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Society's Child

Everything has a history and a pre-history, and that includes Donald Trump and his angry hordes. Trump is by no means the first American tycoon to stir up fears and resentments and attempt to ride a populist wave. One of his notable predecessors, mostly forgotten today, is Robert Welch.

Born in the last year of the 19th century, Welch built his fortune in the confectionery trade. His company came up with the Sugar Daddy and then, after a slide into bankruptcy, returned successfully with Sugar Babies and Junior Mints. Candy made Welch fabulously wealthy; but his forays into electoral politics—including a run in 1950 for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts—went nowhere. Welch found another vehicle to advance his agenda, which in its essentials amounted to anti-communism on steroids.

That vehicle was the John Birch Society, which Welch established in 1958. By that juncture, the embers of the McCarthy era had already begun to cool. The demagogic senator from Wisconsin had died the previous year, not long after discrediting himself by recklessly lodging unfounded accusations. But the John Birch Society, picking up where McCarthy left off, was nonetheless extraordinarily successful. At its peak, at the close of the 1950s, it boasted 100,000 members—mostly white suburbanites—managed by a paid staff of 200, with 60 regional coordinators running chapters across the United States, making it the largest conservative grassroots organization in the country.

The animating purpose of the society was stopping the Communist conspiracy that Welch saw as rapidly making terrifying inroads at home and abroad. Indeed, in the period between 1958 and 1961, Welch estimated that Communist infiltration of our country had increased from an earlier range of 20 to 40 percent to 50 to 70 percent. What exactly those percentages meant was never made clear, for this was material from the far fringe, which came coupled with vigorous opposition to the nascent civil rights movement. The general public perceived the John Birch Society as crackpot as well as racist and antisemitic, accusations which Welch abjured, maintaining that “many of our finest chapter leaders are Jewish and we are very proud of our small but growing number of Negro members.”

It did not help the society’s standing when, in 1960, it emerged that Welch, behind the scenes, was engaged in a full-bore attack on Dwight D. Eisenhower, charging the president with being “a dedicated conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” America’s great wartime general, he claimed, was “knowingly accepting and abiding by Communist orders, and consciously serving the Communist conspiracy, for all his adult life.” John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and George C. Marshall were also said to be in on the plot. All of this, explained Welch, was based upon “an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to me to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.”

In John Birch: A Life, Terry Lautz offers a fascinating reconstruction of the rise and fall of Welch’s organization—which remains with us today, shrunken to dust from its heyday and ideologically perched between the Tea Party and the Libertarians, with an extra touch of paranoia tossed in. (Ron Paul, the eccentric former congressman and father of Senator Rand Paul, was the keynote speaker at the John Birch Society’s 50th anniversary dinner in 2008.) Beyond bringing us back to a chapter of irrationalism in our past, Lautz’s equally interesting contribution is to rescue John Birch, the man, from obscurity and from the society that pirated his name.

John Birch was born in 1918 in India, to missionary parents. Disillusioned with the hardships and contradictions of their assignment, they returned to the United States, settling in New Jersey, where they operated a fruit orchard. The young John Birch embraced the Baptist faith of his parents with fervor. Following college at Mercer University, where he majored in English and Christianity, Birch fell under the influence of the Billy Graham of his day, the charismatic evangelist J. Franklin Norris. Norris’s worldwide missionary works had their pull: “I feel that God has laid his Hand on me and called me to China” is what Birch told his mentor. In 1939, at the age of 22, he set off for war-torn China to preach the Gospel.

Arriving in Shanghai, Birch threw himself into the study of Chinese, writing home that “there is war, starvation, disease, sin, idolatry, superstition, suffering and death on every side, but our wonderful Savior keeps saving souls, answering prayers, and giving joy in the midst of sorrow.” Before long, Birch acquired an astonishing command of Mandarin, as well as a high level of comfort and familiarity with the ways and customs of China. Then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Like millions of Americans, Birch signed up for the armed forces, which already had a presence in China.

Through a remarkable chain of circumstances, and thanks to his extraordinary agility in navigating Chinese society, Birch ended up serving as an intelligence officer under General Claire Chennault, whose Flying Tigers were fighting on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek. Birch’s important assignment was to create networks of combat intelligence agents who could spot Japanese planes, choose suitable targets for attack, and coordinate American military action with Chinese forces. Some of his exploits became familiar back home thanks to dispatches that appeared in J. Franklin Norris’s widely read publication, The Fundamentalist.

Lautz takes us through Birch’s perilous assignments, first under Chennault and then under the CIA’s predecessor organization, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). And he explores in depth what is probably the most important question surrounding John Birch: the circumstances of his death in 1945 at the age of 27. In the conspiratorial eyes of Robert Welch, the real story of Birch’s demise—allegedly kept hidden from the American public by traitors within our government—was the root of the Communist plot to dominate the world. Relying on a careful study of documents and interviews with survivors of that distant era, Lautz offers a rather different picture, to say the least.

On his last mission in the field, Birch had encountered a Chinese Communist detachment. His judgment, which on all such previous assignments had been notably acute, on this occasion failed him, perhaps due to exhaustion. He rebuffed the demands of a Red Army major that he surrender his sidearm, and he shoved a soldier, lodging an insult at the same time. Birch was shot on the spot and his body mutilated.

It was an ugly local skirmish of the kind that was happening across China and across Asia, as the war in the Pacific was drawing to a close. At most, Birch’s death is a data point in the first phase of the hostility that was to erupt between the United States and Mao Zedong’s China; in itself, it held no large political significance. The government “cover-up” was essentially a figment of Welch’s overwrought imagination, with the allegations helped along by Birch’s surviving parents, who desperately sought greater posthumous recognition for their son’s service to the country.

Essentially, John Birch had his name hijacked and ruined by Robert Welch. Today it evokes images of right-wing kooks huddled in secret meetings worrying feverishly about imagined enemies. But Birch deserves to be remembered differently—and better—as another member of the Greatest Generation, extraordinary in an ordinary way, a devout Christian, missionary, warrior, and spy, who, like hundreds of thousands of other Americans during World War II, took great risks and sacrificed his life for his country at an age far too young.

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