Political ideologue Robert Welch (1899-1985) founded the John Birch Society to promote his conspiracy theory that Communists controlled American society.
Robert H. W. Welch, Jr., was born in Chowan County, North Carolina, on December 1, 1899. A bright boy, he graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1916 and studied at the U.S. Naval Academy, 1917-1919, and at Harvard Law School, 1919-1921. In 1922 he joined his brothers in a candy manufacturing business in Boston from which he retired as vice president in 1956. A prosperous and well-regarded businessman, Welch was little known outside Massachusetts.
Like many Americans, Welch became increasingly alarmed as Communist regimes seized power in Eastern Europe and Asia in the years following the end of World War II. Convinced of the need to educate Americans about the danger of Communist subversion, he founded the John Birch Society in 1958. Welch named the society after a 26-year-old American soldier and missionary killed by Chinese Communist forces on August 25, 1945, just ten days after the Japanese surrender that ended the war. For Welch, Birch's death marked the beginning of the final struggle between the defenders of freedom and Christianity and the forces of Communist oppression and atheism.
In the 1950s and 1960s many American conservatives opposed the U.S. policy of "containment" and wanted to "roll-back" Communist expansion. They believed government policymakers were unwilling to use U.S. power effectively to combat the Soviet Union. Welch became convinced that this failing was deliberate: top American officials were engaged in a calculated plan to protect the Communist enemy. Welch formed the John Birch Society to alert loyal Americans to the alleged existence of a conspiracy of Communists and Communist sympathizers whose positions in government put them in control of the United States.
Welch's monthly magazine, American Opinion, claimed in 1960 that 40 percent to 60 percent of the United States was under Communist control. Communists either controlled the presidential nominations of candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon or "the conspiracy is so powerful that the candidates dare not offend it by recognizing its existence." In his 1958 book The Politician, Welch declared that President Dwight Eisenhower was "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." Such extreme views were repudiated by such conservative leaders as Senator Barry Goldwater and columnist William F. Buckley, Jr., but many Americans nevertheless joined the Birch Society.
Between 1962 and 1966 membership in the John Birch Society rose from an estimated 25, 000 to 85, 000 organized into 4, 000 local chapters across the country. Birch members, mainly older upper-income whites, were encouraged to work on projects at the local community level, in school parent-teacher associations and in business and church groups, to awaken their neighbors to the Communist influence inside America. Birch members called for U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations, the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, the abolition of the income tax, and the disclosure of Communist control of the civil rights movement. At its peak in 1966 the society maintained 350 bookstores and had a staff of 220 and an estimated annual budget of five to eight million dollars. Robert Welch kept personal control over the society and the causes it favored. Secretive and distrustful of politicians, he declared that the society would avoid political organizing and emphasize public education and community action.
Nonetheless, the John Birch Society became a major issue in national politics in the early 1960s. Critics said Welch was the authoritarian head of a secret society whose immediate goal was the infiltration and takeover of the Republican Party. Many Republican leaders were alarmed by the selection of "Birchers" to positions in the party and their involvement in the 1964 presidential campaign of party nominee Barry Goldwater. By 1965 Republican conservatives had joined liberal Democrats in denouncing Welch and the society.
The society tried unsuccessfully to improve its public image by claiming that members did not have to agree with everything Welch said. Indeed, many members were simply patriotic conservatives worried about Communism. But loyalty to Welch's leadership was the foundation of the society, and Welch's thinking was the core of its philosophy. If America's leaders refused to follow his policies for fighting Communism, Welch reasoned that they must be Communists or Communist sympathizers, "comsymps." And if American citizens foolishly denied that their country was under Communist control, this proved the success of Communist propaganda! The John Birch Society began to lose members and financial support once Welch's view of President Eisenhower became widely known. Conservative anti-Communists found the attack bizarre and politically harmful. The society continued to exist, but it no longer played a part in the rise of conservative ideas that culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan. Robert Welch's ideas grew more strange over the years. In old age he decided that Communists were merely a front group formed by a more powerful and secret group of "Insiders" which he linked to the Bavarian Illuminati of the 18th century. Robert Welch died on January 6, 1985.
The best sources are Welch's own writings, especially The Politician and The Blue Book published by the John Birch Society. A sympathetic biography is G. Edward Griffin, The Life and Words of Robert Welch (1975). Benjamin R. Epstein and Arnold Forster's The Radical Right (1966) is a critical examination of the John Birch Society and other rightist groups.
Griffin, G. Edward, The life and words of Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, Thousand Oaks, Calif.: American Media, 1975.