Ideas

Ideas | Ted Widmer

America’s original troll army

Robert Welch, founder and president of the John Birch Society, is shown on May 15, 1961. The location is not known. (AP Photo)
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Robert Welch, founder and president of the John Birch Society.

Boston is a famously liberal town, but it’s always had a staunchly conservative side. From the Mathers through Thomas Hutchinson to the persecutors of Sacco and Vanzetti, the city’s leaders could be adamant in their resistance to change. Even in the mostly Democratic decades since then, robust shoots of conservatism could always be found — strengthened, no doubt, by the disapproval of clucking liberals.

A case in point is the John Birch Society, the far-right organization founded in 1958 by a Belmont businessman, Robert Welch. The Birchers were the original troll army, the forefathers of those Americans who forward e-mails written entirely in uppercase, warning that the United Nations is going to invade Texas, that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or that 9/11 was an “inside job.” The Birchers channeled a current of paranoia into the mainstream of American politics, where it grew into a mighty stream.

Welch was not a native Bostonian. He was born in Chowan County, N.C., in 1899. But he spent decades here after coming to work for his brother’s candy company, the James O. Welch Company, at 810 Main Street in Cambridge. In those years, a heavy chocolate aroma hovered over the eastern fringes of Central Square, and Welch added to it by inventing Sugar Babies and Sugar Daddies. Life was sweet.

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But Welch’s more lasting contribution came in politics. There, too, he specialized in raising America’s blood sugar. Welch used his marketing skills to spread extremist ideas around the country, alarming Americans for decades with fears of communist infiltrators.

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Given his penchant for exaggeration, it would be wise to take the facts of his biography with a grain of salt. He claimed to be a “boy genius,” so smart that he entered the University of North Carolina at age 12. He then attended Harvard Law School, where he felt alienated by the teachings of the great liberal jurist Felix Frankfurter. Welch had been home-schooled for many years and boasted of a prodigious memory. One can imagine that he was not the easiest student to teach.

In adulthood, he zigged where most of Boston zagged, growing ever more conservative during the New Deal years and their aftermath. Despite a strong disdain for politicians, he enjoyed his first taste of local politics in 1946, when Republican Robert Bradford won the governor’s race. Four years later, Welch ran for lieutenant governor and lost.

But normal politics were not really the point. Welch’s increasingly extremist views were finding wide sympathy in the early 1950s, a time of great unease following the so-called “loss” of China in 1949 and the Soviet development of an atomic bomb. Welch plunged into these waters with zeal, using his extensive business networks and mail-order skills to spread a toxic vision of an America vulnerable to takeover. He wrote long letters to friends, which grew in size and reach through early forms of photocopying. Soon his missives were crisscrossing America with a message of doom. Welch gave speeches far from Boston, in places like Indianapolis and Wichita. (Closer to home, Worcester was also receptive.)

During a period notable for its paranoia, Welch distinguished himself as one of America’s great alarmists, seeing Marxists everywhere from the US Army to the health departments trying to fluoridate water. It goes without saying that he hated the Truman administration, especially after it removed Douglas MacArthur and opposed Joseph McCarthy (whom Welch admired). But he left most of his fellow conservatives behind when he decided to attack Dwight D. Eisenhower, the revered hero of D-Day, as a communist stooge. Welch was not exactly a globalist. When he founded the John Birch Society, in 1958, he named it after a GI who was killed by the Chinese in 1945, in what Welch considered the opening salvo of World War III.

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Still, as crazy as some of his opinions were, they found a wide audience in an era of rapid technological change, anxiety over racial progress, and nostalgia for a bygone America. Some of it may simply have been loneliness; to receive a mailing from Welch was like being invited into a special club for true believers, invited to save the country from evildoers. As historian Rick Perlstein has observed, there was an element of fun to it, and it didn’t especially matter to Birchers that their leader’s arguments had no basis in fact. As Welch wrote, “it is realistic to be fantastic.”

Birchers threw themselves into the cause, writing angry letters by the hundreds, protesting textbook decisions by school boards, picketing local libraries for questionable book purchases. No cause was too obscure. They saw communists everywhere: directing the civil rights movement, infecting the Supreme Court (Earl Warren was hated for his role in Brown v. Board of Education), running the world through the UN, and controlling the world’s finances.

One of the small ironies of the John Birch Society was that it modeled itself after the Communist Party, as author Jane Mayer wrote in her book on the rise of the radical right. “Stealth and subterfuge were endemic. Membership was kept secret. Fighting ‘dirty’ was justified internally, as necessary to combat the imputed treacherousness of the enemy.” Manipulation and dishonesty were means to an end, a mantra energetically adopted today by many of the alt-right outlets that have come to dominate the Age of Trump.

Some of the beliefs that the Birchers held were clearly racist. They had a shameful record of attacking Martin Luther King Jr. as a communist. They also were inconsistent. Wealthy Birchers (including Fred C. Koch, the father of Charles and David) were adamantly opposed to the personal income tax, while the rank and file did not feel that cause to be paramount. But Welch did not support Nazis or neo-Confederates — a sign that in some ways he was still operating within the bounds of respectable civil discourse. That point, which almost feels nostalgic in 2017, could also be made about the many conservatives, including William F. Buckley, who went to great lengths to separate themselves from the Birch movement. In those more innocent times, certain beliefs were beyond the pale. It feels different today.

The world was moving in a more liberal direction in the 1960s. Yet Welch never surrendered an inch. His fringe movement flourished, thriving on the fact that neither party was sufficiently hard-line. An exception came along in 1964, when GOP nominee Barry Goldwater thrilled Birchers with his declaration that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Yet even Goldwater tired of Welch. Four years later Nixon won the White House. But to the Birchers, Nixon was not much better than the Democrats, especially after his overtures to Russia and Red China.

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The ’60s were a high-water mark for Welch’s merry band of radicals. They never revealed membership statistics, but the society probably grew from about 25,000 to something in the neighborhood of 100,000. Its influence was larger than that, however, as its members dutifully wrote their angry letters, donated their savings, and went to meetings to hear speakers complain that America was sprinting towards socialism. These subterranean currents flowed through a bland commercial building at 395 Concord Ave., where Welch located his headquarters, conveniently next door to a Belmont post office.

Democrats and even Republicans loved to make fun of Welch and his army of angry old ladies. Bob Dylan wrote a satirical song, “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues,” that delighted liberals. But they were too quick to laugh. In retrospect, it’s clear that they were missing something important about Welch’s populist movement. By harnessing these latent energies, he was tapping into a powerful emotional force. Though small, the Birch movement had some of the characteristics of a third party, enraged at both Republicans and Democrats for selling out America and giving comfort to the enemy.

By constantly describing the US government as a foreign entity rather than a homegrown institution, and dividing Americans into a never-ending conflict between “us” and “them,” Welch laid the foundation for the angry country we now live in.

Ted Widmer is an occasional columnist and a trustee of the Massachusetts Historical Society.