Well I run down most hurriedly
And joined the John Birch Society
I got me a secret membership card…
Oh boy, I’m a real John Bircher now!
Look out you Commies!
— Bob Dylan, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” 1962
In October 1958, Robert Welch, a wealthy retired businessman with extreme anti-communist beliefs, held a secret meeting in Indianapolis with eleven like-minded men to found the John Birch Society, named after a young American missionary and intelligence officer killed by Mao’s Communist troops in 1945. Welch and his confederates detested not only liberals but also mainstream conservatives. They held particular animus toward President Dwight D. Eisenhower; although Ike was a moderate Republican, Welch believed him to be a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” At its peak in the 1960s, the Birch Society consisted of some 60,000 to 100,000 members organized in secret cells around the country.
Although much of the country dismissed the Birchers as a lunatic fringe, historian Matthew Dallek, in his new book Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right, argues that the group exercised an outsized influence on the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Blending violent and apocalyptic conspiracy theories with grassroots activism, business skills, and the power of alternative media, the Birch Society proved, in Dallek’s words, “that the supercharged activism of thousands of diehards could outmatch the votes of millions of citizens and over time transform the GOP.”
In this podcast discussion, Dallek describes the history of the Birch Society as well as dynamics that made it a significant political force and an enduring influence on the contemporary American right. He points out that much of the responsibility for the continuing vitality of Birch-style extremism lies with Republican leaders who thought they could harness the activism of the Birchers without allowing their paranoia and hatred to define the party. Instead, according to Dallek, “The GOP establishment’s efforts to court this fringe and keep it in the coalition allowed it to gain a foothold and eventually cannibalize the entire party.”
Matt Dallek: In the Buckley-Birch back-and-forth, you see the tensions within really the conservative movement as a whole. And what do you do about card-carrying Birchers who bring energy and money, but then what do you do about these crackpot conspiracy theories?
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m pleased to be joined today by Matthew Dallek. He is a political historian and professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, and he is the author of a significant new book, Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right. Welcome, Matt!
Matt Dallek:Thanks so much for having me.
Geoff Kabaservice: And congratulations on your new book. This is great. It’s a great book, and its back cover includes praise from three of my previous podcast guests: Sam Tanenhaus, Beverly Gage, and Nikki Hemmer. So lest it seem too incestuous for me to quote them, I’ll quote Jane Mayer from the back cover: “The John Birch Society was once considered so far out on the paranoid fringe it was synonymous with kookiness. In his fascinating and scrupulously researched narrative, Dallek shows how the Republican Party’s extremists took over the GOP. Revelatory and readable, Birchers is essential history for anyone trying to understand American politics.” Well-earned praise.
Matt Dallek: Thank you so much. I’m glad to be in good company, and it’s really wonderful to be on this show, on the podcast. Thank you.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, thank you. So for listeners who may not know much about it, what was (or actually is) the John Birch Society?
Matt Dallek: Well, that’s right — it still does exist, although it’s really a shadow of its old self. The Birch Society, in a nutshell, was formed in 1958 by a dozen mostly wealthy businessmen, and its founder was Robert Welch, who believed that there was a communist conspiracy operating inside the United States at the highest levels of government. And the Birch Society started to recruit members to take direct action against this supposed internal communist threat. It was exposed, ultimately, by newspapers. It created a huge national debate because it was said to be secretive, it opposed democracy. Welch had embraced conspiracy theories. And it grew to an estimated 60 to 100,000 mostly upwardly mobile, middle-class, upper-middle-class professionals, mostly white, mostly Christian, all over the country. And they engaged in a number of activities trying to get the US out of the United Nations, ban sex education teaching in schools, impeach Earl Warren and so on.
Geoff Kabaservice: And what set it apart from, I guess, the more recognizable conservatism of a Ronald Reagan or a Barry Goldwater?
Matt Dallek: Well, first of all, I should say that they strongly supported Barry Goldwater in 1964. But as I try to argue in the book that the conservative political leaders that you mentioned and others such as Eisenhower and Nixon, that they were more part of the mainstream right, and that the Birch Society was — there was a dividing line. The Birchers tended to be isolationist or anti-interventionist, whereas Goldwater and Reagan tended to be more interventionist. Birchers tend to be more explicitly racist, or at least some of them were. The conspiracism that was also at the heart of the movement was something that most mainstream conservatives shied away from and tended to not be comfortable with. And the Birchers early — I argue that they promoted a more apocalyptic and violent mode of politics, a more existential rhetoric than even people like Goldwater and Reagan. And they were just less pragmatic.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay. Before we get into the Birchers, I would love to just ask you a few questions about yourself. Can you tell me where you grew up, where you went to school, what you studied by the time you got to grad school?
Matt Dallek: Sure. So I grew up in Los Angeles, and then I went to college at Berkeley. And shortly after finishing, I did a Ph.D. at Columbia University, one of many students who studied with Alan Brinkley. And I did my dissertation… Actually, I did my master’s thesis on Young Americans for Freedom, and for that thesis I got to interview Bill Buckley, which was quite an experience. I was 23, I think. And then I did my dissertation back on California in the mid-‘60s and the shifting character of California politics in Ronald Reagan’s first campaign. And that led to my first book, The Right Moment, and it goes on from there. I had a windy, circuitous path back to academia, but that was basically how I got my trajectory early on.
Geoff Kabaservice: So what did you do after leaving academia the first time?
Matt Dallek: Well, so my dad was a historian — he still is — a presidential historian. And I went to grad school almost right after college. I really liked history. I admired the work and also the lifestyle and control that my dad had. But I realized for various reasons that I wanted to try something else before going straight into academia. I had a friend in Washington who was working as a speechwriter in the Clinton administration, Jeff Shesol, who’s actually also a terrific historian, and he basically helped me. I started to freelance write, do freelance journalism, finished grad school, and I got a job working in speechwriting and moved to DC. And this is in late 2000. And I was a speechwriter for a few years. I spent a couple years on Capitol Hill working for the former minority leader, Richard Gephardt, the Democratic leader.
I did a little private sector work, but I slowly gravitated back toward my own research and writing. I just felt more comfortable, I think, doing my own research and writing as opposed to writing for someone else. The pace of speechwriting I found in politics I found to be both exhilarating but also exhausting. And I started to teach again and slowly made my way back toward academia, and spent four years full-time teaching at the University of California Washington Center, and started working on another book called Defenseless Under the Night about the origins of Homeland Security and World War II.
And in 2014, I got a job as an assistant professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management — a school of applied politics, essentially — and I’ve been there ever since.
Geoff Kabaservice: Where were you on September 11th, 2001?
Matt Dallek: I was in the Capitol building. So our offices, when I worked for the Democratic leader, Richard Gephardt, our offices were in the Capitol about 100 feet from the Rotunda and maybe 200-300 feet from the House floor — so right in the heart of the building. We were evacuated in a very helter-skelter way. There was no alarm. I actually was at my desk working on a statement for a press conference that was supposed to happen that morning. And my colleagues and I had CNN on and we saw the second plane hit the Twin Towers, hit the other tower, live on CNN.
We didn’t evacuate until, I believe, it was more than an hour later. And it was only after we saw on TV a local news station come on that the Pentagon had been hit, and we saw smoke coming from the Pentagon on TV. Now my colleague and I looked at each other sitting in the center of the Capitol building and basically said, “I think we need to get out.” And it was this very chaotic evacuation. Everyone, including myself, felt I think a real fear as they were running down the stairs to get out of the building.
Geoff Kabaservice: A justified fear, as it turned out.
Matt Dallek: Yeah. Well, the fourth plane that was downed in Pennsylvania, I believe the 9/11 commission reported that it was either heading for the Capitol building or the White House, which of course makes perfect sense given the other targets. And the other thing is that I believe a police officer — what I remember is that the Capitol Police were on the grounds yelling at people to run. And so that created a sense of fear.
And what I’d later heard was that there was a plane overhead. They saw the plane, they didn’t know if it was friendly or hostile. And then of course, what was really scary is that as you got onto the Capitol grounds — this is the East side — you turned around and there was just huge billows of smoke wafting our way. There was so much smoke… It felt like, first of all, I was in a war zone. I’d never been in one. And it felt like the National Mall had been hit. It didn’t seem that so much smoke could be coming from the Pentagon in Virginia because it felt like it was almost right over us.
Geoff Kabaservice: What kind of benefit do you think there is for academic historians to have worked in politics and to have experienced some of these moments such as the one you’re describing?
Matt Dallek: It’s a really interesting question. So, I know a lot of political scientists who have an APSA fellowship where they go to the Capitol Hill and they work there, and it’s really accepted. It’s actually integrated into academic political science, the trajectory for a lot of excellent political scientists — not so much for historians. I do think it gives you a sense of the pace and the contingency — historians like to talk about contingency — some of the chaos that operates in politics, how personalities interact, and how that can kind of shape the Congress, especially the House with 435 members. I think it gives you an appreciation also for the messy work of democracy — I don’t want to sound too high-minded, but there is an element of that. Especially after January 6th, of course, it puts it in a whole ‘nother perspective.
But the idea that lawmakers from all around this incredibly fractured and diverse country can meet, and maybe not like each other, maybe have big differences, but can give speeches on the floor arguing their case, can try to come up with policies and legislation (even if it’s not going to be enacted) that they’re promoting, they’re pushing, that they think is going to help improve people’s lives in some way — there is something a little impressive about that that you get to appreciate up close. But of course, it’s also easy to put your nose against the windowpane, so to speak, to be so close in it that you don’t also get the context and the perspective which of course historians also need. But it was an amazing experience, probably the most exciting job I’ll ever have, and also the most stressful.
Geoff Kabaservice: So tell me something about your experience of being a historian in a graduate school of political management.
Matt Dallek: I’ve actually really liked it — in part because I worked in politics for a few years and so I have that applied piece, in part because I’ve taught students, undergraduates from all of the UC (University of California) campuses coming to DC to really live and absorb Washington and to intern, to take courses too, but to blend their academic coursework with a more experiential academic experience for which they receive credit. I like that. I like thinking about how to blend the two. I like thinking about how to blend rigorous research that is based on a variety of sources, primary and secondary sources, but that also maybe the students are working on to address particular problems, particular contemporary problems, and there’s an interdisciplinary nature of it.
And as something of a generalist — both as a speechwriter and just in terms of my interest in political history – I find being in a school where there’s some political scientists, there are some people who are just more purely applied, you get a perspective that history is useful, even if students don’t necessarily appreciate it.
History can be very useful, I think, for students who want to work in politics, who want to engage in the daily give-and-take of the political system, whether that’s in lobbying or advocacy, grassroots work in Congress, the White House, you name it. But I think that kind of perspective — that historical perspective, which as we know is increasingly under threat in universities — I think that that can be useful. And so hopefully I can add a little bit of that historical perspective in my classes, and at least then to the school as well.
Geoff Kabaservice: So your father, Robert Dallek — to whom Birchers is dedicated — is, as you mentioned, an eminent historian of the American presidency. And his trajectory as an academic historian was much more smooth and straightforward than your own circuitous pathway back to academia. Does that say more about the differences between you, or your own idiosyncrasies and preferences? Or does it say something about the structure of the academic history discipline?
Matt Dallek: I would say probably both. You would probably have to ask someone who was maybe more observing our past, but I do think that… Well, first of all, when my dad came out of graduate school in, I believe, the early ‘60s, he said that he had multiple job prospects or offers, and he decided to go to UCLA where he spent three decades. And, it was a totally different universe, of course, because universities were expanding dramatically, especially in a place like California. The UC system was expanding dramatically. There was a demand for faculty. There were people moving to California and also all over the country, this kind of postwar boom. And in that sense, it was probably something of a unique moment, at least for the profession.
And of course other people can speak to this better than I can, but there’s so many people who have Ph.D.’s from really good places who are really good historians and other kinds of scholars, and they are literally just a handful of jobs of academic tenure-track positions. And that is, as we all know in the history profession, that’s a huge challenge and a crisis.
But I would also say that because I did want to try something different, I did want to spend at least a few years working in politics, having that experience, doing something different from what my dad had done. I also wanted to have more control over where I lived, which is very hard to do if you’re looking for an academic position. And so I think the times are different, I think the paths are different. And look, at some point, maybe I’ll do a biography, maybe I’ll write more of a book focused on the presidency. But I think our interests are similar, but they are also not insignificant differences in the work we’ve done.
Geoff Kabaservice: You’re making me think of an op-ed by I think it was Daniel Bessner that came out in the New York Times back in January on “The Dangerous Decline of the Historical Profession.” And he did mention not only that the world of the 1960s for academics was a lost El Dorado, but there’s also been a more recent decline in History as well as English and other humanities majors. I think that history undergraduate degree recipients dropped by something like a third between 2012 and 2019. So there is a real question confronting the profession as to what it’s good for and why students should study it and where it’s going.
Matt Dallek: Yeah. Well, and look, one of the things that I tried to do in the book — and I hope I did it subtly and not too overtly — is to bridge this history of the John Birch Society, in its heyday in the 1960s, with contemporary and more recent American politics and changes in the country as well. And in that — I hadn’t thought of it this way, but it is a bit of an argument for history, for why it matters, how is it relevant.
And medieval historians would not say this is deep history, but maybe for journalists, it is. You go back 50, 60 years and I’m arguing that we really do have to go back at least… I mean, you can go back further obviously to Reconstruction or the overthrow of Reconstruction, or to the founding of the country. But I say we’ve got to go back at least 50, 60 years, and that is a useful starting point to understand a process that was gradual, that was halting, and is still, I think, incomplete and contingent. But that longer history is going to situate us for what we experience today. And so that is, I think, an argument — a case at least.
But you’re right, of course. I mean history as a profession, the humanities… And this is incredibly troubling for the country and for democracy, of course, and for civics and basic civics education if there’s a hemorrhaging away from basic understanding and robust debate about the American past.
Geoff Kabaservice: So let’s rewind a bit. You were a grad student at Columbia University, and you studied history with Alan Brinkley — I know this because you contributed to the festschrift that David Greenberg put together after his death. And of course in 1994, Brinkley famously came out with his article on “The Problem of American Conservatism,” pointing out that conservatism had been understudied as a phenomenon in academic history. But you also actually had a history-making article in 1995 in the Atlantic on “The Conservative 1960s.” And to some extent that was a review of Mary Brennan’s book Turning Right in the Sixties about the conservative capture of the GOP, as well as Robert Alan Goldberg’s biography of Barry Goldwater that had recently appeared. But I actually remember this very well, when it came out, because I was in grad school too and facing the situation that conservatism was just an understudied phenomenon in the discipline.
In the second paragraph of that piece you quoted literary critic Lionel Trilling, who had famously written in 1950 that “in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition… It is the plain fact [that] there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation” but only “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
And you went on to say that “Americans are still struggling to understand the rise of modern American conservatism. Much of this is the fault of scholars and journalists. Very little has been written about the rise of the right in the 1960s. From today’s vantage point, this is arguably the most significant development of that decade, yet scholars and journalists have focused almost exclusively on the new left, civil rights, and the decline of American liberalism.” So, obviously much has changed since you wrote that.
Matt Dallek: Yes. So I actually want to go back — because I think it’ll hopefully be an interesting story — which is that when I was a senior at Berkeley, I was working on an honors thesis and I was looking for a topic. And I went to a library at Berkeley and I got out all these books about the student movement in the ‘60s at Berkeley. And I was reading, I had 13 books — I don’t know, it was a lot of books — and I was at Cafe Milano, a famous Berkeley cafe, and I was reading through these things, and I was like, “Wow, there’s been a lot of stuff on the new left.” I mean, a lot. And I found one line in there about how Reagan exploited the Berkeley student rebellion of the ‘60s in his first campaign for governor.
That really excited me. It really interested me because I felt like I had not seen anything, at least in a focused serious way using archival sources, written about Reagan and student radicalism. And so I did my honors thesis on how Reagan basically approached or used the Berkeley student Free Speech Movement in the Berkeley student protests.
So fast-forward to the mid-‘90s. Brinkley’s lecture, I think, was exciting for a lot of us — Lisa McGirr I think was an Eric Foner student but still in graduate school in the ‘90s, and there were of course others. And his lecture certainly, looking back on it, had its warts or its flaws, its holes. People have argued about that. But it was exciting to hear this really important voice argue that conservatism was understudied, that it really deserved much more of its own.
And historians, I think, have corrected for that quite rightly over the last two to three decades. And the work that has been done has been on the whole, I think, some of the most vibrant work, including your book and many others, of course, and some of the previous guests that you’ve had on this podcast.
The last thing I’ll say is that what interested me is that politically, I worked for a Democrat. I’m a liberal, or I identify as a liberal — not really in sympathy with Reagan, certainly not with the Birchers. But I did find it to be an interesting and exciting challenge to try to write about, in a thoughtful way and in a reasonable way, groups and movements and ideas and politicians that I didn’t agree with. And part of the advantage of history, of course, is having some distance and seeing the context, seeing how things develop, and trying to understand. It’s like the Know Your Enemy podcast, where they talk about how they’re trying to understand the Right even if they don’t necessarily agree with it. I think that there’s an element of that, historically, that attracted me to the subject.
Geoff Kabaservice: So your first book, which I guess grew out of your dissertation, was The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics, which was about Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial victory in California. I remember quite well how that was another interesting book and a pioneering work, in its way, of scholarship on conservatism. What seems odd now, in retrospect, is that a conservative Republican could have won in California in any office, period, because it’s been long time since that’s happened.
Matt Dallek: Well, even in the… I believe it was the early ‘90s with Pete Wilson… I believe he was governor and in part ran on a very hard-line, anti-immigrant platform. There was a period of time, of course, when Reagan won his first election by I think about a million votes. So look, California, the reason so many people have studied California and looked to it is that it has been this fascinating amalgam of the country in some respects. It hasn’t necessarily led the country always, but Lisa McGirr’s work on Orange County, many other studies — Mothers of Conservatism, which I think focuses on California — it’s had an incredibly robust conservative movement, grassroots movement, robust Birch Society. And it was a different place. It was a different country.
In some ways, Reagan and Nixon capitalized on some of some similar changes that were happening and some similar ideas that were bubbling up in the country. And this idea that the New Deal coalition and New Deal liberalism was also collapsing, and they helped pick up the pieces. And California was one of the places, I think, that was at… It was no accident that Nixon and Reagan both came out of California.
Geoff Kabaservice: True. So what was it that you saw when you began research on this book that we had not yet understood about the Birch Society and its significance?
Matt Dallek: Well, that’s an interesting question. So the Birchers, a lot has been written about them through the years, and there’s been a lot of really good work. I think the thing that I wanted to do (or at least one of the things) was to try to capture both the voices of ordinary Birchers, so to speak — average Birchers from not just one particular area but from around the country — and to think about the movement in part as a reflection of the founder, Robert Welch, but also to move away from that.
And also I wanted to take their ideas seriously and to look at — and this is part of the argument — at how they established what I described as this alternative political tradition on the far right that really challenged the mainstream right in a number of core areas. I hope that the book in part does capture those different voices among the Society.
I think that there’s evidence in the book that some members were, let’s say, less conspiratorial than the image would suggest. Not all Birchers were saying running around screaming about Eisenhower being a commie. And in fact, I have stories in there about some Birchers… After John F. Kennedy was assassinated, one of the Birch leaders, a guy named Revilo Oliver, gave a series of speeches in which he spun these really just incredible and really out-there conspiracy theories about how the government was rehearsing Kennedy’s funeral a week before he was assassinated. And some of these Birchers in Arizona wrote into headquarters saying, “This guy Oliver, he’s terrible. His ideas are making us stink. They’re disgusting, and they’re going to drive us into the ground here.” So I think that’s an interesting dynamic.
I also think that I have uncovered a lot of episodes and hopefully put them together (in a way that I don’t think has quite been done) of the way in which racism and anti-Semitism was threaded through at least some members and also at the top as well — how the conspiracy theories also tended to draw some bigots. And also, I think, the ways in which the Society evolved over time, and the ways in which its campaigns — the single-issue campaigns like “Support Your Local Police,” “Impeach Earl Warren” — the ways in which those campaigns, even though they were “losing” — they never impeached Earl Warren — but they didn’t need to do that to win; there was victory in defeat, and that was part of the point.
We can talk about the different achievements, in a sense. But I wanted to look at some of the innovations and some of the strengths that they brought to the far right and to the movement, even if the organization faded after roughly a decade.
Geoff Kabaservice: Before we get into some of those fine points, can you just tell me a little more about who was John Birch and then who was Robert Welch?
Matt Dallek: John Birch was an evangelist-turned-warrior, an intelligence officer who was with the US Armed Forces in China toward the end of World War II. And he was killed by Mao’s communist forces — I believe it was 10 days after the end of World War II, after victory over Japan. And to make a long story short, a senator from California, William Knowland, and Robert Welch and others got a hold of his story and there was an investigation into his death. And Robert Welch wrote a book about John Birch called The Life of John Birch, a short biography in which he was really held up as a martyr and the first victim of World War III, the first victim of this communist conspiracy. And part of the conspiracy was that his own United States government had suppressed the origins, the reasons, behind his murder.
And Welch for his part was… I should say there’s a biography of John Birch by someone named Terry Lautz, a good biography, and there’s a very interesting biography of Robert Welch by Edward Miller. Welch was basically a candy executive, in the candy industry in sales. He became wealthy. He served on the board of the National Association of Manufacturers. He once ran for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts as a Republican. He lost, but he was very active in giving speeches about the communist threat and what he saw as increasingly this internal communist conspiracy.
And he had been giving these speeches and writing things, and he wrote a letter to his friends in which he accused Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican president, of being a communist agent. And basically in the late ‘50s, he decided to retire from business and to dedicate his life to exposing what he saw as a communist conspiracy inside the United States. And then in December of ’58 he, with 11 of his friends, established the John Birch Society.
Geoff Kabaservice: As you say, he was a candy manufacturer in Belmont, Massachusetts. And I can’t find it completely in my heart to utterly condemn someone who gave us Junior Mints. Nonetheless…
Matt Dallek: Yes. People have told me, too. One of my mentors, he said that he grew up near where Welch lived, and he went to his house, I think for Halloween. And he said it was really great candy, although he found him a little strange. But the candy there was really tops.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes. Nonetheless, you jumped over a little bit of an odd thing. Why on earth would anyone think that Dwight Eisenhower — Republican president, hero of World War II — was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy”?
Matt Dallek: Well, look, it’s a little hard, of course, to get inside the tautology of a lot of these conspiracy theories, because on the face of them they seem a bit absurd. But if we back up and we look at it, Welch argued that Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles and other senior members of his administration in the Republican Party had both destroyed the true Americanist voices within the Republican Party, the really anti-New Deal voices like Robert Taft — and actually Welch called Eisenhower’s nomination for the Republican presidential nomination in 1952 “the dirtiest deal in American political history,” I think because Taft lost and that was his candidate.
And then of course, the silencing — what he saw as the silencing — of Joseph McCarthy. William Buckley famously called Eisenhower’s agenda — or no, maybe that was Goldwater — “a dime-store New Deal.” And so certainly among more mainstream conservatives as well, there was opposition to Eisenhower, but Welch and a lot of his colleagues saw something more sinister at work.
And even if Welch didn’t literally mean that Eisenhower was taking his orders from the Kremlin — or at least he backpedaled on that sometimes — his argument was that the country that Eisenhower had helped to create had let this horrible evil — communism — take over big chunks of the world, and take over big chunks of American life, and insert the federal government in ways that twisted and fundamentally altered the character of the country, and that this was part of a long-running essentially communistic project. So you get an idea, a sense of how these theories worked. Now, Welch was also particularly prone to conspiracy theories, of course.
Geoff Kabaservice: So you point out very well in your book how Welch brought his business acumen to the John Birch Society. He formed it into what were in effect local cells, limited to I think 20 members apiece. And there was an entire organization around this that included a publishing house, a magazine (American Opinion), and recordings, which I have heard. And Welch, it must be said, was not an exciting speaker. His tone was monotonous. What I really got from listening to the recordings was that Welch was essentially offering a kind of esoteric knowledge, and that was the secret of his charisma. “Things are going badly for America at a time when we should be the most powerful nation in the world, therefore there must be a secret cause behind these bad things. And that cause is the communist control of both parties and most religions and most organizations and institutions in the United States.”
Matt Dallek: Yeah. And a lot of his senior supporters, fellow business leaders, especially early on, they looked to him as an expert on communism, as really one of the leading experts. And Welch actually went around the country and I believe did 28 of these lectures within the first couple years of the Society. But these weren’t just one- or two-hour lectures. Ronald Reagan would go around the country touring for General Electric, and he would go speak on the factory floor and maybe talk for 45 minutes or an hour, two hours, whatever it was — a speech. No, Welch did ideally a two-day seminar — and it was pretty monotonous, where it was primarily him speaking. And that became what was called “The Blue Book.”
But one of the paradoxes or ironies, of course, is that Welch was not charismatic but he was incredibly savvy. He had a lot of insights about how to appeal to people who shared his view but wanted an explanation for why things were so rotten. He understood that a lot of anti-communists in the country, like hardline folks who voted maybe for Joe McCarthy — they wanted a group that could take action. As one Bircher put it, the Birch Society was the answer to every anti-communist prayer because it allowed them to do something about the threat as opposed to just being out there on their own or reading things.
And then also, as you point out so well, Welch and a lot of the people around him understood the power of alternative media. A lot of people have written of about this, of course, but he was among them, and the Birchers were among them: the power of books, of radio programs. The publishing arm of the Birch Society was incredible, and they pumped a ton of books into the system. The bulletin that they published, the American Opinion… And he wrote — it was insane just how much he wrote. And that was a very effective way of reaching people, and reaching people with really an alternative set of, to use a modern parlance, alternative facts.
Geoff Kabaservice: So you mentioned Lisa McGirr… Her 2001 book Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right is a major work in conservative scholarship, and such a major work that she’s not going to mind me squeaking my little criticisms at her. But I’ve got to say that when I read that, I always was bothered by what seemed to me to be taking the Birch Society as representative of the Republican Party as a whole, and in a sense giving it more importance than it deserved.
I was actually a little bothered that she was so scrupulously non-judgmental about the Birch Society that she seemed to be taking an anthropological approach: that the Birchers were dangerous and exotic, and yet we are not so different, you and I. And that seemed to me to underrate just the sheer weirdness of the Birchers, the fact that people could be standing up there in a coat and tie, speaking in a normal tone of voice, and yet spin these absolutely batshit conspiracy theories that an army of barefoot cannibals is being trained by the UN to take over the United States from their secret compound in Georgia, or the 1313 Committee of University of Chicago professors is plotting to deprive Americans of their constitutional right to vote and hold property. And in that sense, the Birchers actually seemed to me to be very much of a part of all of the insanity of the ‘60s as we think about it on the left, just in a somewhat different key.
Matt Dallek: Yeah. Well, look, I try to make the point in the book that the Birchers were very much a part of that ‘60s zeitgeist for the reason you mentioned. Obviously, you don’t want to overdo this, but I think they did share some sensibilities with some of the more extreme ideas of the New Left, maybe some of the more violent episodes that we saw on the New Left. And you used the word “weird,” and I want to pick up on that because one of the things that I found when researching and writing the book, and one of the things that was really interesting to me, is that there was a lot of weird stuff.
It wasn’t just that the ‘60s was a weird time. But the Birchers, they were saying and writing and doing all sorts of strange things, like hiding a tape recorder in a textbook to try to catch a high school civics or government teacher refusing to allow a prayer in the classroom. Hounding, making these calls, all-night calls, to Patricia Hitt, which is the opening anecdote — Patricia Hitt, a staunch Nixon ally and an important Republican leader in California in the early ‘60s. The Birchers defeated her for a county committee seat, but they started calling her at all hours telling her essentially, as she put it, “You’ll rue this day.” And she called them “haters beyond anything I’ve ever seen in my life.” Or Birchers writing in, talking about how the Boy Scouts are into regimentation and this is part of the conspiracy.
And then, the Birch Society headquarters getting these antisemitic members who are writing in, these incredibly hateful antisemitic, just hateful, hateful mail. Birch leaders are writing to each other saying, “Is this guy antisemitic or what?” And then someone else writes, “Drop him. He’s a wild man.” You see the Society trying to expunge the really wacky people. I try to thread this together and make sense of it.
But look, one of the ideas behind the book, and one of the reasons I think I wanted to write it, is to argue that historians and others… There have been all types of conservatives over the last, let’s say, 50, 80 years: Chamber of Commerce conservatives, Wall Street conservatives, evangelical conservatives. A lot of the dividing line, as you well know from your own research, has been between the Reagan/Goldwater/Buckley right and Eisenhower, the more moderate or so-called “me too” conservatives.
And I wanted to argue that there was also another dividing line between really the fringe — which of course the Birchers, I think, were the leading edge of that effort — and all these more mainstream conservative figures. Now, they allied, as I say, in certain ways and on discrete issues, and they benefited each other in some respects. But there were also pretty significant differences between them tactically, stylistically, ideologically. And they pull in different directions at many times.
The other point I’d like to make is that the Birchers and many of their successors, they hated George H. W. Bush. They didn’t trust George W. Bush. They loathed Richard Nixon. Even Ronald Reagan — as one Bircher says in there, “We never trusted Reagan.” Okay, you can say, well, that’s just a one-off, but maybe there’s something to that. And so I tried to dig a little bit into what that fractured coalition looks like.
Geoff Kabaservice: This book has a lot more resonance than it would’ve had six years ago, let’s say. Because it would seem to the average observer nowadays that the fringe really has taken over the mainstream of the Republican Party. The fact that Marjorie Taylor Greene is now one of Kevin McCarthy’s top lieutenants in the Republican-controlled House says volumes about how different an era it is right now.
You’re careful about saying that we can’t draw too straight a line from the past to the present, and there’s complexity, and there were tensions within the Republican Party. But nonetheless, a change has happened. But there is also, as you point out, a big debate among historians as to how much credit Bill Buckley deserves for having tried to excommunicate the Birchers from the conservative movement in the early 1960s. And Sam Rosenfeld and Daniel Schlozman, whose work I respect a lot, have said it’s just a myth, that Buckley deserves no credit at all, really. And this of course goes against the George Nashes of the world who think that this was actually an extremely important development. Where do you come down on that question?
Matt Dallek: Well, I say that on balance… And by the way, I do have a number of letters, internal correspondence, both among National Review editors and Buckley, but also correspondence from Buckley to and from some Birch leaders and really some fringe people. I do on balance say that I agree with this recent scholarship that Buckley did not excommunicate the Birchers or the fringe. And first of all, I don’t know if anyone could have done that, or if anyone had that power to do that.
But what I try to show is that I think Buckley was on the proverbial horns of a dilemma, as were people like Bill Rusher and a lot of the editors at National Review. Buckley wanted to expel Welch, in a sense. He really thought Welch’s theories were pretty nutty and unhelpful to the cause. But he and a lot of other National Review editors were wary about antagonizing the rank and file too much, some of whom were their readers as well.
And what you see, for example, in the correspondence is Buckley and Rusher writing to people who are sympathetic to the Birchers, or actually leaders of the Birchers, saying, “Show me anywhere where I’ve criticized the Society as a whole. I’ve taken issue with Welch, but not with the people in it.” And I think that there was an effort to try to walk that line. There was this dilemma about what to do.
And look, Buckley changed over time. I didn’t look at him in the 1970s or ’80s. Sam Tanenhaus, one of your previous guests, who will have a huge, major biography on Buckley, will, I’m sure, have something to say about this. But it was a partial attempt to push out at least some of the wilder conspiracy theories.
But Buckley was very supportive of McCarthy — of course, he wrote a book in defense of McCarthy. And he was, for a while at least, very friendly with Revilo Oliver, and Clarence Manion and he wrote back and forth — these are leaders of the Birch Society. And there was also a fair amount of overlap.
So I think it’s as always a complicated story, but you do see the tensions in the Buckley-Birch back-and-forth. You see the tensions within really the conservative movement as a whole. And what do you do about card-carrying Birchers who bring energy and money, and they read our stuff. What do you do? But then what do you do about these crackpot conspiracy theories? And that was, I think, a struggle.
Geoff Kabaservice: So just this morning, as we are speaking, you had an article published in the Atlantic called “How Far-Right Movements Die.” And you point out that the factors that prevented the John Birch Society from metastasizing into the mainstream at its peak in the mid-‘60s “are relevant to a country now struggling to contain election denialism, white supremacy, and political violence.” And you go on to say that although Trump has millions of supporters now, many more than there were Birchers in the 1960s, “The far fight’s victory in the 21st century is hardly assured. And the story of the decline of the John Birch Society offers possible strategies for containment.” So what are some of those strategies?
Matt Dallek: Well, one of the points I try to make there and in my book is that democratic institutions in the ‘60s, including the mass media… And look, in the ‘60s it was a totally different country. The institutions were different. The media, of course, was incredibly not anything like it is today. But they were reasonably effective at eventually helping to marginalize the Birch Society and at making it more difficult for political leaders to really, at least openly, try to identify themselves as a member of what today is MAGA — or similar to that.
The other thing is that — and we can get into it a little bit more so — but there were these institutions defending democracy, whether it was the US military or the Anti-Defamation League — and I have a whole chapter about their infiltration of the Birchers — or the NAACP at the height of the Civil Rights movement. There was more of a concerted effort to freeze it out. And it was imperfect, but I think it did have an impact.
The other point I try to make in the piece, which I think is really important and I don’t think it’s always appreciated… With the Birch Society, and I think we can see some of this with MAGA too, is that these extreme movements, in part because of the conspiracy theories and other factors, they tend to draw in as they go on more and more radical types and more and more violent people.
And the Birchers, what I try to chart, has Welch… Robert Welch always had this idea that he was going to have, as he put it, “A-1 men.” He was going to have the cream-of-the-crop people of utmost integrity. But by the mid to late ‘60s, it was really the fringe that had won, if that was even ever a battle. And you see all of these people, Birchers, they have histories of violence. One Bircher from Mississippi writes into the Birch headquarters and says, “The KKK is our biggest competitor down here, and the men are really quick to violence. And us women, we’re less prone to using the axe, but we’ll take it up if we need to.”
So I guess the point is that you see a group like the Birch Society… And that’s why the dinner that Trump had with Nick Fuentes and the rapper Kanye West (now known as Ye) I think at least resonated with me, having just written this book, and January 6th as well. Because these movements have a way of — again, it doesn’t always maybe happen — but they do have a way oftentimes of radicalizing and becoming more fringy and more dangerous. But they also burn themselves out. A lot of people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th are now sitting in jail.
Geoff Kabaservice: That was an interesting chapter in your book about the Anti-Defamation League becoming spies to infiltrate the John Birch Society. I’d never heard about that before.
Matt Dallek: Yeah, well, I hadn’t either. The thing is that the ADL in a very sophisticated way and operation… The agents, they had code names. The code names, according to the memos, were known only to certain people within the ADL. They penetrated headquarters. They would pose as chapter leaders of the Birch Society. They befriended Birchers. They set up meetings sometimes. They were able to take out credit checks on individual Birchers, even obtain the codicil to one Birch donor funder’s will. And they also worked the media extremely hard, and in many cases quite effectively, to try to discredit the Birchers. And they also employed ADL supporters at the grassroots to do some of this work too.
It was a really, in many ways, an extensive operation, and I think in a lot of ways it was quite effective. John Rousselot, one of the Birch leaders said of the ADL, “They’re on our backs all the time,” and so they knew the ADL was on top of them.
Geoff Kabaservice: But as you say, it is a different country now. I think Donald Trump is immune to shame. You wouldn’t get someone penetrating the ranks of the Trump organization and saying, “My God, this guy cheats on his taxes. He sleeps with porn stars. He breaks the law.” Trump would say, “Hold my beer.” And I also think that relative to then, of course, there was a robust moderate wing of the Republican Party then. You do point out that in 1965, Gerald Ford (who was the House minority leader) and Everett Dirksen (who was the Senate minority leader) did hold a joint press conference denouncing the Birch Society and repudiating their support. But you wouldn’t get that happening nowadays because, as you also point out, for decades now Republican leaders and whatever’s called the establishment have really courted the extremists under the belief that they could eventually control them. And that’s been proved definitively wrong.
Matt Dallek: I mean, it’s very different in all kinds of ways. And that’s right, Ford and Dirksen held a joint press conference, and they explicitly repudiated the Birchers, basically in terms that are as strong as you can imagine. And yes, okay, so what do we make of today? Well look, I think these Republican leaders are in a huge bind right now, for the obvious reasons that they both need Trump’s voters — they need his supporters, his funders, they need that energy — but at least some of them like Mitch McConnell, they don’t need the election denialism, they don’t need the white supremacy. Or at least that’s my read, at least on a Mitch McConnell and where his thinking is politically. Because why? Because he lost the Senate and a lot of very winnable races in 2022 because Trump put over the top a lot of candidates like Herschel Walker in Georgia and people like the guy in Arizona, Blake Masters, who were just not ultimately very viable and really weak.
So it is a big dilemma. But I guess I would say that, first of all, I do believe that the victory of the far right is not assured. Because one, we don’t know what’s going to happen. But two, if Republicans lose enough elections with MAGA candidates, they will probably have to change. It may be a painful process. I’m not predicting that it will happen, but I do think that the argument that the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells and Nikki Haleys are making is that Trump has lost essentially three elections in a row and MAGA has lost three elections in a row. That might resonate with at least some voters. And parties want to win, right? We will see, of course. But there was some evidence in 2022 that the MAGA playbook did not work.
Geoff Kabaservice: I guess part of the reason that I object to the Rosenfeld-Schlozman thesis that Buckley’s attempt to marginalize the Birch Society was a myth is that I think that in some sense it’s only conservatives who could actually marginalize some of these malign energies from their side. That’s the Daniel Ziblatt thesis, when you get right down to it. And there actually were costs to National Review and to Buckley personally for taking steps against the Birchers, even gradually. This resulted in lost subscriptions. It resulted in lost donations.
Matt Dallek: Lost friends.
Geoff Kabaservice: Lost friends. Buckley’s own mother was a Bircher. So, this actually was really problematic in a way that I think people outside the movement don’t necessarily appreciate. And I think Buckley also came to realize that this was not a way that a Republican Party with a conservative movement at its helm was actually going to win national majorities.
Matt Dallek: Yeah, I agree with that. And actually, I have some evidence in the book — and in that sense, I do try to complicate it — that a lot of Birchers, a lot of Birch leaders, they were really furious at Buckley. They were pissed. In ’65, they didn’t say, “Hey, wink, wink, nod, nod. We know you’re just trying to get rid of Welch, but you love us.” No, they were saying, “You’re creating all these problems. You’re causing a schism within the movement. You’re not focusing on the true enemies — liberals. And Birchers are good people and you’re throwing them under the bus.” That’s the gist. Now again, you can say, “Well, it’s just a few letters and it’s not a ton of evidence.” But that’s right that some National Review subscribers did bail. So there were some costs, right?
And I guess when I said earlier that you see a dilemma, you see him in a dilemma, you see him in a struggle, you see the ways in which he is… And not just him, though. Other editors at National Review and Goldwater and others are both trying — I wouldn’t say trying to have it both ways, but they are trying to create a more mainstream and electable conservatism that is in large part driven by pragmatic political reasons. And being careful not to maybe infuriate his mother. There’s actually this letter, I think it’s Robert Welch writing to Buckley saying basically, I quote it in the book, “Your mom, I really am so grateful to her for recommending to a friend that she start a chapter in North Carolina,” or something to that effect. So it’s just really interesting and you do get a sense of the dilemma.
But I do think it’s wrong to say that Buckley somehow conspired — maybe I’m overstating it — but that he secretly just wrote these a couple editorials, he attacked Welch, but that was it. There was no cost to him at all and it was just harmonious. It wasn’t harmonious at all. And again, part of the point of the book is that the fringe really was the fringe, and there were all these mainstream — and I don’t know that any single figure, Buckley, Goldwater, Reagan, I don’t know that any one of them could have on their own excommunicated the fringe.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think there is some truth to the critique, in the sense that Buckley waited to condemn the society as a whole until Welch had actually, in effect, put the society on the side of the left in the Vietnam War. Welch’s reasoning was, “Look, the United States cannot be losing in Vietnam unless there is communist treason going on. Therefore, we must not actually be trying in Vietnam. Therefore Lyndon Johnson is a communist puppet, and therefore we should get out of Vietnam.” And that, of course, was not something that most mainstream conservatives wanted to hear. So Buckley chose his moment rather strategically.
But I’ve said this quote so often that I actually know it by heart. Buckley was writing to one of his confreres about this, and he said, “I have recently had to negotiate with my 15-year-old son, regarding whom I possess weapons as definitive as any of those at the disposal of the nuclearists in the Pentagon. But I found myself — not temporizing, that’s the bad word. But calculating, figuring, reckoning. I do believe that it is part of the conservative function to do that. I don’t think that to say so is to engage in betrayal. Betrayal in any case, is a very ugly word, a Birchite word.” And so he knew something about how to actually make a political argument that he felt Welch and all of his supporters did not understand.
Matt Dallek: The other interesting factor is that I did see some evidence of some Birch support for Buckley when he ran for mayor of New York. So even though he had criticized them, there were still some Birchers who said, “Okay, we’re still going to be in his camp.” So again, you do get a sense of how complicated this is.
The other point I want to pick up on is that you’re right, one of the points I try to make in this book is that the Birchers really rejected the US role in the world. They rejected the United Nations, NATO, all international institutions, engagement… They saw a lot of US allies as being overrun with communists. And that’s not true of Richard Nixon. Vietnamization — they saw it as part of this communist conspiracy, a plot to destroy the US.
So yeah, they really drew on an older conservative, more isolationist or anti-interventionist tradition, which was in conflict with the Reagan/Buckley/Nixon more interventionist and engagement-minded approach.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Matthew Dallek, thank you so much for writing Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right. And thanks for giving us this complex and really nuanced picture of this recent past.
Matt Dallek: Thanks so much for having me. It was great talking to you.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegnieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.