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Why William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Russell Kirk exorcised the John Birch Society

Published in Blog on May 22, 2024 by Jakob Fay

Students of American political history, particularly historical conservatism, will no doubt recognize William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, and Russell Kirk as illustrious Republican thought leaders, the distinctive intellectual architects behind the conservative movement that peaked during the Reagan Era. Philosophical, groundbreaking, and accessible, these men championed an affirmative, forward-facing vision for conservatism that catapulted the movement to new academic heights. As the New York Times said of Russell Kirk’s formative work, “The Conservative Mind,” these men “gave American conservatives an identity and a genealogy and catalyzed the postwar movement.”

Notably, despite the scholarly underpinnings behind their work, Buckley, Goldwater, and Kirk—or, at least, their movement at large—never succumbed to the temptation to repudiate the popular, the down-to-earth, the collective. Theirs was a movement for the masses—those who felt left behind by the day’s seemingly ascendant spirit of liberalism, once hailed by Lionel Trilling as the “sole intellectual tradition” in the United States.

However, they also exhibited a rare courage that few popular leaders dare to demonstrate—the willingness to expunge radicals whose radicalism threatened to discredit their efforts. Famously, for example, Buckley penned a seminal book, “In Search of Anti-Semitism,” in which he argued that men who courted anti-Semitism, including Pat Buchanan, “ought to have no place on the Right.”

This anti-extremist crackdown, spearheaded by Buckley, also targeted the John Birch Society (JBS), a fringe but increasingly ubiquitous group of right-wing anti-communists. The respected conservative coterie worried that JBS would derail more serious conservatives’ work to preserve the country. Thus, they sought to sideline the organization, disparaging JBS Founder Robert Welch and his “near-hypnotic” influence.

American political scientist Harvey Klehr, Ph.D., explains, “Buckley and National Review [Buckley’s influential conservative newspaper] acted as gatekeepers of conservatism, excluding those ideas and groups they considered extremist, nutty, or dangerous. Among those considered unworthy of inclusion in modern conservatism were … the extremist anti-communists of the John Birch Society….”

Ideologically, Buckley and Welch might have aligned if not for Welch’s overly conspiratorial mind—his paranoiac penchant for “detecting” irrational government plots lurking behind virtually everything he encountered. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Communist agent, the state of Alaska was “being prepared to house anyone who doubted his doctrine,” and “fluoridated water was a Communist-backed plot to weaken the minds of the American public”—the list seemed endless, and its propensity for tainting rational conservatism was just as extensive. 

Needless to say, his opponents were rather blunt in their disdain. Russell Kirk, for example, said, “The guy is loony and should be put away.” Buckley, in his “5,000-word excoriation of Welch,” agreed.

“How,” he inquired, “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? That dilemma weighs on conservatives across America. . . .”

Sen. Goldwater publicly answered: “I think you have clearly stated the problem which Mr. Welch’s continued leadership of the John Birch Society poses for sincere conservatives. It is a problem which requires all of us who believe in the concepts of constitutional government and individual liberty to make it plain that we do not intend to depart from the truth in the pursuit of the aims we believe are in the best interests of the American people. 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 be attached to the conservative banner.” [emphasis added]

On another occasion, when Welch sent Goldwater a copy of his nonsensical manuscript, “The Politician,” the Senator advised, “If you were smart, you would burn every copy you have.”

Wisely, these men directed their criticisms towards Welch himself rather than targeting ordinary members of the society. They were concerned that his irrationality might stall serious, conservative efforts to safeguard America from Communism. Yet, they also acknowledged that Welch's fanaticism seemed deeply woven into the very fabric of the organization he had established. “I have had more discussions about the John Birch Society in the past year than I have about the existence of God or the financial difficulties of National Review,” complained Buckley in 1961. They referred to Welch’s “paranoid and unpatriotic drivel” simply as “the Birch fallacy.”

In a 1967 episode of Firing Line with a recently resigned member of the John Birch Society, Buckley referred to the organization itself as just as “conspicuous” as its founder, questioning how any sane person could “exist with” its lunacy.

“It is easy enough to understand how certain people for idealistic reasons can join certain organizations up until a particular point,” he pressed his guest. “We know, for instance, that after the Nazi-Soviety Pact, a lot of people quit the Communist Party, just as we know that some people who [were] more or less thought fellow-travelers of the Nazis started to quit after Hitler showed that he had genocidal tendencies. But what is not clear is why it wasn’t clear to you, as a perceptive man, much sooner than in 1966 that to support an anti-Communist who has done as much as, in my opinion, Mr. Welch has done, to discredit the anti-Communist movement —  why did you put up with this … ?”

In short, while Buckley, Goldwater, and Kirk scorned Welch in particular, they recognized that  his movement was so hopelessly enamored with their founder’s quack conspiracies as to be rendered an incurable embarrassment to the whole of the conservative movement. Indeed, as Buckley biographer Alvin S. Felzenberg wrote, “Of all the crusades Buckley took on in his half century on the national political stage, none did more to cement his reputation as a gatekeeper of the conservative movement—or consumed more of his time—than that which he launched against the John Birch Society.”

Unfortunately, “the Birch fallacy” persists today—although, thanks to our intellectual forebears, it has been largely relegated to the peripheral of serious politics, where it, nevertheless, continues to block real conservative progress. Since the right-wing advocacy group’s founding in 1958, the John Birch Society’s fondness for flinging unhinged, sensationalized accusations against its own side has been the source of more harm than good for conservatism. Now, we must once again exorcise the fringe group from the movement, abolishing the last vestiges of its influence on American political thought.

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