Part Four of "Taking Back the Country, 1960s Style. In this section, the best laid plans of the John Birch Society are scuttled when the organization is subjected to harsh criticism.
In July of 1960, just when the future of the John Birch Society looked rosy, fate took a hand. America learned about a secret, bombshell book, a book that was supposed to be read only by a small, select group of men (like my dad). In the manuscript which was eventually titled The Politician, Robert Welch spent 300 pages analyzing the career of Dwight David Eisenhower.
Welch reached this conclusion: “My firm belief that Dwight Eisenhower is a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy is based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to me to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.”
Welch didn’t stop there. He continued, “There is only one possible word to describe his (Eisenhower) purposes and actions. That word is treason.”
In 1960, calling the President a traitor was a very big deal. It would be like calling our president a secret Muslim and an Al Qaeda operative.
My dad had a lot to do with the uproar over the manuscript. He’d denied its existence for some time, but in July of 1960, after he’d repeated that “there is no such book,” at a large JBS recruiting meeting, a member of the audience pulled a copy out of her satchel and read the passages I just quoted.
My father tried to regain control with one lame excuse after another until the 200 plus people in the audience laughed him off the stage. This debacle was witnessed by Jack Mabley, a well-known reporter for the Chicago Daily News. In two columns, Mabley described Welch’s book and my father’s responses. The columns were picked up in newspapers across the country. The Birch Society found itself at the center of a firestorm that lasted for years.
During the uproar, my father agreed to a LIFE magazine photo-journal story about the Birch society. The center piece of the feature was a picture of Birch members saluting the flag.
I was the youngest person in the photo, and my face has become part of that iconic image of right-wing politics 1960s style. I had just turned 15-years-old, a good patriot, wrapped in the flag.
Fallout from the “President Eisenhower is a Communist” accusation drove the Republicans to reconsider their enthusiastic embrace of the Birchers. Suddenly, prominent GOPers and respected Conservatives—like Richard Nixon, Bill Buckley and National Review and even Senator Barry Goldwater denounced the Birchers. By the middle of the 1970s, Birchers had been drummed out of the GOP and exiled to the lunatic fringe with the KKK, the Aryan Nation and a whole assortment of kooks and crackpots.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief—the John Birch Society would be a footnote in the history of right wingery. Any idea that Birchers would ever have any impact on American politics was labeled insane.
While pundits, politicians and reporters danced on the grave of the John Birch Society, the leadership of the organization never waivered. They were playing a long game. "Our day will come," my mother often said. "We'll be ready."In the next installment, I'll share how the Birchers survived and thrived when most of America considered them dangerous, crazy and delusional.
My new book, Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America's Radical Right, will be published by Beacon Press, America's oldest independent publisher in July 2013. For more information: www.claireconner.com.