History and Historiography

The Truth About William F. Buckley and the John Birch Society

By Matthew Dallek

Before there was MAGA, the John Birch Society operated as a kind of shock force for the far right in the 1960s. Led by Robert Welch, an ultra-conservative (and wealthy) retired candy manufacturer who had accused Dwight Eisenhower of being a communist agent, the Birch Society was formed by anti-New Deal businessmen in 1958. It grew into a major grassroots political force, with hundreds of chapters scattered across the country encouraging members to run for local office and support far-right political campaigns. The group smeared Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a communist, advocated a U.S. exit from the United Nations and trafficked in outlandish conspiracy theories. Some members even argued the society should be more antisemitic in its aims.

To its many critics, both Democrats and Republicans, the John Birch Society represented an authoritarian movement seeking to topple multiracial democracy. Even conservatives such as Arizona Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater and National Review founder and editor William F. Buckley eyed the movement with caution. Welch, they believed, had spewed theories that were so batty — in addition to calling Ike a communist, he once wrote that “the peculiar cancer of which [former GOP Senator] Bob Taft died” may have been “induced by a radium tube planted in the upholstery of his Senate seat, as has been so widely rumored” — that they damaged the prospects of conservatives seeking power. At the same time, some Birch members subscribed to Buckley’s magazine, and many supported Goldwater. Buckley even had friends and acquaintances who were leaders of the Birch organization — his own mother became a Bircher.


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