Book Review | The Politics of Paranoia, Then and Now

Two copies of "A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism"

A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism
By Edward H. Miller
University of Chicago Press,
464 pp., $30.00

Almost a half-century before Donald Trump signed on to the fraudulent notion that President Barack Obama’s American citizenship and constitutional legitimacy were suspect, Robert Welch (1899-1985) reached an equally alarming conclusion about the president of his day, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. Unable to imagine any other explanation for what he saw as the globalist and insufficiently militant policies of the general who had commanded D-Day, whose patriotism was unquestioned by most Americans, he reasoned that Eisenhower was, in fact, a knowing agent of the Soviet Union and international Communism. To Welch, that explained why the United States was, in his view, losing the Cold War so badly. In 1954, he wrote a long letter that evolved into a book, The Politician, that argued as much. As Welch wrote in a later introduction to the book, it was “not possible to lose so much ground, so rapidly to an enemy so inferior by chance or by stupidity.” It had to be purposeful.

It is commonly said that Welch, who founded the far-right John Birch Society and epitomized a hyper-suspicious, conspiratorial view of Communism, was purged from the ranks of respectable American conservatism by the likes of William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review, who read The Politician when it was still in letter form and told Welch of his strong disagreement. The Eisenhower accusation was just too much. But the John Birch Society survived, its membership eventually rising to the tens of thousands, though never much higher.

Edward H. Miller’s eye-opener of a biography claims that reports of Welch’s banishment have been greatly exaggerated—at least when measured by the enduring influence of his thinking. Miller argues that today’s politics of fact-free conspiracies owe much to Welch, an interesting character who (paranoid conspiracy theories aside) was a serious player in conservative politics from the 1950s through to the 1980s. He emerges from Miller’s telling as an example of the symbiosis of anti-tax,
anti-regulation Main Street businessmen, anti-Communist ideologues and social conservatives who helped shape the modern GOP.

For Welch, FDR’s New Deal was a catastrophic descent into collectivization and regimentation, as dangerous as Nazism and Stalinism.

Born in 1899 to a North Carolina farming family, Robert Welch, Jr. was tutored by his adoring mother and displayed unusual intellectual gifts. He entered the University of North Carolina at age 12 and went on to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and Harvard Law School. He and his brother founded a prosperous candy company, which led him to decades of activism and pamphleteering for the National Association of Manufacturers. Welch had a personal library of 5,000 books, and whether or not it was true, as he claimed, that he had read them all, he was certainly erudite. When he argued against the continuation of wartime price controls in the postwar 1940s, his examples of rulers who erred by intervening in their economies included Hammurabi and the third-century Roman emperor Diocletian.

The fault in this hardcore paleoconservative’s intellect was his inability to reconcile his sense of what he deemed rational and patriotic with realities that flew in the face of it. For Welch, FDR’s New Deal was a catastrophic descent into collectivization and regimentation, as dangerous as Nazism and Stalinism. He saw the United Nations as an embryonic world government into which the United States was to be incorporated and demoted to a mere province.

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When the United States went to war in Korea under U.N. auspices, Welch’s anger was mollified only by the fact that the commander of the “U.N. police action” was General Douglas MacArthur, who was, in Welch’s view, a modern-day George Washington. Truman’s dismissal of MacArthur, Miller writes, “revolutionized Robert’s thinking.”

He quotes Welch from his unsuccessful 1950 campaign for the Republican nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts explaining that, until that moment, he had not been running as an anti-Communist but as an anti-Socialist, fearful of the United States following, not a Soviet model, but that of Britain’s postwar Labour Party government:

It was not until the firing of MacArthur… that I became convinced that the danger from the Communist conspiracy was far more important, urgent, and immediate than the parallel, interlocking, but far less rigidly organized efforts of the ADA and the ILO [Americans for Democratic Action and the International Labor Organization] and similar groups—always with Communist backing, to carry socialism in our country as far as possible by Fabian procedures.

As Miller notes, many other Republicans were also appalled by Truman’s firing of MacArthur. It marked for them a giant step in the steady surrender of Asia to the Communists. What, then, to make of Washington policymakers—Truman, Gen. George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson—who were directing or abetting this policy of surrender? What to make of the Republicans’ 1952 rejection of the presidential ambitions of Ohio Senator Robert Taft, leader of the party’s midwestern Main Street right wing, in favor of Eisenhower, whom Truman would have gladly seen as his Democratic successor? Eisenhower was a favorite of the party’s more centrist Wall Street wing, and he brought an old soldier’s wariness of battle to the notion of a shooting war with China. Like many Republicans (and many Catholic Democratic voters, too) Welch greatly admired Senator Joseph McCarthy. But the nascent medium of television made him and others witnesses to McCarthy’s undoing.

John Birch Society advertisement in New Jersey in the 1980s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Eisenhower years would bring further developments that Welch found inexplicable and alarming. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, and then Sputnik II, with a dog named Laika aboard. By that time, political realities ran counter to all that Welch held dear. He could only understand them as being the spurious work product of traitors.

As Miller writes:

Welch never believed that the Soviets had a space program at all; he thought both incidents hoaxes. Welch concluded that the Soviets either stole the technology from Americans or treasonous conspirators in the United States launched the satellites for them.

Welch would later blame the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. on Communists. In his view, the civil rights movement was a Communist plot designed to provoke a race war that would debilitate the United States.

Over the years, Welch would soften the accusations that he had made in the 1954 letter. His allegation that Eisenhower had led an undercover life as a Soviet agent gave way to a broader assault on the perfidy of Insiders, epitomized by members of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Richard Nixon, he believed, was part of it all—a self-seeking faux conservative who took his orders from Nelson Rockefeller, the leader of the GOP’s moderate Eastern wing. Throw in those favorites of conspiracy theorists left and right, the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group, and you had an early version of the Deep State.

In 1959, Welch proposed the idea of an organization devoted to fighting Communism to 11 businessmen at a meeting in Indianapolis (among them Fred Koch, father of the conservative Koch brothers). It was the founding meeting of the John Birch Society, named for a Protestant missionary killed by Chinese Communists and politically beatified as the Cold War’s first victim.

In the last years of Welch’s life and activism, he seized upon social issues, opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, loosened sexual mores and the growing tolerance for homosexuality. He saw the last as reflecting a Communist plot to promote gay people to positions of authority so as to then blackmail them. The openly gay John Maynard Keynes, he claimed, was accorded influence precisely because of his sexual orientation.

Several lessons from Miller’s biography of Welch are worth remembering. First: The politics of paranoia and wingnut conspiracy theories are alive and well in the age of the alleged theft of the 2020 election. Whatever purging may have been done by more respectable conservatives, such politics have a natural constituency among those who feel baffled and betrayed by history, who have mastered the challenges of their times only to be told that times have changed and their mastery is obsolete. The allure of such ideas is not confined to the unlettered and underemployed. Welch’s 1954 letter that grew into his accusation of treason was written at the suggestion of a fellow attendee at a National Association of Manufacturers meeting, the MIT-educated Howard Pew, president of the Sun Oil Company. And for years, the John Birch Society was kept afloat financially by Texas billionaire oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt.

Second, if you take away the loony conspiracies, Welch’s politics were common on the Republican right wing, if not at its center. McCarthy was the most popular Republican of his day. Even today, the notion that all that the American economy really needs is less regulation and lower taxes on business is conservative boilerplate. Leaders of the CIA and the FBI took the threat of Communist infiltration seriously for decades. As attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy (a onetime McCarthy aide) approved wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr. because of King’s suspected Communist ties.

Third, secrecy feeds conspiracy theories. As Miller points out, it was hard to rebut Welch’s belief that Washington was tanking the Cold War when much of the U.S. policy of containment was covert.

By the 1970s, when Congress exposed the Cold War excesses of the CIA, and the Pentagon Papers detailed previously secret U.S. actions in Vietnam, the claim that Truman and Eisenhower had been insufficiently anti-Communist became unsustainable. In their place, left-wing critiques asserting that both postwar Democrats and Republicans had been excessively militant Cold Warriors took on greater credibility. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a book on secrecy, if only the Army had tipped off Truman that it had the goods on the diplomat Alger Hiss—that it could prove Hiss was, in fact, a Soviet agent—American liberals would not have spent decades deploring an alleged injustice that Welch’s crowd had gotten right. The army valued the secrecy of the decrypted Venona Cables, wartime communications between Moscow and its Washington embassy that showed Hiss’s guilt, over informing the sitting president.

If one approaches Robert Welch’s life expecting a sociopath, a narcissist, a con artist or a compulsive liar, Miller’s estimable book will disappoint. Nor should one expect an antisemite. He rejected the notorious antisemite Gerald L.K. Smith for missing the point: It was about opposing Communists, not Jews. He did not want his organization to be associated with antisemitism: He broke off with the palindromically named Revilo Oliver, a white supremacist, antisemitic professor of philology at the University of Illinois—although Miller rightly observes that he should not have been traveling in Oliver’s orbit in the first place. But while the John Birch Society was lampooned as paranoid, its founder does not emerge as a madman in his private life. He was a loving and faithful husband who read widely and wrote poetry. As adults, his sons recalled the formality of family dinners: suit and tie required, along with intelligent conversation, if not Spanish lessons. There is no hint that he embraced conspiratorial whoppers with tactical cynicism and insincerity; he believed it all, crazy as it was. The portrait that emerges is antique but neither hateful nor deranged. The scariest lesson of Welch’s life is that the attachment to paranoid conspiracies as a way to explain the successes of disliked candidates and policies is still with us.

Robert Siegel is Moment’s special literary contributor. 

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