch Society growing so rapidly, the right-wing upsurge in the country would take an ugly, even Fascist turn rather than leading toward the kind of conservatism National Review had promoted."
The society was at the center of a free-speech law case in the 1970s, after American Opinion accused a Chicago lawyer representing the family of a young man killed by a police officer of being part of a Communist conspiracy to merge all police agencies in the country into one large force. The resulting libel suit, Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., reached the United States Supreme Court, which held that a state may allow a private figure such as Gertz to recover actual damages from a media defendant without proving malice, but that a public figure does have to prove actual malice, according to the standard laid out in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, in order to recover presumed damages or punitive damages. The court ordered a retrial in which Gertz prevailed.
Key society causes of the 1970s included opposition to both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and to the establishment of diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China. The society claimed in 1973 that the regime of Mao Zedong had murdered 64 million Chinese as of that year and that it was the primary supplier of illicit heroin into the United States. This led to bumper stickers showing a pair of scissors cutting a hypodermic needle in half accompanied by the slogan "Cut The Red China Connection". The society also was opposed to transferring control of the Panama Canal from American to Panamanian sovereignty.
The society was organized into local chapters during this period. Ernest Brosang, a New Jersey regional coordinator, claimed that it was virtually impossible for opponents of the society to penetrate its policy-making levels, thereby protecting it from "anti-American" takeover attempts. Its activities included the distribution of literature critical of civil rights legislation, warnings over the influence of the United Nations, and the release of petitions to impeach United States Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. To spread their message, members held showings of documentary films and operated initiatives such as "Let Freedom Ring", a nation-wide network of recorded telephone messages.
By the time of Welch's death in 1985, the society's membership and influence had dramatically declined. The society continues to press for an end to United States membership in the United Nations. As evidence of the effectiveness of JBS efforts, the society points to the Utah State Legislature's failed resolution calling for United States withdrawal, as well as the actions of several other states where the Society's membership has been active. Since its founding, the society has repeatedly opposed United States military intervention overseas, although it is strongly supportive of the American military. It has issued calls to "Bring Our Troops Home" in every conflict since its founding, including Vietnam. The society also has a national speakers' committee called American Opinion Speakers Bureau (AOSB) and an anti-tax committee called TRIM (Tax Reform IMmediately).
The Society has been active in supporting the auditing of, and aims to eventually dismantle, the Federal Reserve System. The JBS holds that the United States Constitution gives only Congress the ability to coin money, and does not permit it to delegate this power, or to transform the dollar into a fiat currency not backed by gold or silver.
The Chad Mitchell Trio have a song "John Birch Society".