Being true believers, my parents made sure that their kids were aware of the horrors of Communism. While other families talked about the weather, the baseball scores and neighborhood gossip, our dinner conversations took a different tack.
Over chicken and dumplings, my mother described Mao Zedong’s torture methods. Pot roast and carrots encouraged Dad to detail mass starvation in the Ukraine and prison conditions in the Soviet gulag. Sometimes we heard about children forced to turn their parents into the Commies. Then, those same children were forced to watch while their mother and father being tortured and executed. In the most horrific stories, the children were made to kill their own parents while the guards watched.
I was terrified. For most of my teen years, I had bouts of indigestion, persistent headaches and frequent nightmares. As hard as I tried to tell myself that these things would never happen in Chicago, my parents were very persuasive. And given the fact that the Communists did do many horrible things, it was hard to push beyond the fear.
Then, adding to the conspiracy “over there,” the John Birch Society embraced another mission. My father called it “taking our country back.”
That’s right—fifty years before right wingers with tea bags on their tri-corner hats waved “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, the Birchers set out to return America to its glory days—sometime between colonial America and 1925. Those halcyon days when real men were free to do anything while the government did practically nothing.
Of course, to get back to that real America, everything passed since FDR had to go, along with the Income tax and every government program not specifically mentioned in our sacred documents. Birchers gleefully anticipated the death of Social Security, unemployment compensation, all welfare programs, federal funding for highways and bridges, all regulation—including nuclear regulation, Civil rights legislation and anything relating to education. Birchers could hardly wait for the day the government would be 60 percent smaller than it was (in 1960) and the income tax rate would be zero.
The two-part plan was so compelling that tens of thousands of Americans joined in just the first few years. Welch had envisioned an army of 1 million stalwart patriots to stop the Conspiracy. By 1960, my father imagined that the Birch Society would break through the 100,000 member milestone before Christmas.
Of course, his dreams were about to run into a harsh reality. More about that in the next segment.
For more about me and my upcoming book Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America's Radical Right, coming from Beacon Press in July 2013, please visit my website www.claireconner.com.