Matthew Dallek, a historian and professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management in the College of Professional Studies, takes a deep dive into the controversial John Birch Society and explores the group’s lasting impact on American right-wing politics in his latest book, “Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right.”
Dallek spoke about how he conducted research for his book during an event hosted Thursday by the Library of Congress. The discussion was moderated by Library of Congress historian Ryan Reft and senior archives specialist Connie Cartledge.
While conducting research for his book, Dallek utilized numerous collections from the manuscript division, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People records, the largest single collection ever acquired by the Library of Congress and the most heavily used annually.
He also used the papers of prominent anti-communist Herbert A. Philbrick, “Meet the Press” co-founder Lawrence E. Spivak and Washington Post journalist David S. Broder, among others. Dallek credited a GW University Facilitating Fund award with making his research possible.
Dallek kicked off the discussion by sharing a brief overview of the Birch Society, which was founded in 1958 by a small band of anti-New Deal businessmen. The organization was named after John Birch— an evangelist turned soldier who was killed by Mao Zedong’s communist forces just after the end of World War II.
One of the organization’s most prominent leaders, Robert Welch, was a wealthy candy manufacturer. Dallek said the other founding members were also rich, white Christian men who held prominent positions in society.
“The interesting thing about them, from my perspective, is that they combine mainstream associations with beliefs widely seen as fringe,” Dallek said.
The men considered the growth of government in the first half of the 20th century, the expansion of welfare programs and the United States' participation in WW I and WW II as steps toward living under communist rule.
“The men shared a rage at what they considered a string of failures and deceptions that had brought the United States to its knees,” Dallek said. “They had a simple-sounding goal. Their plan in forming the Birch Society was to teach the masses about the internal communist threat to the United States.”
By the mid-1960s, the group had recruited 60,000 to 100,000 upwardly mobile, mostly white, Christian, suburban men and women who typically joined local 20-person chapters so they could work within their community.
At the time, Birchers were widely regarded as unhinged, Dallek said. He added that the Birchers radicalized the American right by promoting conspiracy theories, opposing civil rights and denouncing alleged communists and communism in American society, among other ideas.
Reft and Cartledge questioned Dallek about how he utilized the collections at the Library of Congress to gain an understanding of the members of the Birch Society as well as their critics to present a thorough picture of the organization and its impact on American politics.
One of their questions focused on how Dallek found evidence that the Birchers would capitalize on negative media attention and weaponize their defeats to gain sympathy and support.
Dallek gave the example of Welch’s appearance on “Meet the Press.” By going through the Lawrence E. Spivak papers, Dallek was able to find letters of support from people all over the country who were watching Welch on the Sunday morning public affairs show.
“What it allowed me to do is to kind of read a bunch of these letters and get a great sense of the anger and antipathy toward the mass media. Some from Birchers but also from a lot of conservatives who said, ‘I'm not a member of the society, I don't necessarily agree with Welch buthe strikes me as a patriotic American, and you have slandered him.' It was interesting to see even non-Birchers sympathetic to that, suggesting maybe the Birchers had more support than even its members suggested," Dallek said.
Some of the letter writers stated they would donate money right away to the Birch Society because Welch seemed like a “good American” and didn’t deserve to be treated in the manner he was on the show.
As he explores in his book, Dallek believes the impact of the Birchers is still evident today in American right-wing politics.
“They brought innovations to far-right politics. While Welch and other leaders promoted baseless conspiracy theories as fact, Birchers also understood how allegations of a plot against the United States could rally activists and opposition to a common foe and motivated citizens to get active in the struggle for power,” Dallek said. “Birchers showed future generations of far-right activists how mass mobilization around single issues could reap dividends far beyond the issue at hand.”