(This article first appeared in the March 1992 issue of the JBS Bulletin.)
"The John Birch Society! Isn't that some sort of radical group?" "Doesn't it have something to do with racism and anti-Semitism?" "Aren't those people like the Nazis and the Klan?"
These characterizations of The John Birch Society are completely baseless. But, mention The John Birch Society's name to some Americans and be prepared for a response similar to what you've just read. And, strange as it may seem, there isn't any malicious intent on the part of most who utter such defamatory nonsense. Decent and honorable men and women have been led to believe something that is totally false.
Press for a reason why condemnation of The John Birch Society might be expressed and you'll likely find that those who give it have never read anything published by the Society, seen any of its films or video programs, or heard any of its spokesmen give a speech or air the organization's views on radio or television.
In other words, there are many Americans whose opinions about The John Birch Society are not based on what the organization has said or done but on what others have said of it. And, usually, these are individuals who insist that they always make up their own minds and are not influenced by the mass media or anyone else.
On the other hand, should mention of the Society's name elicit a positive response, you can be virtually certain who ever gave it has read John Birch literature or had some direct contact with the organization.
You may also encounter other Americans, of course, who readily admit that they know nothing about the Society, and maybe have never even heard of it. If that' s the case, you're likely talking to someone 35 years of age or younger who was not influenced by the withering smear campaign directed at the Society in the early 1960s.
No Society official has ever claimed that all who read JBS literature will completely agree with it. The Society simply asks the American people to take a good look, to consider its views along with a host of others. The series of attacks on the Society, however, have kept millions from doing so. Which is exactly what they were designed to accomplish.
Is the Society worthy of contempt? Should decent Americans shun it? Or is its message so important and revealing about the way our nation is being led that prominent individuals in America will stop at virtually nothing to keep it from being heard?
What Is the John Birch Society?
The John Birch Society was begun in December 1958. Its sole purpose has been to keep freedom alive through an educational campaign that would share important information and perspective with fellow Americans. In a nation that prides itself on free speech and a free press, such a program should rise or fall based on the worth of its information. But the Society hasn't been judged by what it has offered. Too many Americans have accepted the strident denunciations of the organization by powerful groups and individuals who seek to set America’s agenda.
The Society's founder, Mr. Robert Welch, once stated in an essay written several years before he launched the organization:
The glory that is passing in the America that I was born in; that was given to me by courageous and farseeing men, many of whom died for that purpose; that I grew up in, went to school in, and loved more every year as I came to understand what a miraculous achievement it was as compared with any other social group at any place or any time in the history of the world; ... my America is being made over into a carbon copy of thousands of despotisms that have gone before.
He discovered that a plan existed to have government assume enormous control over the lives of the American people and then to subject them to an all-powerful world government. He looked into the future and saw rising taxation, controls, regulations, bureaucracy, and the specter of Big Brother. He saw a watering down of U.S. independence and a steady transfer of national sovereignty to the United Nations. In time, he would label this plan "a new world order," a term he knew its proponents had been using for generations.
He also saw that the American people were no longer being given an appreciation of the marvelous heritage left to us by our nation's founders. The average American was not only unaware of the growth of government power, he had no understanding of what government's proper role is supposed to be. The mass media were to blame, but so were educators, politicians, and even many clergymen.
He considered this to be a deliberate plot, a huge betrayal of the marvelous American system. Rather than sit back and watch the conversion of this nation into "a carbon copy of thousands of despotisms that have gone before," he decided to act. After a few unsuccessful ventures in the arena of politics, Robert Welch formed an organization whose dual purpose was to preserve the American system of limited constitutional government and free enterprise, and to shine the light of day on individuals and programs. His idea was to create a citizen's group with locally functioning chapters organized to dispense sound information and perspective to fellow citizens.
Launched at a two-day meeting in Indianapolis in December 1958, the Society proceeded according to plans spelled out in its Blue Book, the transcript of the founding meeting. It began immediately to attract concerned Americans to its study groups. Its program included informing them about legislation being considered in Washington, and its efforts led to the defeat of several unnecessary and undesirable federal programs through contacts with members of Congress and through letter-writing campaigns.
Late in 1960, the Society learned of an effort organized by the Communist Party USA to have Congress cut off funding (and thereby abolish) the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Through its investigations of communist activity in our nation, HCUA had become a thorn in the side of the communists. Society members and other like-minded Americans in various other groups began an all-out campaign to warn members of Congress that the move to cripple HCUA was a pet project of the Communist Party. Their efforts bore great fruit.
When the measure came before the House of Representatives in early 1961, it was defeated overwhelmingly by a vote of 412 to 6. John Birch Society members didn't deserve all the credit for helping to kill the pro-Communist measure, but their efforts attracted attention and they were soon to become the target of intense retaliation.
In late 1960, Communist Party leaders from over 80 nations were summoned to an important meeting in Moscow. Out of that huge gathering came a mandate to all communists everywhere to wage a "resolute struggle against anti-Communism." Six months later, the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) conducted hearings about this significant directive. One of its most important witnesses was Edward Hunter, a renowned student of communist strategy and tactics. It was he who had coined the term "brainwashing" after studying the tactics used by the communists against American POWs in Korea.
Mr. Hunter's lengthy testimony was published by SISS on July 11, 1961 as "The New Drive Against the Anti-Communist Program." It included the following passage:
For the first time, the world Communist network, in a basic policy and operational document, specifically referred to the anti-Communist movement in the United States, recognizing that it had reached proportions large enough to constitute a main — if not the main — danger to Communist progress in our country....
A subsequent study commissioned by the California State Senate made the following observations after noting that the Moscow directive was published in full in the official publication of the Communist Party in this country:
So far as the American Communists were concerned, this was an order — plain and incontrovertible. It was not lightly printed. It was an implementation of orders from the highest source of the world Communist movement, and it was therefore imperative that the Party here do everything in its power to render the Birch Society, the anti-Communist schools, and all of the other rising anti-Communist organizations ineffective....
So, on February 25, 1961, People's World, the official newspaper of the Communist Party on the West Coast, followed the orders given by Moscow and published its first attack under the headline, "Enter (from stage right) the John Birch Society." A typical piece of communist innuendo and falsehood, it alerted all communists to the Society's existence and to the need to blacken its name. Had the errors and distortions in that article remained only with Communist Party members, the Society would never have suffered the intense vilification it was soon to experience.
Time Magazine Follows the Lead
A little more than one week later, however, Time magazine published its own broadside about the Society in an article entitled "The Americanists." Where People’s World had labeled the Society's local chapters "cells," so did Time.
Where the communist press had taken Robert Welch's disapproval of "democracy" completely out of context, Time also made it appear that the Birch Society's founder was condemning America. (Robert Welch had always taken great pains to explain that our nation was established as a republic, not a democracy, and he cited the very strong opinions about this distinction given by many of America's Founding Fathers.)
And where People's World had erroneously claimed that Hollywood actor Adolphe Menjou was serving on the Society's national Council, so did Time.
What is very revealing, however, is that prior to the publication of the Time article, one of its reporters had interviewed Robert Welch at his Massachusetts office. The reporter was given three hours of Mr. Welch' s time, provided with copies of all of the Society publications, and even shown the misstatements of fact in the People's World article. But, as it turned out, the staff at Time had already written the article that its reporter was supposedly researching. And, it also became obvious that Time's writers had drawn some of their "evidence" from People's World.
Time went even further than the communists, erroneously claiming that the Society was steeped in "strictest secrecy," that its "cells" operate under "dictatorial direction," that its members avoid "normal channels of political action" and "promote Communist-style front organizations," and that "its partisans have made their anonymous presence felt" in many U.S. communities.
Dictatorial direction? The Society was a completely voluntary association whose members have always been free to reject suggested action, even resign if they don't like what the Society says or does.
Avoid normal channels of political action? The Society's greatest successes had been achieved through member contact with U.S. representatives and senators from both political parties.
Communist-style front organizations? The Society had no such thing but, in time, would adopt the well-known American tactic of forming groups for specific short-range purposes. Unlike communist front organizations, however, the Society's "ad hoc committees" were always clearly identified as being launched and directed by the Society solely for the purposes stated.
As for secrecy and operating anonymously, there never was any such activity because the Society has always been an open book. In a dramatic demonstration of the absurdity of these malicious charges, 197 chapters in California promptly published their full addresses in a paid ad carried by a Los Angeles newspaper.
Smears Continue and Intensify
With Time taking the lead, virtually all organs of America' s mass media immediately joined in the attack on the infant John Birch Society. From being charged with secrecy and being condemned for operating like the communists, the Society was now being accused of racism, anti-Semitism, fascism, Nazism, and the whole roster of well-known smears. Members were called extremists, radicals, super-patriots, ultras, subversives, lunatics, and fanatics. It seemed as though no stone was left unturned in tar-brushing a few thousand Americans and the organization they had joined to learn more about their country and to work together to protect it from its enemies.
Had all of the charges aimed at the Society come merely from the communist press, they would have amounted to little more than a petty annoyance. But they were coming from the nation's mass media, from newspapers, magazines, and radio and television programming that most Americans respected. Yet, the tactic being used against the Society was standard communist fare, obviously being carried out by individuals who were not party members but were following someone else's lead.
As far back as 1943, a Communist Party directive had instructed members under communist discipline about methods to use in combating critics. As quoted by the 1956 Report of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (volume 1, page 347), here in part is what the directive said:
Members and front organizations must continually embarrass, discredit and degrade our critics.... When obstructionists become too irritating, label them as fascist or Nazi or anti-Semitic.... Constantly associate those who oppose us with those names that already have a bad smell. The association will, after enough repetition, become "fact" in the public mind.
When given a chance, Birch Society members would ask: How could the Society be anti-Semitic when its original national Council, formed in December 1959, had among its members a prominent New York City Jew named Alfred Kohlberg? How could it be secret when every member was trying his utmost to distribute its Blue Book and every other publication it had ever produced?
How could it be subversive when its leader requested Senate and House committees, even the FBI, to investigate everything it was doing?
Finally, A Formal Investigation
After having tried unsuccessfully to have the Society examined by federal agencies. Robert Welch, on March 22, 1961, formally requested the California Senate Factfinding Subcommittee on un-American Activities to conduct its own investigation. Senator Hugh M. Burns, its chairman, responded in the affirmative, and the only investigation of the John Birch Society ever conducted by an official body was launched.
The subcommittee read through all of the Society' s literature, sent trained investigators to interview supporters and detractors, took testimony from scores of persons, examined all of the press accounts about the Society, even obtained reports from agents sent covertly to Society chapter meetings. Its work consumed two full years.
On June 12, 1963, the subcommittee filed its 62-page report and released copies to the press. Opponents of the Society were shocked to discover that what they hoped would destroy the Society once and for all turned out, instead, to be a wholesale exoneration of the many charges against it.
About charges of secrecy and fascism, the subcommittee's report stated: "We have not found the Society to be either a secret or a fascist organization, nor have we found the great majority of its members in California to be mentally unstable, crackpots, or hysterical about the threat of Communist subversion." (Page 61)
Regarding charges of anti-Semitism and racism, the report offered: "Our investigations have disclosed no evidence of anti-Semitism on the part of anyone connected with the John Birch Society in California, and much evidence to the effect that it opposes racism in all forms." (Page 39)
In its concluding paragraph, the report stated: "Our investigation and study was requested by the Society, which had been publicly charged with being a secret, fascist, subversive, un-American, anti-Semitic organization. We have not found any of these accusations to be supported by the evidence." (Pages 61-62)
The report pointed out that the all-out attack on the Society had been launched by the Communist Party "with an article in the People's World, California Communist newspaper, in February 1961." (Page 25)
A greatly encouraged Robert Welch publicly praised the work of the subcommittee and thanked its members for carrying out their investigation "in a completely honorable and objective manner." He noted that the leaders of the subcommittee were Democrats in a state where Democrats were led by a Governor and an Attorney General who were known to be bitter foes of the Society.
The Society then asked for and received permission to copy and distribute the entire report. Many thousands of copies were sent to members of the press and to individuals who had repeated many of the false charges directed at the organization. Members of the Society purchased and distributed additional copies. But the spirit of fair play that is supposed to characterize our nation took a back seat as the attacks on the Society continued exactly as before, and even increased.
These attacks reached a crescendo during the Republican National Convention in the summer of 1964. At this gathering, before a huge national television audience, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller delivered his famous speech about "extremism," which he insisted was coming from "the Nazis, the Klan, the communists, and the John Birch Society."
Repeatedly associating the good name of the John Birch Society with the deserved bad names of those other groups, he either planted or solidified a totally false image about the Society in the minds of millions. That he was booed by many of the delegates at the convention didn't deter him at all. He knew what he was doing, and he didn't care a whit about the negative reaction he was generating from members of his own party. His goal was to hurt the Society. And with the help of allies in the media, he accomplished his objective.
Years later, many Americans who were affected by the Rockefeller performance and all of the associated publicity about it remain completely unable to recall where they got the notion that the John Birch Society was something to avoid. But their reluctance to have anything to do with the organization continues. Admitting to themselves that they have been duped is a lot more difficult than continuing to ride a widely-created wave of opinion. That wave, however, is losing most of its power and will soon be completely recognized as a carrier of despicable falsehood.
Still Adhering to Basic Principles
In many communities across America, a charge that the John Birch Society harbors anti-Semitism has brought a prompt refutation from a Jewish member or a Jewish supporter who had done his own investigation.
During the period of the late 1960s, when the Society was widely charged with racism. Black members and spokesmen crisscrossed the nation addressing audiences arranged by Society members. Birch Society veterans of that era will remember with great affection the wonderful work done by Julia Brown, Lola Belle Holmes, Leonard Patterson, Alvin Smith, George Schuyler, Freeman Yearling, Charles Smith, and others whose speeches sought to calm racial tensions and unite all Americans against a common foe.
Experience has shown that repeating a lie loudly enough and often enough will cause it to stick with many. This is what happened to the John Birch Society. Individuals in this nation, most of whom were not communists, employed the communist tactic of labeling an adversary with "names that already have a bad smell." For many, they accomplished the goal of associating the Society with unsavory groups and ideas, and then having that association become "fact" in the public mind.
The John Birch Society is not guilty, and never has been guilty, of the various smears of its good name. Any American who may have been affected by the vilification of this one organization ought to be alarmed that such a thing could happen in our nation. Who else might be similarly ridiculed and smeared? What other misinformation has the media disseminated?
The John Birch Society has no quarrel with anyone who chooses to disagree with any position it takes — as long as its position has been presented free of slander and innuendo. In a nation as large as ours, there are bound to be honest differences of opinion.
All that the Society asks is that its information and point of view be examined carefully and conscientiously. The intense and thoroughly dishonest efforts to keep most Americans from doing exactly that ought to suggest to anyone that its message is important. If its information and analysis were not significant, why has there been so much effort to damage its reputation and keep Americans from examining its views?
The John Birch Society was formed to restore and extend freedom. Totally dedicated to the American system given us by the Founding Fathers, it seeks to subject government once again to the limitations on its power contained in the U.S. Constitution. It also seeks to preserve and expand the free enterprise system, and inspire others throughout the world to follow America's good example.
Society's Potential Scares Enemies
The John Birch Society's entire effort has been summed up in its motto, "Less government, more responsibility, and — with God's help — a better world." And its ardent enemies are those who want more government, a completely dependent population, an end to national sovereignty, and a cancellation of the restrictions on government contained in the Constitution.
What the enemies of The John Birch Society so greatly feared in the early 1960s was not its few thousand members and its few small victories. Those who would convert this nation into a "carbon copy of thousands of despotisms that have come before" feared its potential. They knew that active citizen groups in the cities and towns of America — armed with solid information and a strong determination to remain free — had the potential to block all of their self-serving and ultimately tyrannical goals. It was the Society's potential that frightened them and convinced them it had to be destroyed.
The Society was hurt by all of the smears. But it certainly wasn't destroyed as was intended. Courageous and principled members have kept the Society going, have reached out and touched the lives of tens of millions, and are still working for the same goals outlined by Robert Welch in 1958. In other words, the potential that has always existed within the Society is still there, realized in some areas, but still to be realized in a great many more.
Excerpted from The John Birch Society Bulletin for March 1992;
copyright 1992 by The John Birch Society