< American Society

Transcript

Friday, December 05, 2008

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm Bob Garfield.
[MUSIC]
MAN SINGING:
Oh, we're meeting at the courthouse at 8 o'clock tonight.
You just come in the door and take the first turn to the right.
Be careful when you get there – we'd hate to be bereft.
But we're taking down the names of everybody turning left.

CHORUS SINGING:
Oh, we're the John Birch Society, the John Birch Society.
[SINGING UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD:
Fifty years ago this week, the John Birch Society was founded by a wealthy candy manufacturer named Robert Welch. A staunch conservative and early contributor to William F. Buckley’s National Review Magazine, Welch remained scared long after the Red scare of the 1950s subsided. Here he is in a video in 1965:
[CLIP]
ROBERT WELCH:
We have voluntarily joined together to combat more effectively the evil forces which now threaten our freedom, our lives, our country and our civilization. So, of course, we collided with Communism.
[END OF CLIP]

ALLAN LICHTMAN:
He was particularly obsessed with the idea that there really was an immediate perilous Communist threat to the United States.
BOB GARFIELD:
Allan Lichtman is professor of history at American University. Lichtman says that Welch organized the Birchers in defense of America itself, which they believed was at grave risk.
ALLAN LICHTMAN:
Not from dupes, not from fellow travelers, not from liberals, but from card-carrying Communists directed from Moscow.
BOB GARFIELD:
And he called this society the John Birch Society. Who was John Birch?
ALLAN LICHTMAN:
John Birch was a Christian missionary in China who was killed by the Communist Chinese. Robert Welch regarded him as a martyr, indeed, the first victim, Welch said, of World War III, which he believed had begun at the end of World War II, and, of course, was the great confrontation between freedom and Communism.

Interestingly, though, another conservative, the commander in China, General Albert Wedemeyer, wrote to Welch and said, you know, [LAUGHS] John Birch was actually killed by his own follies and is not an appropriate person for your society. But Welch, who didn't listen to anyone but himself, ignored what Wedemeyer had to say.
BOB GARFIELD:
It’s also a bit awkward, once you've announced you’re a martyr [LAUGHING] to change martyrs midstream. Now, you have noted that in the first two or so years of its existence, the John Birch Society was operating pretty much under the radar, at least under the press’ radar.
ALLAN LICHTMAN:
Well, it’s absolutely fascinating. The John Birch Society is formed in late 1958, and it goes so unnoticed that there’s virtually, for two years, not a single article written in the major newspapers about the John Birch Society.

Then in 1961, the floodgates open, and many hundreds of articles appear in the mainstream media. What happened? Several things. First, there was the leakage of an earlier work that Welch had written himself, called The Politician, in which he called former President Eisenhower a “conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” That spectacular charge propelled Welch and his society into prominence.

BOB GARFIELD:
Not a dupe, not naive, but essentially on the payroll. That was the charge.
ALLAN LICHTMAN:
Indeed. A real [LAUGHS] live Communist, in effect. And even President Kennedy, in late 1961, at a fundraiser, gave a major speech, calling the nation’s attention to the peril paused by extremist organizations like the John Birch Society.
BOB GARFIELD:
So, by the time John F. Kennedy is raising his warning, the John Birch Society is marginal, but suddenly famously marginal. Everybody [LAUGHS] knew who the John Birch Society was.
ALLAN LICHTMAN:
So notorious, that a 1964 poll found 65 percent name recognition for the John Birch Society, an extraordinary number. Also, that same poll revealed, by a ratio of 12 to 1, that Americans would likely oppose a candidate supported by the John Birch Society.

However, the John Birch Society had real influence, first of all, because it raised, in 1964, about 1.7 million dollars, big money for an organization at the time, and it used this money to build up local networks of supporters all over America. It hired paid organizers at the grassroots level and attracted many volunteer organizers.
BOB GARFIELD:
I don't know if the Birch Society was famous or infamous, but it was synonymous, at least in the popular culture in the early- to mid-'60s, as a kind of poster child for paranoia.
[MUSIC]
BOB DYLAN SINGING:
Well, I was feeling sad and kind of blue.
I didn't know what I was gonna to do.
The Communists were comin’ around.
They were in the air, they were on the ground. They were all over.
[HARMONICA BREAK]
So I ran down most hurriedly and joined the John Birch Society.
I got me a secret membership card, went back to my backyard and started looking.
[SINGING UP AND UNDER]
ALLAN LICHTMAN:
And that was the prevailing view, that this was a bunch of paranoid nuts who had this fantastic idea not only that Eisenhower was a Communist, but that American society, up to 40 percent of it, was riddled with card-carrying Communists, that the civil rights movement was a Communist plot against America, that aid to education was organized by the Communists.

And so, indeed, the prevailing view was that this was paranoia in the extreme, utterly unhinged from the reality of America in the early 1960s. Americans believed, of course, that there was a Communist threat, but they mainly saw it coming from abroad.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, after the nutty charge, by Robert Welch, that Eisenhower had a Communist pro-Moscow agenda, he was famously repudiated in the pages of The National Review by William F. Buckley, Jr.
ALLAN LICHTMAN:
First, of course, the Birch Society was thoroughly repudiated by the mainstream media, and then Buckley goes after, originally Welch himself, and then the entire John Birch Society. And Buckley’s objective was to establish what he called a “responsible right,” the right as solidly conservative, but not extremist. And that was extremely important in marginalizing the John Birch Society.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, the schism between mainstream conservatism and the Birch Society came into play in the ’64 presidential race. Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson, and he counted the John Birch Society as a vast part [LAUGHS] of his constituency.
ALLAN LICHTMAN:
On the one hand, and this was true of the entire conservative movement, they needed the grassroots energy of the John Birch Society, they needed the grassroots followers, but they could not openly embrace the John Birch Society.

So Goldwater says, you know, we're not going to have any Society members involved in our campaign but, of course, behind the scenes, John Birch leaders and members are very much involved in helping Barry Goldwater. They didn't help him all that much, of course. He suffered one of the worst landslide defeats in U.S. history, in part because people believed he was, to some extent, akin to the extremists in the John Birch Society. He could never quite shake that association, no matter what he said.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, the John Birch Society still seems obsessed with the idea of losing American sovereignty, if not to the Red Menace, to whom, the United Nations?
ALLAN LICHTMAN:
Absolutely. This has been one of the most fundamental themes of the John Birch Society. Really, throughout the history of conservatism, there has been great fear about the loss of American sovereignty to international organizations, be it the U.N. or be it the Bilderbergers, a secretive organization of international financiers.

And it really doesn't matter what the specific enemy might be, be it Communists or be it Islamic terrorists. In the view of the John Birch Society, this is all part of a bigger plot to create a one-world government that makes us slaves to a few small conspirators.
BOB GARFIELD:
In 2008, is the Birch Society just an American version of European nationalism along Le Pen, Zhirinovsky, Seselj, Jörg Haider lines, or is there something uniquely American about this world view?
ALLAN LICHTMAN:
I think there is something uniquely American about this world view, this idea of American exceptionalism - the civilization built by the American pioneers is the world’s greatest civilization and we've got to do everything possible to protect it from external enemies who want to destroy American civilization and submerge us into some kind of sinister international organization. That’s as American as apple pie.
BOB GARFIELD:
Allan, thank you so much.
ALLAN LICHTMAN:
My great pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD:
Allan Lichtman is professor of history at American University and author of White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement.

As we’ve said, the John Birch Society is 50 years old this week, and counting. The Society’s current president is John McManus. I asked him if the John Birch Society is now, as some suggest, a mere shadow of the organization it was in the early '60s.

JOHN McMANUS:
Not at all, not at all but the media has ignored us, and consequently a lot of people think that we went out of business. We continue to quietly undermine the establishment.
BOB GARFIELD:
[LAUGHS]
JOHN McMANUS:
When the media was blasting us, as they certainly did in the early '60s, calling us every nasty name you could possibly think of, the Society was growing. And I guess some people discovered that that was the case, and so then the attitude got passed around, let's ignore them. And the ignoring began probably around ’65, ’66, and it has pretty much continued ever since.
BOB GARFIELD:
Fifty years ago the John Birch Society was on the front lines of the battle against international Communism. That war is over. The Soviet Union collapsed. Our society managed to survive intact. How is the Society relevant in 2008?
JOHN McMANUS:
Well, you make a mistake in thinking that the John Birch Society was formed only to oppose Communism. It was formed to oppose any form of totalitarianism and to promote the American system, constitutional limited government.

So we were opposed always to Communism, but also to fascism, socialism, Nazism, princes, potentates, dictators, kings, whatever.
BOB GARFIELD:
As prominent as the John Birch Society became in the '60s, we've just finished talking to a historian who believes that it was, at its heart, an extremist movement. Is there any part of your history that you wish to disclaim?
JOHN McMANUS:
Oh no, oh no. When the Society was founded in 1958, Robert Welch predicted that there would be wild inflation of the currency. He predicted huge deficits. He predicted a huge bureaucracy growing out of Washington, D.C. And all of those things have come to pass.

We are for less government. We are for more responsibility among governments and individuals, and even businesses. We believe that combination, with God’s help, will lead to a better world. If that makes us extreme, then people should realize how far the country has departed from its roots.
BOB GARFIELD:
At the risk of sounding argumentative, I just simply have to observe that those largest deficits occurred during the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.
JOHN McMANUS:
Well, that doesn't surprise us.
BOB GARFIELD:
[LAUGHS] Yeah. Tell me why that fits into your world view.
JOHN McMANUS:
First of all, the goal of what we consider to be a conspiracy is to build a world government. Now, you can't have a world government if you have a wealthy United States merging with countries that are Third World.

And so we believe that the plan all along has been to bring America down, have America finance other countries to bring them up, so that we could be comfortably merged into a one-world government. The New World Order is what it has been called for many, many years.
BOB GARFIELD:
What’s the solution?
ALLAN LICHTMAN:
The solution is to get back to the Constitution. And if you go to the Constitution, you will find no authorization for federal aid, for federal involvement in housing, education, welfare, medicine, transportation, da-dah, da-dah, da-dah, and all of the alphabet agencies that are regulating America and driving American businessmen out of business.
BOB GARFIELD:
If 50 years into your history a presidential candidate made an address to the John Birch Society, that would end his or her campaign instantaneously. Would it be better for you to be regarded enough, as in the mainstream, that you were not radioactive? Or is it better for your continued life to remain on the fringe?
JOHN McMANUS:
Well, you’re asking us to be pragmatists, rather than people who are standing for principle. We are not going to be pragmatists. We are going to continue to stand for principle, and we're finding that many more Americans want that and admire it. And it will filter down, so pretty soon candidates for office will be doing the same thing.

There are candidates for office who call us and want to know if we can help them get elected. And we tell them, look, we don't back candidates. We don't nominate candidates. You go out and speak like a member of the Birch Society. The Birchers will find you.
BOB GARFIELD:
John, thank you very much for joining me.
JOHN McMANUS:
Well, fine. Any of your listeners interested, they can go to Jbs.org on the Internet and you can find out all about our [LAUGHING] radioactivity.
BOB GARFIELD:
John McManus is president of the John Birch Society.
[MUSIC]
CHAD MITCHELL:
Do you want Justice Warren to be your commissar? Do you want Mrs. Khrushchev in there with the DAR?
[CHAD MITCHELL TRIO SINGS AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL UNDER SPEECH]
You cannot trust your neighbors or even next of kin.
TRIO SINGING:
If Mommy is a Commie, then you gotta turn her in.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]