Edward H. Miller
A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, & the Revolution of American Conservatism
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2021
Professor Edward H. Miller has written a solid biography of Robert Welch, Jr., the founder of the anti-Communist John Birch Society. The book’s only flaw is that it is written from the perspective of a nice white liberal believer in the mainstream media and the reigning “civil rights” narrative. For example, Miller actually mentions Welch’s “white privilege.” Otherwise it is an outstanding work about the life of a deadly serious metapolitical content creator who was one of many Right-wing thinkers who steered American society away from Communism during the Cold War.
The John Birch Society’s success in the Cold War didn’t come without a price. Welch saw Communist conspiracies behind every bush. He believed that every Communist gain during the Cold War was the result of a deliberate conspiracy on the part of Americans in high places, “insiders,” who sought to cede control of America to a Communistic, one-world globalist system. Welch didn’t believe in coincidences, genuine screw-ups on the part of American officials, actual Communist accomplishments, or that places like China were too big and unwieldy for any American official to be able to control.
Yet Welch was right about some conspiracies. In the early 1960s, Bob Dylan could easily mock the ideas of the John Birch Society in a song, but by 1980, after two decades of genuine conspiracies that stretched across the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon came to light, many Americans ceased believing anything the mainstream media and government were saying. It is now difficult for people to agree on the basic facts of any topic, and suspicion reigns. Welch’s view of forces deliberately pulling the strings predominates the present mainstream narrative.
Robert Welch, Jr. was born in rural eastern North Carolina in 1899. His family had lived in the area since 1700. Before the Civil War, they’d owned slaves. Both of his grandfathers were veterans of the Confederate army. Welch was a child prodigy. He picked up algebra by age seven and taught it to his teacher, Miss Wood. He was sent to high school in Elizabeth City, North Carolina at age 10.
At the age of 12 he was admitted to the University of North Carolina. When the First World War broke out, Welch gained an appointment to the US Naval Academy. The war ended before he graduated, so he secured a discharge, was never commissioned, and never served in the Navy. Officers’ training courses are such that the cadets and midshipmen get as much training as the enlisted men, but if they don’t get a commission, all that training becomes unofficial. Thus, Welch was not a veteran. This would harm him when he got into politics after the Second World War, when veteran status nearly became a minimum requirement to win an election.
In 1919, Robert Welch, Sr. gave his son a serious talk. Welch, Jr. had received a great deal of education at great expense. His father explained that his other children deserved an education, too, and that Welch, Jr. needed to start making his own living. Afterwards, the young Welch went to Cambridge, Massachusetts to become a businessman, study law at Harvard, and set himself up financially by tutoring students in Spanish. Around this time, he converted from being a fundamentalist Baptist to a Unitarian.
Harvard Law was already leaning towards the Leftist, progressive political bent even then. Welch reacted negatively to this. There were other problems, too: The year 1919 was the high point for Communist and sub-Saharan agitation in twentieth-century America.
The unrest of 1919 fits into the template of Wilmot Robertson’s idea that the American majority is in a low-intensity war against unassimilated minorities, especially Jews and sub-Saharans. Sub-Saharan crime is so common and universally understood that it needs no further explanation, but many of the anarchists were middle-to-upper class Italians or other Europeans of immigrant background. The Labor Movement was often led by native whites of Nordic stock, but there were many Jewish and Communist infiltrators.
Welch eventually left Harvard Law. He purchased a fudge recipe from a local baker and went into the candy-making business. He was able to increase his productivity and profits by streamlining and mechanizing his processes using the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor. He also hit upon an idea to increase sales after he developed a type of candy called the Sugar Daddy. Miller estimates that Welch could have amassed a fortune worth several million dollars at this time.
The candy business was highly profitable. The railroads and mass production techniques turned cheap resources — milk, sugar, and cocoa — into highly popular value-added products. The industry was also one of suspicion and secrecy. Any competitor could obtain a recipe, copy manufacturing techniques, and undercut an established operator. Miller argues that this culture of guarding against very real potential conspiracies helped shape Welch’s idea that there really were malevolent actors out there making evil plans.
Welch’s candy business went bankrupt in the Crash of 1929. Welch’s brother James, with whom he had a lifelong strained relationship, hired Welch for his own candy-making company. Welch thought he was being taken on as a partner, but was instead a hireling.
Welch’s business set him apart from the northeastern WASPs who he lived alongside. As war clouds gathered on the international scene, Welch didn’t have the connections to England that the other businessmen of Massachusetts did, so he didn’t see the pending war as a mortal threat to America.
Welch’s employment depended on dairy from the Midwest and sugar from southern climes. His cultural and business ties were different from those of his neighbors and peers. Welch’s foreign policy derived from a traditional Republican view that emphasized a serious conflict between the East and the Midwest. The Midwest resented the East as arrogant, exploitative, abusive, and most ominously, Anglophilic. Britain had long been a major investor in the East and on Wall Street, which was seen not incorrectly as a major exploiter of the Midwest. (p. 64)
Welch became active in the America First Movement. It was there that he really started to influence American society and make connections with other Rightist activists, one of whom was Clarence Manion, a Roman Catholic who was wise to the Jewish Question (JQ). The Manion-Welch connection was part of a trend of Roman Catholics aligning with Anglo Protestants along Rightist, anti-Communist lines.
During the 1950 election in Massachusetts, Welch ran for Lieutenant Governor in the Republican primary. His platform consisted of a rejection of centralized economic planning, anti-Communism, and an overall warning about Labour Party’s Leftism in Britain. In the late 1940s, the Labour Party nationalized industries and enacted a number of other policies which sapped the vitality of the British economy, an economy still wrecked from the Second World War.
Welch came in a distant second. Although he was offering a genuine solution to many of the problems facing Truman-era America, the voters still supported liberal Republicans. Miller writes,
[Welch] also faced a veteran problem, in that he was not one. Welch was fifty years old in 1950 — too young for World War I and too old for World War II. Veterans had a decided electoral advantage over their opponents who did not serve, and injured veterans had even better shots. For instance, in 1946 a young navy veteran named John Fitzgerald Kennedy had secured a seat in the US Congress from Massachusetts by highlighting his heroics as a PT boat commander in the Pacific. Welch’s victorious challenger had lost a leg as an aviator in World War I. (p. 97)
Nonetheless, Welch gained a great deal of experience and the campaign brought together a core of anti-Communists who supported Welch. They would go on to help establish the John Birch Society.
In the early 1950s, the Anglosphere’s political Right was not yet a cohesive force. From the 1870s until the 1920s, the American Right, if one can call it that, was an old-stock Yankee force — literally Yankees. The sons of Union Army veterans led the way for immigration restrictions, assimilating (or removing) European newcomers, ending Oriental immigration entirely, and warning against the Bolsheviks. In 1933 they were knocked out of power as a result of the Depression. The Republicans became merely an echo of the Democrats. In England, the Conservative Party focused its entire energy on fighting the war. They had no answer to calls for the nationalization of various industries after the end of the war. All English-speaking conservatives were in an intellectual ditch.
But by 1950, Right-wing political theory was making a comeback. Miller writes,
Many of the reactionary Republicans . . . were returning veterans who had fought the threat of Hitler and Tōjō. They had participated in a great cause to save freedom from tyranny; for them, fighting against the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and Communism was as central as defeating Hitler, beliefs that led some to extreme measures. They called New Dealers and Fair Dealers Communists and traitors, though that was often ridiculous. Many voters came to look upon Democrats as left-wing radicals who wanted to bring socialism to the United States in the form of minimum wage laws and social security. The war against Hitler and Japan provided a template for foreign policy too. After Chinese troops interceded in the Korean conflict, they asked, Why not go after Communist China with America’s full military might, even nuclear weapons? We had them. Why not use them? Everything should be on the table. (p. 102)
Part of their frustration stemmed from the fact that the war in Korea had turned sour in late 1950. The Chinese intervened in the war, to the surprise of the entire American establishment, and American gains in Korea were wiped out in the course of a few weeks. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s flirtation and sympathy with the Communists dating to the Roosevelt administration wasn’t helping matters. Officials like Alger Hiss and Henry Dexter White really were Soviet agents.
The downturn in the Korean War was the point of radicalization for many on the American Right. Future anti-Communist activists and white advocates went into a period of self-reflection and study at this time. George Lincoln Rockwell, then on active duty with the US Navy, became a JQ-wise anti-Communist at this time. Welch also started to read up on Communism. He eventually published a letter related to Communist conspiracies that went viral. The letter formed the background of his 1952 book, May God Forgive Us. The book would go on to sell 185,000 copies. Sales were heaviest in the Midwest.
The downturn in the Korean War exposed other flaws. One Left-leaning newspaper had obtained classified documents related to China. Additionally, the Chinese military deployment in Korea threatened other nations, such as Taiwan and the Philippines. The Truman administration seemed to be in over its head.
Truman was making the best out of a bad situation, and nobody recognized that he had created a successful strategy to defeat Communism until many years after he left the Presidency. Truman’s basic strategy was continued by every American President up until the Soviet Union’s demise.
Then there was the problem of Soviet infiltrators and spies in the US government itself. Miller argues that the Soviet spy network had self-destructed by 1950. Personally, I find that dubious, but by 1950 Stalin was increasingly paranoid, and he was likely making some poor choices.
Truman decided not to run in 1952, and Eisenhower was elected. Shortly after, Welch ran for the school board in Belmont, Massachusetts and won. It was the only elected office he would ever serve. He stayed on the job for its entire three-year term.
The Eisenhower years were years of peace and prosperity for most Americans. Welch’s activism appeared to be stalled by rising incomes, new cars, and the proliferation of labor-saving devices. Eisenhower carefully avoided further wars in Asia and quietly removed Communists and sympathizers from government posts. Meanwhile, anti-Communist fighter Senator Joseph McCarthy crashed and burned after he hired two staffers who made some reckless decisions. When one of the staffers was drafted, McCarthy was persuaded by the other to accuse the Army brass itself of Communist sympathies. McCarthy often made decisions while drunk, and eventually his career was destroyed by the anti-anti-Communists with considerable help from the mainstream media and the Eisenhower administration.
Miller argues that Welch’s ideas, although extreme in many ways, were not too far from the views held by many Americans at the time, including liberals. Welch assumed that American power was infinite. The Communist takeover of China could only have been the result of failures within the American government, not the nationalist Chinese government’s poor decisions and the strategic brilliance of the CHICOMS. Welch assumed that “the people” were incorruptible. Dictatorships and poor and corrupt governments were the result of leaders failing to listen to “the people.” In foreign policy, Welch was in agreement with many other Cold Warriors who felt that the struggle against Communism needed to be waged in Asia first.
In 1960, Welch published The Life of John Birch. Birch had been a missionary to China and served there as a soldier during the Second World War. Shortly after its conclusion, Birch was killed by Chinese Communists. Officially, Birch was a casualty of the war, but Welch recognized that Birch was in fact one of the first Americans killed in a new conflict: the Cold War. Birch’s death was not unlike that of Lieutenant Colonel Peter Dewey in Vietnam. Dewey was officially a casualty of the Second World War, but he really died as a result of the gathering Vietnam conflict.
Welch grew his brother’s candy business, but he eventually decided he had enough money and devoted himself full-time to metapolitics. He resigned effective January 1, 1957. He then published a magazine called One Man’s Opinion, which would eventually become American Opinion, the principal magazine of the John Birch Society.
In 1958 in Indianapolis, Welch founded the John Birch Society. Its first members were
William J. Grede, a former NAM president and president of a Milwaukee foundry; Laurence E. Baker, a retired army colonel, former aide to Douglas MacArthur, and at the time of the meeting a lawyer living in Wellesley, Massachusetts; T. Coleman Andrews, the former IRS commissioner whose views had evolved to oppose the income tax; Ernest G. Swigert, another former president of NAM and founder of Portland’s Hyster Corporation, which manufactured heavy equipment; W. B. McMillan, the president of the Hussman Refrigerator Company of St. Louis; Fred Koch, another NAM leader who was president of Rock Island Oil and Refinery Company, which later became Koch industries; Revilo P. Oliver, a classics professor at the University of Illinois; Louis Ruthenbury, the erstwhile board chair of Evansville, Indiana’s Servel Corporation; William R. Kent, a Milwaukee businessman; Fitzhugh Scott, the president of a Milwaukee architectural firm; and Robert Stoddard, chair of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. (p. 193)
Welch’s base of ordinary supporters were isolationist Anglo-Midwesterners and ethical Catholics who were usually also from the Midwest, as well as Texas millionaires and some Northeastern businessmen.
Welch was never an Eisenhower supporter. He believed that Ike had stolen the Republican nomination from Senator Robert Taft of Ohio in 1952. In 1956, he supported Senator William Knowland of California for President because of his Asia First foreign policy views. Knowland didn’t run against Eisenhower, and Ike sailed to reelection.
By the late 1950s, Welch was completely frustrated with Eisenhower’s middle-of-the-road approach to politics. Because Ike didn’t roll back any of the New Deal programs, Welch came to suspect that Eisenhower was a secret Communist and put together evidence for this which he only shared with a small number of people — initially. Welch eventually shared his suspicions about Eisenhower with thousands of his supporters. After Ike left office, Welch published his claims in a book called The Politician.
In the late 1950s, with the “civil rights” movement running at full steam, Welch blamed “both sides” for the ongoing disruptions and suspected that the Communists were involved, attempting to use the disorder to foment a civil war in the United States that would allow them to move in and take over. Welch argued, not entirely inaccurately, that sub-Saharans in the US were wealthier than Africans themselves, and even wealthier than working-class Englishmen. He supported slow desegregation and freedom of association.
Miller argues that the “civil rights” movement was a moral one that was in the right and beneficial to America. He also argues that “civil rights” was necessary to win the Cold War. There is no question that the Communists supported “civil rights” as well as decolonialist movements elsewhere, however, and that this was intended to harm white Americans. Communists weren’t supporting Africanization out of the goodness of their hearts. Sub-Saharans were and are a problem in their own right, irrespective of the Cold War. Decolonized nations with sub-Saharan populations all fell apart after sub-the natives achieved political control. Detroit, the Congo, Zimbabwe, and so on all followed the same dismal road to a Haitian-style society.
It is entirely possible that the United States won the Cold War in spite of “civil rights” rather than because of it. America’s integrated military hasn’t satisfactorily won a war since 1948. It is also clear that “civil rights” was not overwhelmingly popular then, nor is it now. After Kennedy introduced a new civil rights bill, his poll numbers dropped from 70% approval to 55% overnight, and calls to impeach “civil rights” supporter Earl Warren, then on the Supreme Court, grew louder (p. 286). It is entirely likely that the illicit second constitution that is the 1964 Civil Rights Act couldn’t have been passed were it not for the remarkable political conditions that existed between Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam War in 1964.
Welch came into conflict with conservative icon William F. Buckley, the editor of the National Review. Buckley’s suave demeanor and mainstream following temporarily relegated Welch and the John Birch Society to the fringe of acceptable public discourse. Buckley’s advantage was that he could point out Welch’s obviously wrong conspiracy theories, such as his claim that Eisenhower was a Communist. Although Welch was not always wrong about Communist conspiracies. He pointed out that Fidel Castro was a secret Communist and was bound to make trouble for the United States long before anyone else figured it out. Since Castro’s rise, the New World’s great political divide, which has yet to be bridged, is between Cuba and Left-leaning Venezuela against the rest of the Americas.
When President Kennedy was assassinated by a Communist sympathizer and antifa radical acting on his own in Dallas, the mainstream media immediately moved to blame the American Right. Walter Cronkite reported (deliberately?) incorrectly that Rightist Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona had said “no comment” after hearing about the murder (p. 288). This disinformation was effective. All Right-wing groups were tarred in the resulting media frenzy. Kennedy’s murder fatally damaged Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, and for a time Kennedy’s successor and his Democratic majority in the Congress were able to push through a great deal of Leftist legislation, with “civil rights” causing the most lasting damage. Welch rightly predicted that there would be sub-Saharan violence in the wake of “civil rights” legislation, but he put too much stock in blaming Communism for it.
Miller describes the riots and disasters after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In the mid-1960s, Negro-worshiping ministers stockpiled weapons in their churches’ basements to aid sub-Saharan revolutionaries, gang violence spiraled out of control, and cities burned. It is a cruel irony that the segregationists, white advocates, and their allies in the anti-Communist organizations such as Robert Welch were at their political and popular nadir just when their prophecies regarding “civil rights” were proving true.
Welch believed that the Communists were provoking a race war as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy and that every riot was a carefully scripted event. Welch also supported white-ruled lands in Africa such as South Africa and Rhodesia, which were coming under pressure from decolonialist movements.
The 1960s was the time that sub-Saharans switched from being tepid GOP supporters to becoming passionate supporters of the Democratic Party. They would go on to wreck the formerly Southern-dominated party and make every Democrat beholden to their whims. At the same time, an endorsement by the John Birch Society became the kiss of death for any aspiring politician. The movement thus stalled in its growth. Welch forced Revilo Oliver out because of his insistence on addressing the JQ and fired Robert DePugh, who was organizing a guerilla army. Welch’s pragmatic and flexible response to the political headwinds saved the John Birch Society, and it started to grow again in 1966 as a result of his reforms and the liberal excesses in American society.
The John Birch Society’s position was mostly negative toward the Vietnam War. Welch held that America should go in to win or not go in at all. Due to their views on Vietnam, the Birchers were “excommunicated” from the conservative movement by William F. Buckley — or at least that was the story for decades. Miller shows that the Society in fact continued to make strides and influence events into the 1970s.
By the late 1970s, Welch was getting old and starting to lose his touch despite his continued metapolitical success. Although he didn’t really slow down until the end of his life in 1985, there was a decline in efficiency at the John Birch Society’s headquarters. Long-time employees quit, people that should have been fired were kept on the payroll, others were frustrated by the apparent lack of progress in defeating Communism, and there were genuine conspiracies by local chapter leaders to take over Welch’s job.
The funding situation throughout the 1970s was likewise made difficult by stagflation. There were more problems as well: The Society’s main patron was Bunker Hunt, a wealthy oil man who got into a financially bad spot when he borrowed money in a bid to corner the silver market along with some Saudi investors. The political Right in the 1970s likewise changed its focus from anti-Communism to the Religious Right. The Society didn’t make that transition, but it did have overlapping members. Society patrons also began donating to developing Religious Right institutions.
Welch died in 1985. Although it has been said that he converted to Catholicism on his death bed, this is not true. He died a Unitarian. He left most of his fortune to the John Birch Society, and his house to his widow.
Welch’s belief that events are conspiracies put together by shadowy string-pullers remains relevant today, but the idea that the Communists are the ones doing it all is no longer entirely believable. Conspiracies really do exist, though; the trick is finding the ones that are true. It is certain that there was a conspiracy to carry out 9/11, for example. The idea it was an inside job is incorrect, but it is certain that Pentagon war planners contemplated carrying out false-flag attacks in America to justify an invasion of Cuba in the early 1960s. Is this was happened in 2001? It is tough to know what to believe. Wild conspiracy theories are entertaining, but are they effective in driving a social movement to gain power and influence?
Robert Welch was on the winning side in the Cold War. His Soviet enemy went down in defeat, but he didn’t recognize the clash of civilizations or emphasize the Israel Lobby’s negative influence over America. He did know that “civil rights” was a problem, but he didn’t focus on countering it. But in the end we can say that Welch had an extremely successful career which he accomplished by working very hard, avoiding any sexually reckless behavior, keeping fit, and using his time and money wisely.
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