Anti-defamation LeagueVariant names
The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913 in response to rampant anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jews and its mission eventually expanded to include combating all forms of bigotry, defending American democratic ideals, and protecting civil rights for all. Beginning in the 1960s, with the rise of the radical right, the ADL was the first and only Jewish organization to expose the threat of the right wing with the book Danger on the Right . 1
While the leadership of the John Birch Society took certain efforts to distances itself from overt anti-Semitic elements, the Anti-Defamation League felt that countering the JBS fell within its larger mandate to combat extremism in all its forms. The tactics used by the ADL to track and counter JBS activity, as documented in the subject files of the collection, included attempts to infiltrate the JBS headquarters office and local chapters, encouraging reports from unnamed informants, as well as tracking JBS membership by collecting pro-Birch letters to newspapers or tracing license plates observed outside Birch-sponsored bookstores.
Founded in December 1958 by Robert Welch, a successful candy manufacturer, the John Birch Society is one right-wing organization that thrived during the 1960s. Welch had made a name for himself as a staunch conservative and rabid anti-communist who supported Robert Taft's unsuccessful presidential bid in 1952, as well as Senator Joe McCarthy and his investigations against communist infiltration of American government and society. Welch further gained notoriety by alleging that President Eisenhower was a "dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." 2
Welch had been involved in Massachusetts Republican politics and the National Association of Manufacturers for a long time before founding the JBS, and was able to attract men of substantial means from around the country, especially owners of midsize industrial firms from the Midwest and South. These included William Grede of the Grede Foundries, Milwaukee, Fred Koch of Koch Engineering and Koch Oil Corporation, Wichita Kansas, and A.G. Heinshohn of the Cherokee Mills Manufacturing Corporation, Tennessee.
Welch organized the Birch Society to spur conservative activism and counter what he saw as a vast communist conspiracy. He named it after an American Baptist missionary and U.S. military intelligence officer killed by Chinese communists in 1945. By naming the organization after John Birch, who Welch labeled the first casualty of World War III, he linked the society centrally to Cold War events. Ironically, Welch also consciously adopted communist tactics such as secret membership lists and front organizations since he viewed these as key to the success of communism's advances in America.
By 1962, the JBS was a national symbol for right-wing extremism that espoused a conspiracy theory of history and saw Communists throughout the Federal government. Although it officially opposed the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, the JBS was perceived as a repository for anti-Semites and racists. The JBS conspiracy inspired ideology believed that Communists and Capitalist Internationalists were controlled by a group known as The Insiders. Similar to Fascist anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, the Insiders, however, were not equated with Jews. 3
The JBS organizers found fertile ground and by the early 1960s, the Birch Society claimed between 60,000-100,000 members nationwide. The program advocated by the Birch Society focused on educating the public about the true nature and extent of the communist conspiracy and manifested itself most commonly in letter writing campaigns and similar activities. The JBS did begin to shift in the mid-1960s from a strict anticommunism platform to address broader domestic social issues such as law and order, civil rights, and other cultural changes, by organizing front organizations such as those to "Support Your Local Police" and the "Movement to Restore Decency" (MOTOREDE).
Welch served as chief executive officer of the society and was advised by a board of directors called the Executive Council. Different divisions reported to the national headquarters and carried out separate functions. For example one produced and distributed serial publications such as the Birch Bulletin or American Opinion, while others produced and sold books through right-wing publishers and supplied American Opinion bookstores. Another division was responsible for membership services and recruitment. The JBS divided the country into several regions, each having full-time paid regional coordinators who supervised a staff of full-time paid field coordinators. The field coordinators, in turn, organized and supported local chapters. Each chapter typically had fewer than 30 members and chapter leaders were unpaid. The JBS also established and supported numerous front organizations to focus on single issues. 4
The Birch Society was one of the few conservative organizations concerned with developing a mass base, dedicated to educating and informing the public about its brand of anti-Communism and was perfectly suited to mobilizing middle class suburban neighborhoods. 5 A significant number of women, typically housewives, were among its most active members. Birch inspired campaigns ranged from opposing fluoridation in drinking water, to supporting local police, from attempting to influence Parent Teacher Associations to combating the importation of communist goods, or linking the civil rights movement to Communist agitators and efforts to impeach the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or opposing U.S participation in the United Nations.
In part, the JBS enjoyed its brief popularity as a reaction to the dominant mainstream Republican Party represented by the likes of President Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller. While the Birch Society was successful for a time in mobilizing grassroots support for a conservative agenda, it became strongly identified with fringe conspiracy theories. Many right wing proponents were put off by the conspiratorial aspects of the Birch philosophy and felt that Welch's erratic leadership of the society had damaged the movement as a whole. Nevertheless, until the late 1970s, the JBS was the main organization on the radical right seen as a viable option for those who wanted more than the GOP offered, but viewed other extremist organizations with disdain.
1 Arnold Foster and Benjamin R. Epstein, Danger on the Right (New York: Random House, 1964).
2 "New Welch Book 'Bravely' Defames Dead," December 8, 1963, Box 3, Folder 17.
3 Pamela Oliver and Mark Furman, "Contradictions Between National and Local Organizational Strength: The Case of the John Birch Society," International Social Movement Research 2 (1989): 159.
4 J. Allen Broyles, The John Birch Society: Anatomy of a Protest (Toronto: S.J. Reginald Saunders & Co., 1964), Box 24, Folder 5.
5 Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 77.
From the guide to the Anti-Defamation League John Birch Society Collection, undated, 1928-1980 (bulk 1958-1975), (American Jewish Historical Society)
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