By Edward H. Miller (University of Chicago Press, 464 pp., $24.30)
In A Conspiratorial Life, author Edward H. Miller argues that the John Birch Society (JBS) and its founder Robert Welch were the precursors of today’s conspiracy-besotted far-right crusade. “We live in the age of Robert Welch,” Miller writes, “whether or not we know who he is, what he did or why he matters.” Similarly: “The ideas of the John Birch Society paved the way for the conservatism of the twentieth century, shaped events in the twenty-first century, and will continue to do so far into the future.” Miller’s book is a guide through this feral underworld. It is an engrossing but sometimes vexing account—a chronicle, that is to say, that has its good and bad points.
Welch (1899–1985) was born and raised in North Carolina. “The roots of Welch’s conspiracy thinking,” Miller maintains, “formed in a family of southern, formerly slave-owning yeomen distrustful of [the] Yankee merchant elite, who after the Civil War saw an eastern conspiracy in everything.” This included “international bankers.” Welch was a bright child—not only did he start reading, but he also understood difficult math concepts while still quite young. Miller says that as an adult Welch, like Richard Nixon, possessed “deep intelligence.” I found no incontrovertible evidence of this in the book (nor have I ever seen evidence of Nixon’s deep intelligence). In any case, intelligence, deep or otherwise, didn’t manifest itself in Welch’s academic or business lives. He dropped out of the United States Naval Academy and Harvard Law School. In 1925 he founded a candy company, but by the end of the decade he went bankrupt and became an employee at his brother’s candy company, where he worked for twenty years. (Welch’s one contribution to humanity, as I see it, was the creation of Sugar Daddy candy.) Fortunately for him—if not for America—his true passion was politics, or political philosophy, as he himself might have put it. He felt he was essentially an educator.
Welch established the John Birch Society in 1958 to implement a reactionary agenda. The original John Birch had been an American missionary in China, who was killed by Communists soon after World War II. Communism—or to be specific, what used to be called the international Communist conspiracy—became the bane of Welch’s post-World War II existence. It was that conspiracy—or more accurately, his conception of it—in the Cold War era that came to dominate and define Welch and the John Birch Society. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Here are only a few of his idées fixes. After the Second World War, Welch “came to believe that Communists existed at the highest levels of the American government”: this included figures such as Dean Acheson, George Marshall, and President Eisenhower. After President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, Welch claimed that it was actually Stalin who had fired MacArthur. Miller argues that “[t]he premise behind this was that Stalin was behind the Korean conflict.” Also according to Miller, “Welch called Sputnik 1 a hoax.” Since the 1950s, Welch was a “forceful advocate of gun rights” (the Communists were “after the Second Amendment”; both quotes are Miller’s original words). Welch called the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional, “the most brazen and flagrant usurpation of power that has been seen in any major court in the whole Anglo-American system of jurisprudence in 300 years.” Welch identified a Communist angle even here: He believed Chief Justice Earl Warren was a Communist. In Miller’s words, Welch felt that Martin Luther King was a “Communist agitator,” and he sympathized with Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham, Alabama’s egregious chief of police, as he tried to maintain order in his city—by brutalizing civil rights protestors. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, the failed 1961 invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro Cubans, was, according to Welch, a scheme wholly “planned to happen [by the U.S.];” Castro supposedly “was able to count on the full cooperation of Washington at every turn.” Apparently in the 1970s, Welch “openly advocated an unpremeditated first strike on the Soviet Union.” And by “1973, he was proposing war with China.” Rather ironically, Communists and liberals both, Welch suggested (I quote Miller), “started to infiltrate the [John Birch Society] with anti-Semites to convince the American people that the JBS was an anti-Semitic organization.”
Membership in the JBS probably peaked in 1965 at 30,000. But after 1966, and extending through at least part of the 1970s, the JBS “solidified its position as the primary institution on the rightmost edge of acceptable conservatism,” despite William F. Buckley thinking that Birchers were not acceptable partners in the conservative movement. It was in the 1970s that Welch modulated his monomaniacal anti-Communism to the extent that he forged comity with the emerging libertarian and social conservative movements.
Although Welch still considered Communism a crisis, he came to adopt the view of many [religious] fundamentalists that liberalism—because of its promotion of relativism and secularism—represented a more dire threat than first supposed.… He defended the family and “family values” by assailing pornography, sex education, birth control, abortion, and the [Equal Rights Amendment].
Moreover, as Miller writes,
Welch averred that Communists encouraged “homosexuality and every other form of sexual perversion, as smart and normal and acceptable from the classroom to the White House.” The ascendancy of Sumner Welles and John Maynard Keynes was not due to any talent they possessed… Welch argued, but because they [were] flagrant homosexuals.
The JBS’s political and social influence began to ebb in the 1970s. It seems that the most important reason for the ebbing away was that many of the other groups and individuals in the new ultraconservative movement were more ruthless in general and more cunning about media manipulation in particular than Welch and his followers. The JBS still exists today, although you don't hear much about it. Nevertheless, Miller thinks that to a certain extent Welch’s doctrines underpin Trumpism.
Miller’s new biography is meticulously researched and he is conscientious about calling attention to Welch’s numerous misguided certitudes. I respect him for that; it (somewhat) atones for problems like the fact that the book is filled with many typos. (For instance, the protagonist of The Last of the Mohicans is named Natty Bumppo, not Natty Bump. The publisher needs to get its act together.) And yet, I felt that Miller sometimes tried to be too fair to his subject, acknowledging Welch’s ill-advised attitudes on, say, race, but not drawing the inevitable conclusion that Welch was a racist. Consider this odd, rather torturous statement by Miller:
The question of whether Welch personally harbored racialist views is not really the issue. The heart of the matter is that Welch bolstered the forces of massive White resistance, whether mocking a Black man in public, attending the States Rights National Convention in 1956, or simply standing on the wrong side of history yelling stop when history needed a grand push forward.”
I would submit that the question of whether Welch nursed “racialist” views is the issue, or at least an issue: I think Miller’s reporting makes it clear that Welch was a racist and that his racism pervaded his agenda.
However, I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from reading A Conspiratorial Life and pondering its disquieting subject. Readers can make up their own minds on whether they agree with Miller or the thin-skinned liberal who wrote this review.
Howard Schneider reviews books for magazines and newspapers. His pieces have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Air Mail, Art in America, and other publications.
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