The Birchers led a vigorous campaign against the nation’s religious leaders to stir up dissension between clergy and their congregations. During this time period, and even now, members of the JBS were fundamentalists who opposed preaching a social gospel that made a relation between Biblical teachings and social justice. Thus, they were vehemently critical of the favored liberal social legislation of the National Council of Churches. (6)
In 1961 Amarillo, Texas, JBS area coordinator William L. Lee charged a local clergyman with being sympathetic to the Communist cause and accused the National Council of Churches of being infiltrated by Communists. A leading clergyman demanded that Lee keep quiet or hand over his evidence to the FBI. Not surprisingly, Lee had no proof but this did not stop Church members from demanding that their pastors sever ties with the Council or risk losing contributions to the collection baskets. (7)
This was just the beginning of a campaign of hate and fear that would reach every sector of Amarillo society, turning neighbor against neighbor and almost causing a mini-civil war. The Birchers used this same operating method in towns across the country. First, local religious leaders were attacked for belonging to the National Council of Churches and then the Council was accused of being a pawn of the Communist Party. Finally the whole ugly mess would spill over into other local institutions such as schools, local governments and politics.
Officially, Welch tried to keep his organization free from charges of anti-Semitism but he really didn’t put a whole lot of effort into it so his success was negligible at best.
He did warn members, “Communist plants and agents provocateurs would try to divert good Birchers into a misguided campaign against Jews in order to neutralize the work of the Society and its fight against the Communist conspiracy.” (8)
But the presence of anti-Semites within the organization was evident everywhere the Birchers had a chapter. The Society’s American Opinion Library offered books and pamphlets written by several people who were hostile toward Jews. One such book was Nesta Webster’s World Revolution – the Plot against Civilization which was her “attempt to portray a conspiratorial Jewish power lurking behind Communism.” (9)
National and Local Politics
Robert Welch and other leaders of the John Birch Society adamantly denied that their organization was politically motivated. But in 1964, they claimed they had at least a hundred delegates and alternates at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.
After Barry Goldwater was nominated, the Birchers elbowed their way in and used the campaign as a means for advocating their own ideology. Society members joined the GOP and Republicans joined the JSB. This cozy relationship gave the Birchers considerable influence within the Republican Party but the honeymoon wouldn’t last. (10)
While local Republican groups had defended the JBS, national GOP leaders began to bitterly denounce it. William F. Buckley wrote a 5000 word article in his National Review denouncing Welch:
How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points . . . so far removed from common sense?
Goldwater, risking his own political career, followed up with a letter to the magazine:
Mr. Welch is only one man, and I do not believe his views, far removed from reality and common sense as they are, represent the feelings of most members of the John Birch Society. . . . Because of this, I believe the best thing Mr. Welch could do to serve the cause of anti-Communism in the United States would be to resign. . . . We cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner.
These attacks may have diminished the impact of the Society but the JBS was not ready to roll over and die just yet.
The Society’s most successful campaigns really were not on the national level but on the soft underbelly of American where a minimum amount of pressure could often produce a maximum level of alarm. Some of this was described in Part 1 in the sections on churches and schools. But one of the most intriguing operations involved organizing boycotts through the use of cards, variously called Card Capers or Card Parties.
In 1962, a Miami chiropractor by the name of Jerome Harold organized The Committee to Warn of the Arrival of Communist Merchandise on the Local Business Scene. When Welch heard about it, he urged his members to get in touch with Harold.
A huge boycott spread from one city to another as JBS members organized local card parties of their own. Using postcards with a hammer and sickle printed on them, and the legend, “Always Buy Your Communist Products At ______.” The names of local retail stores which sold “red” merchandise would be filled in on the dotted line. (11)
Members took the cards and unobtrusively entered the marked stores – dropping them on counters and tucking them under merchandise. If a Bircher was caught red-handed, he would apologize, say it was all an accident and quietly leave the. But they always had another card with them – with the name of a lawyer just in case.
Society members urged local and state representatives and agencies to pass laws imposing prohibitive taxes on stores carrying merchandise from Eastern Europe. Some of the biggest names in America’s retail industry yielded under the pressure and Sears, Woolworth, Kresge, the Walgreen Company, and others, stopped carrying “red” goods.
In the end, the Birchers had to retreat as stores began refusing to give in to this well organized pressure. The climax came when a Los Angeles department store obtained a court injunction against further card distribution and sued the card committee and two of its leaders for four million dollars. The Birchers beat a hasty retreat and the card party ended. (12)
The American Opinion Library in Houston, identical to other Birch libraries across the country, served as an index to many of the Society’s activities at that time. One was able to purchase pamphlets which defended the JBS from its critics and analyzed the cause of the Los Angeles riots and the Civil Rights movement.
The Communists know that a divided people are easily conquered. They realize that if they can manipulate one American into fighting another American, their battle is won. One of the most important steps in creating a race war is to break down respect for law and order and portray the policeman as the enemy of the Negro. (13)
I didn’t write about the fluoridation issue in the original paper, but I can remember my family questioning Welch’s mental faculties every time there was a news report about his dire warnings that it was a Communist plot to poison the minds of Americans. Besides Rachel Maddow’s now famous video, there is this very good report here which quotes from the March 1960 JBS Bulletin.
6. Janson, The Far Right, p. 41.
7. Forster and Epstein, Danger on the Right, p. 3-4.
8. Ibid., p. 27.
9. Forster and Epstein, The John Birch Society, p. 33.
10. Ibid., p. 70.
11. Forster and Epstein, Danger on the Right, p. 24.
12. Ibid., p. 24-26.
13. Constructive Action Committee, Civil Riots U.S.A. (1965).