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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

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Comment Preferences

  •  thank you for this ongoing series (9+ / 0-)

    ...sharing an insight into not only the lives of those paranoid John Birchers, but an insight into the impact on those Birchers' families.

    There seem to be a lot of parallels between Birchers and other radical, right-wingers, like the KKK and so-called "Libertarians" (many of whom, in my opinion, would like nothing more than what you described...a return to the days of unfettered "robber baron" capitalism where corporations can do anything they want without any regulation and where there is no governmental safety net for our citizens).

    •  Good insights (5+ / 0-)

      You are so correct in your observations. My book goes into great detail about the right wingers who all love the idea of a weak central government, no regulations, no safety net and a country awash in guns. They'd gleefully dance on the grave of Social Security and Medicare and all regulation of business.
      What fun we'd all have then!

      •  "Taking our country back," indeed. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Calamity Jean, IreGyre

        Paranoia and imaginary threats of betrayal dominate JBS, then and now. A 1959 informant reported back to the F.B.I. after attending a JBS meeting:  

        “Several in the group have become quite disturbed over the information put out by the Society and have become confused as to just what is the truth regarding the present Communist situation in the United States and just what action they should take…She advised that the JBS leaders point out that if President Eisenhower goes to the Summit Meeting, he will sell the U.S. out to the communists and the communists will takeover the U.S. in about three years and everyone in this country except the communists will be in slave labor camps.”
        Slave labor camps -- within three years if Eisenhower met Khrushchev in 1959 on U.S. soil. That's not even the 1960 summit they're talking about, the one that blew up over U-2 flights.

        Communal delusions -- the stock in trade for JBS enthusiasts then and now.

        America has ~7.5-million individuals with paranoid personality disorder. They tend to group together and they are prey for people selling such tales.

        "We have done nothing to be ashamed of. We have nothing to apologize for." NRA 12/14/2012 "Have you left no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" Army/McCarthy 1954

        by bontemps2012 on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 05:03:40 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  yes I remember. (5+ / 0-)

    Once I was given as a teenage, a black book with a red star on it and it was a Bircher book.  When I came home with it the color drained from my father's face he took the book and threw it away in anger. You see he didn't even know it was a Bircher book it was enough that the book was black and had a red star. You see my dad worked for the air force as a civil servant welder.  Any hint of anything communist under his roof he felt could have been the end of everything like his job and his way of life.  
    This was a real fear.  

  •  Birchers, LOL (6+ / 0-)

    Always amazed that it started in Belmont, MA. The current president of the JB Society is a guy named John McManus, a resident of Wakefield, MA.  He is, I am sad to say, a graduate of my alma mater, Holy Cross, not that you will find his sorry name on the distinguished alumni page.

    I have to say, McManus did the state and Democrats a great favor back in 1982, though.  Ted Kennedy was running for re-election, and the Republicans put up an ex-Bircher named Ray Shamie. He disavowed that he had ever been a member, but McManus confirmed it.  Whereupon Shamie's numbers went through the floor.

    McManus is great fun - at town meetings, he used to petition to reinstate "duck and cover" drills in the schools, and tried to get a property tax abatement because his basement could be used as a bomb shelter.

    Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear. ~William E. Gladstone, 1866

    by absdoggy on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 12:39:18 PM PST

    •  McManus (6+ / 0-)

      John McManus was a good friend of my parents. Jack, as my folks called him, joined the JBS staff in 1966. He did leave the Society for a while and you can still find his anti-Birch articles on the web. He did however return to the fold and became the president over 20 years ago. He's still at the helm--leading the Birchers into the arms of Birthers, the Gun Owners of America, the Tea Party and the rest of the right wingers. According to the national headquarters in Appleton, WI, the Birchers have prospered mightily from the Obama election. They are growning like crazy (and with crazy, I might add).

    •  Omg. I live in Wakefield (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blueoasis, bontemps2012

      I didnt know this. Does he still frequent Town Meetings?  i know we have a couple of crackpots who are there every time but I can't  remember if he is one of them.

      I've been following Claire for sometime now on FB and also a Bircher family of beekeepers in CA. The Seppis.  Eye opening. Google Seppi Blog.

  •  The ironic thing is that Birchers are (9+ / 0-)

    very aware of how a government can take away your rights, but don't even consider how a rich man can do the same.

    Economics is a social *science*. Can we base future economic decisions on math?

    by blue aardvark on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 12:42:25 PM PST

  •  The Birchers evolved into the Teabaggers (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    EthrDemon, blueoasis, bontemps2012

    Point by point their political views are the same, with the one exception being that Islamopohobia hadn't yet been invented in the early 1960s.

    •  The original 2009 Tea Party people (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      were barely ideological. But then the organizers were either gone or absorbed by the 2010 election cycle.

      Freedom Works took over, along with the usual Leadership Institute crews. Michele Bachman is the titular head of the Tea Party caucus in the House.

      Once you get to paid GOPers, there's not much difference these days. It's Claire's childhood's kitchen every day.

      "We have done nothing to be ashamed of. We have nothing to apologize for." NRA 12/14/2012 "Have you left no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" Army/McCarthy 1954

      by bontemps2012 on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 05:26:16 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I have a feeling that Ron Paul is a closet Bircher (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Here he is giving the keynote at JBS 50th anniversary:

      •  An ultimate conspiracy group... is a conspiracy (0+ / 0-)

        itself in the end; nut jobs who see imaginary conspiracies everywhere flock together and form their own conspiracies to fight back... use actual fire to counter non-real fires. And see any scorn, derision or counter arguments as proof of the conspiracy that they think they are fighting against.

        And they have the advantage of having paranoid millionaires backing them from their founding and over the years this conspiracy hobby/obsession has given them all various forms of meaning and direction the same way a cult or religion does. The fire to fight true evil or an enormous threat that only THEY fully comprehend...

        So along with the incentive of being chosen or having an overriding purpose they have continuity and loose affiliation of coinciding interests with other rich paranoids... who appear to be working together... ALEC, the various right wing think tanks, Teapers, Focus on the Family etc... but you have to suspect that each extra important and rich component of this loose federation thinks that they are among the few totally rational and sane ones who really understands everything and that the others while clued in to some or even a large extent... are partly nuts... and they just humor the others since they are generally have the same agenda and use them to get to the real goals.

        The double edged sword of go-getters and driven, inspired people... The personality type can be a huge force for good in the world or they can be fanatics that help wreck things...

        they can found Apple or found a crazy conspiracy group... they can build up a huge company that mostly does a lot of good in the world for humanity and progress... or a huge business empire that does more harm than most and helps fund a bunch of poisonous conspiracy groups and political manipulation.

        No large organization is harm free... size only multiplies unintended consequences.. but the more unresponsive and detached from everyday realities the people who run them are the more they can be aligned with a mono mania veiled agenda that makes them far more harmful... and again it in part is that they in effect become self serving conspiracies to serve the world view of their owners... who think they are battling conspiracies... conspiracies that seem evident to them when their goals seem thwarted by seemingly organized  forces... which their own self importance demands be actually there instead of legitimate competing needs of others and plain old randomness....

        Pogo & Murphy's Law, every time. Also "Trust but verify" - St. Ronnie (hah...)

        by IreGyre on Fri Jan 18, 2013 at 03:06:08 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  You might find some interesting data and (4+ / 0-)

    research on the issues within these writings:

    Rutgers University sociologist Ted Goertzel questioned several hundred subjects for a 1994 study of allegations ranging from flying saucer cover-ups to the charge that the government was deliberately infecting African-Americans with HIV. He discovered that minorities and younger people are most likely to believe in conspiracies, and that their belief in conspiracies correlates with feelings that their lives are getting worse and public officials are uninterested in their plight. They also are generally distrustful and worried about losing their jobs.

    Others look for an explanation of how the brain assimilates and uses information. Psychologist and science historian Michael Shermer says that, in some ways, humans are hard-wired to see plots, even where they don’t exist. “We are pattern-seeking animals,” says Shermer, who founded Skeptic magazine, writes a column for Scientific American, and is the author of the 1998 book “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions.” “We generate beliefs based on patterns we believe we see in the world. That’s called association learning, and it’s mostly a useful thing.”

    The problem, he says, is that we feel compelled to put the pieces together even when they don’t fit. This was borne out by a recent experiment by University of Texas business school researchers Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky, in which they asked subjects to spot links among a series of deliberately dissimilar images. They found that subjects saw patterns where none actually existed, in an effort to regain a sense of control.

    Shermer says this tendency is exacerbated by big events such as the 1963 Kennedy assassination or the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “There’s a cognitive dissonance going on between the size of the event and the size of the cause,” he says. “A big event should have a big cause. But that’s not the way it usually works. Kennedy was assassinated by a lone nut. Princess Di was killed in an alcohol-related car accident, like thousands of other people. You tell me: How could 19 nobodies with box cutters bring down the most powerful nation in the world? But that’s exactly how it did happen.” [source from Orange Coast  Magazine

    I grew up around the Orange County, CA whacks. Yes, I'm sane. Children have a wonderful way of sorting out the truth from the bull and even I could see it.

    202-224-3121 to Congress in D.C. USE it! You can tell how big a person is by what it takes to discourage them. "We're not perfect, but they're nuts."--Barney Frank 01/02/2012

    by cany on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 01:49:35 PM PST

  •  Were they racist? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    How common were ideas like that before the civil rights movement?

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