Politics & Policy

The Inside Story of William F. Buckley Jr.’s Crusade against the John Birch Society

National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr.
In the early days of the conservative movement, an internecine battle threatened to consume it.

Editor’s Note: The following is Part Two of an excerpt from Alvin S. Felzenberg’s new book, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr. It is reprinted here with permission. Part One can be found here.

Of all the crusades William F. 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, an organization Robert Welch founded in 1958 and used as his personal vehicle to influence public policy. In 1961, Buckley complained to a supporter of both National Review and the JBS, “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.

Born in 1899 in North Carolina, Welch was admitted to the University of North Carolina at the age of twelve, graduated at sixteen, and attended both the U.S. Naval Academy and Harvard Law School, but graduated from neither. He became a chocolate salesman and introduced such items as Sugar Daddies (caramel lollipops), Junior Mints, and Pom Poms. Later, he served as vice president of his brother’s candy manufacturing company. He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1950 and, like Buckley, supported Robert Taft’s campaign for president and Joseph McCarthy’s investigation of Communist infiltration of the government. In the mid-1950s, Welch served as a Director and regional Vice President of the National Association of Manufacturers until he retired in 1956 to concentrate exclusively on politics.

Buckley and Welch met in 1952. Their mutual publisher, Henry Regnery, introduced them and they maintained cordial relations throughout the 1950s. Despite their difference in age, they appeared, at first, to have much in common. Both were men of means. Each demonstrated strong organizational and communication skills. Each edited a political journal. Welch titled his One Man’s Opinion when he launched it in 1956. He changed its name to American Opinion after he founded the John Birch Society two years later. Buckley and Welch made it a point to support each other’s enterprises. In a note accompanying his second $1,000 contribution to National Review, Welch made a passing reference to President Eisenhower not being on the “same side” of the ideological divide as were he and Buckley. Buckley let the comment pass. Welch voiced doubts about Eisenhower’s loyalties again a year later. In a letter to Buckley, he spoke of “conscious treason in propelling our ship of state down its present dangerous course.” Welch informed Buckley of a new organization he had started. This was the John Birch Society. Buckley offered to provide a “little publicity” for it, presumably in National Review.

While both Buckley and Welch lamented the military and diplomatic setbacks that befell the United States in the early years of the Cold War, they disagreed as to the causes. Buckley attributed policy outcomes such as the stalemate in Korea, Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons, the Communists’ victory in China’s civil war, and the success of Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in Cuba to misguided policies and lack of resolve among Western leaders. Welch considered them the result of Soviet penetration into the highest echelons of the U.S. government. In 1961, he estimated that 50 to 70 percent of the United States was “communist controlled.” Increasingly, Welch advised Buckley that he neither liked nor appreciated Buckley occasionally disagreeing with him on certain matters.

They had different takes on the impact Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago would have. Buckley thought it would set back the Communist cause. Welch thought it to be a piece of Soviet propaganda. Welch took it upon himself to advise Buckley that Henry Kissinger, a young Harvard academician whom Buckley had proposed be named to the board that would assess the effectiveness of Radio Free Europe, was a Communist. He also passed along what he said was the opinion of “a growing number of people on the right” that National Review had succumbed to “modulation.” For emphasis, Welch added that such criticism had not emanated exclusively from the “lunatic fringe.”

Late in 1958, Welch called a two-day meeting of prominent business leaders in Indianapolis during which he outlined the extent of Communist penetration in the United States. Three former heads of the National Association of Manufacturers attended. This was the first meeting of what became the John Birch Society. Welch named the group in honor of a young missionary who was killed by Chinese Communist forces in the waning days of World War II. He set as its mission countering Communist influence throughout the United States. In November 1958, Welch sent Buckley and several others a typed copy of “The Politician,” a manuscript he had written. He had numbered each copy and asked that recipients return it to him after they had read it. The work’s most startling conclusion was that Soviet penetration of the United States extended deep into the White House and that one of the USSR’s principal agents was none other than the president of the United States. Dwight Eisenhower, he concluded, was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.”

He also identified as Communists who took their orders from Moscow Eisenhower’s brother Milton, then president of Johns Hopkins University; his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles; Dulles’s brother, Allen, then director of Central Intelligence; and former secretary of state George Marshall, among others. In a note Buckley sent Welch along with the returned manuscript, he said that he found the charges against Eisenhower “curiously — almost pathetically optimistic.” If Communist infiltration of the American government was as extensive as Welch claimed, Buckley argued, changing presidents would not relieve the situation. Nor would political organizing. “Reaching for rifles” might be a better approach, Buckley argued.

In time, Buckley would say that Welch inferred “subjective intention from objective consequences” — because things went badly for the United States, policy makers must have intended those results and worked to achieve them; because China fell to the Communists, by Welch’s lights, those heading the U.S. government must have planned that outcome. Buckley’s comments about the manuscript upset Welch. The JBS founder protested he had sent the manuscript to many people and that only Buckley “completely disagreed” with its hypotheses. However, Goldwater voiced identical objections. “If you were smart,” he wrote Welch, “you would burn every copy you have.” Years later, Buckley wrote that the “mischievous unreality” of Welch’s charges “placed a great weight on the back of responsible conservatives.”

Welch decreed that the John Birch Society would be autocratic in its governance. Any other organizational method, he insisted, would leave the society open to “infiltration, distortion and disruption.” He proclaimed the very word democracy a “deceptive phrase, a weapon of demagoguery, and a perennial fraud.” The JBS would consist of clusters of chapters, each with about 20 carefully screened members. He set a goal of building a million-member force. Estimates of how many people actually became Birchers range from 20,000 to 100,000.

Of the various projects the JBS took on, its campaign to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren drew the most attention from the mainstream media.

Welch had JBS run “stealth” campaigns to win seats on local government bodies, where it would work to counter “communist domination.” Its members paid close attention to book acquisitions by local libraries and pressed for the banning of certain titles. They organized boycotts of stores that carried goods imported from Communist countries. A merchant who stocked such items could find that Birchers had placed cards on counters and shelves bearing the words “Always buy your communist goods at ——,” with the name of the store written in the blank space.  Birchers pressed local governments to impose heavy taxes, fees, or regulations on such merchants.

Of the various projects the JBS took on, its campaign to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren drew the most attention from the mainstream media. Welch pointed to a litany of actions the Supreme Court had taken under Warren’s leadership that facilitated a Communist takeover of the United States: its striking down loyalty oaths; its extension of First Amendment protections to Communists; its ban of school prayer in public schools; its imposition of the “one man, one vote” principle in legislative apportionment; and, above all, its overturning of the “separate but equal” doctrine, which put the nation on a path to desegregation. Welch turned his disagreement with the Warren Court and its decisions into a national crusade.

National Review had editorialized against all the Supreme Court decisions to which Welch objected. It favored reversing them through congressional action, appointment of rightward-leaning Justices, and, where necessary, constitutional amendment. As a result of Buckley’s opposition to the “impeach Earl Warren” campaign, National Review received numerous complaints by mail, many of them Birch generated. His sister Jane Buckley Smith, who had joined National Review’s staff, patiently explained to those writing in that a jurist’s written opinions, however inflammatory, did not constitute “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” the constitutional standard for impeachment. Buckley argued in print that Warren rose in public esteem in direct relation to the intensity of Welch’s efforts against the Chief Justice. In a tongue-in-cheek parody of Welch’s logic, Buckley suggested that the effort to remove Warren had failed because a Communist plot to discredit those opposed to Warren had succeeded.

As the John Birch Society increased its influence, especially within conservative circles, Buckley tried to remain in Welch’s good graces. His reasons were simple: National Review and JBS had many common subscribers, donors, and writers. At first, Buckley tried to differentiate between Welch and those who had joined his organization, attempting to make common cause with the latter while ignoring their leader. That strategy worked for a time, until Welch’s characterizations of Eisenhower became widely known. Once they began to appear regularly in the mainstream media, Buckley and others found it difficult to draw distinctions in the public mind between the JBS founder and his organization. In the fall of 1960, Buckley wrote Welch to inform him of a telephone conversation Buckley had had with Cap Breezley, a donor to National Review and a member of the JBS. Breezley had complained that Buckley was speaking ill of the JBS. Buckley related to Welch that he had informed Breezley that he had not spoken ill of the JBS, but he had criticized Welch. He had also taken that occasion to let Breezley know that he approved of actor Adolphe Menjou’s decision to resign from the JBS once Menjou learned that Welch had proclaimed Eisenhower a Communist.

When Breezley made mention of the financial support he had given National Review, Buckley replied that National Review was “not for sale.” He refused Breezley’s demand that he forge a “common front” with the JBS and refrain from criticizing people in the conservative movement he considered irresponsible. In response to Buckley’s summary of the exchange he had had with Breezley, Welch wrote Buckley that he considered the differences between them minuscule. By now, Buckley had learned to be wary of such reassurances.

Increasingly, it was becoming apparent to Buckley and his intimates that he could neither publicly maintain that he and Welch were comrades in arms nor successfully distinguish between Welch and the JBS in the public mind. In a memorandum to Buckley, a National Review staffer suggested that Eisenhower and several of his friends were determined to make Welch pay a price for slandering the former president. The employee told Buckley that Eisenhower was contacting friends of his in the media (people like William S. Paley, president of CBS News; and Henry Luce, publisher of Time) and voiced concern that National Review might become a casualty in the upcoming crossfire. As the staffer had anticipated, once Welch’s assertions about Eisenhower began to circulate, reporters began to take an interest in the JBS’s more prominent supporters and members. It would only be a matter of time, Buckley’s associate warned him, until they learned that several persons associated and affiliated with National Review also maintained ties to the JBS.

Among those who did were E. Merrill Root, J. B. Matthews, and Medford Evans (all of whom were on the magazine’s masthead), Clarence Manion, Spruille Braden, and Mrs. Seth Milliken. Buckley’s aide urged him to speak out against the JBS, lest he and National Review be harmed in an “atmosphere of smear.” In a heated meeting, Buckley and his editors debated how they might handle what promised to be a major problem. Neil McCaffrey and Bill Rusher urged that the magazine stay silent, fearful that a strong stand against Welch and his organization would put National Review in jeopardy. McCaffrey recanted but remained anxious. “Permit me to retreat on Birch — lest the magazine perish. . . . We can’t afford to jeopardize the grudging status we’ve earned in the Liberal community, nor renounce our role of tablet-keeper, but the Liberals aren’t going to bail us out of debtor’s prison.” Rusher, worried about losses in readers and revenues, recommended founding a grassroots conservative organization that would act as a counterweight to what Welch was attempting through the JBS.

As rumors began to spread that National Review might issue a statement about Welch or the JBS, donors began to remind Buckley of their past contributions to his enterprise. Mail poured into his office — again, much of it Bircher induced — advising Buckley to refrain from criticizing Welch. Fellow columnist James J. Kilpatrick, who had criticized the organization, warned Buckley of what lay in store for him: “As you know, these idiots set off on a harebrained campaign to impeach Earl Warren. The word got back to Welch that I thought the idea preposterous, whereupon he commanded all his faithful members to write Mr. Kilpatrick a letter. By God, they all did. The first 20 or 30 I answered with individual letters. The next 100 we answered with a mimeographed reply. The next 400, we filed. I am not even sure my Girl Friday is opening the damned things now. This has been the most incredibly disciplined pressure group ever to come my way, and we are frankly a little stunned by it.”

A sequence of unraveling events persuaded Buckley that he needed to act. The Kennedy administration was upping its attacks upon right-wing “extremism” in general and the JBS in particular. California governor Pat Brown instructed his attorney general to investigate John Birch Society activities in the state. The Los Angeles Times published a two-page letter from Richard Nixon decrying Welch’s opinions and tactics. The California state Senate scheduled hearings. Senator Jacob Javits (R., N.Y.) and Representative Henry Reuss (D., Wis.) pressed for congressional investigations. Senators Tom Kuchel (R., Calif.) and Thomas Dodd (D., Conn.), the latter a friend of Buckley’s, denounced the JBS on the Senate floor. Attorney General Robert Kennedy called the JBS’s activities a “matter of concern” to the Justice Department.

While he disapproved of Welch and his antics, Goldwater was hesitant to denounce the JBS. He did his presidential prospects no favors when he called its members the “type of people we need in politics” and proclaimed the Birchers were some of the “finest people” in his community. Sensing a liberal campaign to present all conservatives as indistinguishable from Birchers, Buckley swung into action. He wrote Goldwater in March 1961 that “Bob Welch” was “nuts on the Eisenhower-Dulles business” and said that Welch would do their common cause “much damage.”

Sensing a liberal campaign to present all conservatives as indistinguishable from Birchers, Buckley swung into action.

A month later, Buckley ran the first of what would be several editorials on this subject. Entitled “The Uproar,” it appeared at a time when Buckley still thought it possible to differentiate between Welch’s observations and those issued in the name of the JBS. With the intention of unifying most conservatives behind the stand he was about to take, Buckley began with a strong attack upon the Left. The John Birch Society was in the news, he said, because “liberals” and “the Communists” felt “threatened by revived [conservative] opposition” to their agenda. Given the widespread publicity the JBS was receiving, he noted with sarcasm that it could hardly operate in “secret,” as was commonly reported.

He then speculated on the intentions of the organization’s critics: “Certain elements of the press are opportunizing on the mistaken conclusions of Robert Welch to anathematize the entire American right wing. In professing themselves to be scandalized at the false imputation of pro-Communism to a few people, the critics do not hesitate to impute pro-fascism to a lot of people. In point of fact, the only thing many of these critics would like more than a conservative organization with vulnerabilities is a conservative organization without vulnerabilities.”

Having set the stage, Buckley repeated in public what he had privately said about the main failing in Welch’s logic: that he inferred “subjective intention” from “objective consequences.” He closed with the hope that the JBS would reject Welch’s trajectory and thrive. Buckley was aware that once he had criticized Welch in this way, his target might suggest that Buckley had gone over to the Left or that he, like Eisenhower, had secretly been a Communist all along. He also knew that some would take advantage of the split within conservative ranks to discredit the entire conservative movement. “I wish the hell I could attack them [the JBS] without pleasing people I cannot stand to please,” he mused in private.

Reaction to Buckley’s editorial was immediate and heated. To a Texan who wrote to cancel his subscription, Buckley answered: “Your letter deploring the stand of NR on the John Birch Society was written four days before NR took a stand on the John Birch Society, raising the question of whether you are a psychic, or merely credulous. Or maybe there is a Communist in our office who gives you bad information. We don’t want any communist dupes as readers of NR, thank you very much.” To another he wrote, “You are a very unreliable reporter. I did not call the John Birch Society ‘a bunch of fanatics,’ though from the tone of your letter I rather gather that you yourself are one.” He would make more broadsides against Welch in the months to come and, four years later, would drop the pretense that Welch and the JBS membership could truly be differentiated either in the public mind or in reality.

As these internecine battles ensued within the conservative camp, Goldwater’s much-anticipated presidential campaign began to take shape. On October 18, 1961, 21 men, including National Review’s leading benefactor, Roger Milliken, and its publisher, William Rusher, convened in Chicago to lay plans. They became the nucleus of what became the Draft Goldwater movement. Goldwater, though he encouraged their efforts, had not yet committed to run. More than a year later, Rusher reported to Buckley that Goldwater believed Kennedy would defeat any Republican in 1964 and that the senator was worried that if he was nominated and defeated, his failed candidacy would set the conservative cause back. Nevertheless, he inched closer to running, fueled by a sense of loyalty to his supporters. Goldwater also relished the idea of debating Kennedy. He recalled in his memoirs that he had discussed with Kennedy the possibility of their touring the country together and exchanging views in a Lincoln-Douglas–style format.

F. Clifton White, Rusher’s former comrade in arms in the New York Young Republicans, began implementing the strategy Shadegg had devised the previous year. One of the challenges he faced was keeping John Birchers from infiltrating Goldwater’s campaign. “We’ve got super-patriots running through the woods like a collection of firebugs, and I keep running after them, like Smokey Bear, putting out fires. We just don’t need any more enemies,” one Goldwater campaign official complained. The candidate proved an unreliable ally to his managers who sought to keep the Birchers at bay. “Every other person in Phoenix” belonged to the John Birch Society, Goldwater wrote Buckley. They were hardly “cactus drunks,” he said, “but highly respected people.” Goldwater singled out as a case in point Phoenix businessman Frank Brophy, who helped finance The Conscience of a Conservative. Goldwater’s campaign manager, Denison Kitchel, like Menjou, had resigned from the JBS, but only after Welch’s comments about Eisenhower began to generate headlines.

Early in 1962, Goldwater convened a “summit” of key conservatives at the Breakers Hotel in Miami Beach to discuss how his campaign might handle the John Birch Society. In attendance were Buckley, Goldwater friend and General Motors publicist Jay Gordon Hall, Shadegg, William Baroody Sr. of the American Enterprise Institute, and author Russell Kirk. Buckley and Kirk suggested that conservatives simply “excommunicate” Welch from their movement. Buckley never tired of quoting Kirk’s response when the subject turned to Welch’s attack upon Eisenhower: “Eisenhower is not a communist; he is a golfer.” Buckley offered to write an even tougher editorial about Welch, advising conservatives to shun the JBS until Welch came to his senses. After Kirk joked that Welch might be “put away,” Buckley suggested that Alaska was an appropriate venue, given that Welch had offered to send there anyone who doubted that the Communists were behind ongoing efforts to add fluoride to drinking water.

As Buckley prepared to take on Welch for the second time in print, Burnham and Buckley’s sister Priscilla were the only editors at National Review who favored such a move. “It is essential that we effect a clean break this time,” Buckley wrote Goldwater in a not-too-subtle note. He added that the John Birch Bulletin reported that Goldwater’s friend Frank Brophy had joined the JBS Council. “How’s that for a sense of timing!” Buckley also informed Welch of what he intended to do. “You will no doubt be hearing from around the country that I have been criticizing you and the John Birch Society. I want you to know that that is incorrect: I have been criticizing you, but not the Society. I am forced to criticize you because of your continued line (which as you know I believe defies reason) on the reaches of the Communist conspiracy within our own government. . . . We shall continue, then, to do much disagreeing about this and no doubt in vigorous language; but I hope we can maintain a pleasant personal relationship. I am prepared to, if you are.”

‘It is essential that we effect a clean break this time,’ Buckley wrote Goldwater in a not-too-subtle note.

In a February 13, 1962, editorial headlined “The Question of Robert Welch,” Buckley noted that many prominent conservatives had begun to doubt Welch’s utility in the struggle against Communist domination. He questioned how the JBS could be effective when its leader held views so disparate from those of its members and “so far removed from common sense.” Buckley reported that Goldwater thought Welch should resign as leader of the JBS and that if he refused, the organization should dissolve and regroup under different leadership. Again, Buckley criticized Welch for failing to distinguish between an “active pro-Communist” and an “ineffectual anti-Communist Liberal.”  Of Welch’s refusal to allow dissent within his organization, Buckley wrote, “He anathematizes all who disagree with him.” Buckley urged all who shared those goals to “reject, out of a love of truth and country,” Welch’s “false counsels.”

Before the issue went to press, Buckley tried to line up support from key conservatives, including a relatively new acquaintance he had made. “Dear Mr. Reagan,” Buckley began, “Well, we have battened down our hatches and it’s going to be hell. But as somebody said, the right thing remains the right thing to do. Would you let us have a short comment for publication in [National Review’s] next issue? I’d greatly appreciate it.” Reagan complied in the form of a letter to the editor in a subsequent issue.

Buckley’s second broadside against Welch had major consequences, both for him and for his magazine. James Lewis Kirby declined to seek reelection to the National Review’s board of directors and stopped his contributions. Buckley described a “wrenching conversation” with longtime benefactor and Birch member Roger Milliken, who nonetheless continued to support the magazine. Rusher reported that a “substantial fraction” of the magazine’s readership “bled away” over the rest of 1962 and into 1963. He attributed the disappointing results of National Review’s direct mail campaign to the preponderance of Welch loyalists on its mailing lists. Mail protesting the editorial was so voluminous that Buckley responded by form letter. “I have letters from some . . . which are the quintessence of intolerance, of a crudeness of spirit, of misanthropy,” he wrote in his column. To Burnham, he complained that there was “no stopping these bastards.”

On the upside, as he had anticipated, mainstream and liberal commentators praised Buckley for taking on Welch. James Reston termed Buckley’s editorial “brilliant.” The Washington Post, in its editorial praise of his stand, referred to Buckley as “a conservative Catholic who recently scolded the Pope for showing socialistic tendencies.” Time pronounced National Review a “surprising” new recruit to the ranks of the JBS’s critics and proclaimed it an “increasingly lively, literate journal.” Clearly, Buckley was having an impact beyond the confines of the conservative movement.

Still, Buckley tried to retain a façade of cordial relations with the man he had denounced. One can only imagine Welch’s reaction when he received this note from Buckley ten months later: “Three months have gone by since I read your bulletin. . . . I am very anxious to keep current on your thinking and the society’s activities, and would be grateful if you would look into this. If our subscription has expired, I should be only too happy to look to renew it.”

Picking up where he had left off in 1961 and 1962, and before the campaign was in full swing, in August 1965 Buckley extended his criticisms of Welch to include the John Birch Society as a whole. He wrote three columns denouncing the organization, which he republished in National Review prior to the election with supportive comments by other prominent conservatives, including Goldwater, Texas Senator John Tower, and retired Admiral William Radford. In the first of these columns, Buckley listed the society’s take on ten policy matters, all culled from a single issue of American Opinion. Each of the magazine’s positions took as its premise Communist control of a federal agency or branch of government. He inquired how the society’s membership could tolerate “such paranoid and unpatriotic drivel.”

Until the organization’s members rose up and demanded a leadership that did not attribute all to which it objected to the work of Communist agents, he insisted, they ought not go about the country complaining that their views were being misrepresented. An avalanche of protest followed. One writer advised him to “comply or else” with Birch demands lest his magazine not be distributed by “accepted” vendors. Another urged him to ask Congress to take testimony from one Colonel Goliewski, who would prove that Eisenhower was a Communist. One of his favorites of the mail he received was a piece of paper with a single word written on it in magic marker: “Judas.” Life magazine ran a photograph of Buckley delightedly holding it up.

Buckley reported that of the 200 letters he received about the JBS, only two agreed that assertions Welch had made in the JBS’s house organ, American Opinion, were excessive. His friend James Kilpatrick, who had warned Buckley what to expect when he first criticized Welch, grew concerned enough this time to request in his own column that readers rally behind Buckley and National Review. “The skipper of ‘Suzie Wong’ [the name of Buckley’s yacht] is catching a terrible lot of flak these days,” Kirkpatrick noted. “It would be ironical if, indeed, Skipper Buckley’s brash and audacious vessel [National Review] were sunk by those humorless torpedo men who steam from Belmont, Mass. If only a small fraction of the wealth that flows into JBS headquarters could be diverted instead to the support of the thoughtful and high-spirited conservatism of National Review, perhaps more men of independent mind might be wooed to the genial cause.”

Late in the campaign, John Birch Society member Kent Courtney, based in New Orleans, sent a mailer to one thousand New Yorkers accusing Lindsay of being “pro-Communist” and urging his defeat. Lindsay proclaimed the letter part of an effort by Barry Goldwater to extract revenge on him for not having supported Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. Buckley’s by now famous denunciations of the John Birch Society worked to his benefit. After dismissing Courtney as a “kook,” Buckley suggested that by advancing such conspiracy theories about Goldwater and others, Lindsay sounded more like Robert Welch than a candidate of the New York Liberal Party.

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