Structure and Membership
Ironically, the JBS’s structure strongly resembled that of the Communist Party. It was made up of cells of 20 members each. In fact, Welch did not hesitate to state his admiration for Communist methods and felt free to borrow from them because he was on the “right side of the battle.” (14)
The Society was a semi-secret organization, which took orders from a well defined leadership position occupied by none other than Robert Welch. He was authoritative; those members who ceased to feel total loyalty could either resign or steps would be taken to force them out.
Besides Welch and the original 11 men he met with in Indianapolis,* the leadership included – in descending order of importance – a cabinet of administrative advisors and assistants, Committee Enforcers, and the paid organizers and chapter leaders. There were no elections; Welch appointed each individual to his particular position throughout the entire organization. (15)
Welch had no intentions of forming a representative type organization; he felt that it would lend itself too easily to infiltration, distortion and disruption. He demanded that the Society operate “under complete authoritarian control.” (16)
The membership was composed of dedicated, active, mostly overwrought Rightists from the grass-roots level of our society. There were varying figures suggested for the number of members, but although the Society kept its numerical count a secret, the most frequently quoted estimate was around 50,000. (17)
Members were motivated by the sincere conviction that most of the leaders of our economic, religious, educational and political institutions were conscious or unconscious agents of the Communists. “The activities of the Society, directed largely through the monthly Bulletin, were designed to expose, dramatize, and if possible, thwart what they perceived to be instances of Communist subversion within these major institutions, both locally and nationally.” (18)
The Society was convinced that the Communists had influenced so much of American politics that there was little hope for the existing political system.
The personality of a typical member was authoritarian and aggressive. He was usually frustrated by the vast societal changes that surrounded him, and he had an abiding suspicion of anything or anyone that tended to be intellectual. He had a basic feeling of inferiority, but wasn’t aware of it and would never admit it if he were.
In a setting where alleged defenders of traditional institutions and values looked upon bureaucratic leadership with distrust, where they looked with fear toward Communism, where they saw themselves being bypassed, an organization like the John Birch Society had considerable social-psychological appeal. (19)
In his paper in the American Federalist, R. B. Cooney wrote, “The pseudo-conservative is a man, who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.” (20)
Part 4, will examine the similarities and differences between the John Birch Society and the Tea Party.
14. Mark Sherwin, The Extremists, 1963, p.60.
15. Arnold Foster and Benjamin R. Epstein, Danger On the Right, 1964, p.22.
16. Cooney, “John Birchers on the March,” American Federalists, p.13.
17. Forster and Epstein, Danger on the Right, 1964, p.11.
18. J. Allen Broyles, “The John Birch Society: A Movement of Social Protest of the Radical Right,” Journal of Social Issues, xviii, p. 51.
19. Broyles p. 54
20. Cooney, p.16