From the New York Times review by Jennifer Szalai of the book by Matthew Dallek titled “Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right”:
Before the 2016 presidential election and Trumpism, before Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, there was the John Birch Society: Founded in 1958 at a secret meeting of 12 men, the group was named after a young missionary and intelligence officer who was killed by Mao’s Communist forces in 1945. As the historian Matthew Dallek explains in “Birchers,” his illuminating new account of the society’s right-wing activism amid postwar prosperity, a number of the founding members were business leaders, and all of them felt deeply aggrieved.
“Rich, white and almost uniformly Christian,” Dallek writes, the first Birchers nevertheless believed they had been “abandoned” and “exiled to the margins.” They railed against Communism, the civil rights movement and the New Deal. Their fulminations were often dismissed as ludicrous and paranoid; in the movie “Dr. Strangelove,” Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper’s rant about a commie plot “to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids” wasn’t even that much of a parody. For the last six decades, a standard Bircher talking point has revolved around the evils of a fluoridated water supply (or, as the group’s website currently has it, “a form of government mass medication of citizens in violation of their individual right to choose which medicines they ingest”).
But for all the spectacle offered by the lurid politics of the right-wing fringe, Dallek urges us to pay attention to how the organization, at least in its first decade or so, took care to keep a foot planted in the mainstream. “Countless Birchers were rational, educated, skilled political operatives,” he writes, detailing their mix of canny know-how and intemperate rage. It would turn out to be a potent combination for American conservatism and, as a consequence, the Republican Party.
The story that Dallek tells is full of mutual distrust and exploitation. Birchers despised the establishment — not just liberals but also mainstream conservatives. They were especially disgusted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a moderate Republican. Robert Welch, the retired candy manufacturer who initiated the first secret meeting of the society, once described Eisenhower as a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.”
Yet the Birch Society wasn’t about to relegate itself to being some third-party splinter group, doomed to irrelevance. A survey in the mid-1960s found that 60 percent of Birchers — who claimed 80,000 members at the time — identified as Republicans. By inserting themselves into the party’s coalition, they could make up for their small numbers with actual power, Dallek writes, ensuring “that their Armageddon-like sensibility couldn’t be ignored.”
Similarly, Dallek shows how hope sprang eternal among mainstream Republicans, who thought they could wrest some advantages out of the arrangement, too. They “wanted Birch energy and money but not the taint,” contorting themselves to placate the Birchers as much as they could without offending those constituents who weren’t all that keen on apocalyptic tirades and eruptions of rank bigotry. But appeasement could never satisfy the unappeasable. Once Birchers got a taste of power, they weren’t inclined to tack toward the center and curtail their extremist ambitions in a spirit of compromise.
“They spoiled for confrontations,” Dallek writes, adding later, “The G.O.P. establishment’s effort to court this fringe and keep it in the coalition allowed it to gain a foothold and eventually cannibalize the entire party.”
Most of Dallek’s book charts the early years of the Birch Society, until the mid-1970s. Despite the group’s organizational feats, and an increasingly fragmented political landscape, a postwar consensus prevailed; after all, World War II wasn’t too distant a reminder of the real dangers posed by extremism. The press — a favorite Bircher target — still commanded enough public attention that by shining “a bright light” on right-wing radicalism it could “freeze it out of the mainstream.”
Such notoriety did generate surging numbers of recruits, but the rapid growth in membership turned out to be destabilizing. Dallek says that many new Birchers in the mid- to late 1960s “thrived on discord and menace.” An aura of respectability, which still had currency in that era, was ever harder to maintain.
The organization also suffered a series of blows at the hands of the Anti-Defamation League, which started an espionage program called Birch Watchers, designed to infiltrate and discredit the Birchers. The A.D.L.’s tactics were surreptitious and in some cases, Dallek says, perhaps even illegal. That an organization dedicated to civil rights issues would resort to subterfuge — methods that would seem to contradict its core values — indicates just how much the A.D.L. believed was at stake. The league argued that it was defending American democracy, and so the “righteous ends justified the morally questionable means.”
In addition to Dallek’s scrupulous research, he knows how to tell this story with a clarifying elegance and restraint. Even as the John Birch Society started to wilt as an organization, the belligerent style and ideology it seeded in the Republican Party continued to grow. Certain elements of the Bircher agenda — prohibiting sex education, combing through textbooks for socialist propaganda — are so reminiscent of right-wing programs in red states right now that Dallek knows he doesn’t have to overplay his hand. The same goes for some of the Birchers’ conspiracy theories, which included a notion floated in the group’s flagship magazine that the peace sign was a communist symbol borrowed from the “eyes of the demon” on a medieval woodcut. It’s the kind of confabulation — bizarrely specific and deeply inane — worthy of QAnon.
One of Dallek’s main arguments is that the Bircher takeover of American conservatism wasn’t inevitable — it was “halting” and “contingent,” and required the acquiescence of a Republican establishment that should have known better than to risk giving its insurgent right flank any power. “Treating the fringe as allies rather than banishing it was a choice,” he writes.
The decision may have been inflected by a kind of desperation — a fear that the standard Republican playbook wasn’t cutting it anymore. But the choice, as Dallek shows in “Birchers,” was still there: Stand on democratic principles, even if it might mean losing an election, or exact a partisan victory, whatever the cost.
Jennifer Szalai is the nonfiction book critic for The Times.