Groucho Marx supposedly joked that he would not want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. Here’s a related question: Would John Birch have joined the John Birch Society? He never had a chance, as he died more than a dozen years before Robert Welch formed the controversial JBS. Because of the group, Birch became better known as a legacy than as a living person — and in this good and fair-minded biography, China expert Terry Lautz peels back the layers of a myth and uncovers the man whose bizarre afterlife shaped the conservative movement in its early days.
Birch was a “mish kid” — the child of Christian missionaries posted to India. His first words included Hindi phrases. By the time he was two, however, his parents had moved back to the United States, where their son grew up as a Baptist fundamentalist during the Depression. Even as a boy, Birch wanted to be a missionary himself. Friends would remember his determination and intensity.
At Mercer University, Birch made a mark in academics, becoming his school’s candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship. He was also an earnest believer who joined with a dozen other students in charging several of his professors with heresy. The offenders included a physicist who described the solar system as having taken longer to create than the six days of Biblical reckoning. Lautz’s account of the controversy feels like a report from our current campus culture wars, though in this case Christian students played the part of the persecutors rather than the persecuted. Years later, in what would be the final letter he wrote to his parents, Birch seemed to express regret for his role in the “teacher episode,” as he called it: “I was just a fumbling college boy, scared of hurting people’s feelings, and yet trying to tell them about the Lord Jesus Christ.”
In 1940, Birch departed for China, which for decades had been a focus of evangelical fervor. “There is war, starvation, disease, sin, idolatry, superstition, suffering, and death on every side,” he wrote soon after his arrival, “but our wonderful Savior keeps saving souls, answering prayers, and giving joy in the midst of sorrow.”
Japan had yet to attack Pearl Harbor but was already at war in China — and Birch recognized that the “bigger battle” of converting the Chinese to Christianity would require a military victory over the invaders. In 1942, he volunteered his services to the American Military Mission to China, noting his ability to speak Mandarin and hoping to become a chaplain. Within a few days, he played a bit part in one of the war’s early dramas.
On April 18, Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led 80 men in 16 B-25s on a daring air raid over Tokyo. They caused little direct damage, but by delivering the first U.S. strike on the Japanese homeland, they demoralized their enemies and inspired their countrymen. The operation called on them to drop their bombs and keep flying west, into China, where they ditched their planes. By sheer coincidence, Birch was visiting churches near the Lan River, where he came upon Doolittle and several others, hiding in a boat. The missionary was the first Westerner the airmen had seen since taking flight. Birch helped them to safety, traveling with them briefly and translating along the way.
By summer, he was in the military — “a very religious man who daily invoked the help of God to help him kill Japanese,” according to a contemporary. He performed intelligence work, identifying targets and working with militias and secret agents. He was also a romantic who fell in love three times, twice with nurses and once with a fellow translator. In letters to these women as well as his parents in the United States, Birch made clear that he wanted a wife who would help him continue his missionary work after the war. Upon hearing suggestions that he build a career in the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner to the CIA, he demurred: “I’d rather be a poor preacher.”
Shortly after atomic bombs leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan would surrender. For Birch, however, the war wasn’t quite over: His superiors asked him to go on a final mission to gather intelligence in Jiangsu Province. On August 25, 1945, Birch and his team encountered Chinese Communist soldiers. In a dispute that probably was avoidable, Birch turned aggressive, grabbing one of Mao’s men by the collar and shouting insults at others. Lautz suggests that after five years of mental and physical exhaustion, Birch suffered from “combat fatigue,” or what doctors today would call post-traumatic stress disorder. Whatever the circumstances — the details are sketchy, drawn mainly from the report of a single witness — Birch was shot dead. Eight days later, on the same morning as Japan’s formal surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Birch was buried on a hilltop near Xuzhou.
His story might have ended there, in semi-obscurity as one of more than 400,000 American deaths in World War II. In 1949, however, China fell to the Communists, and American Cold Warriors worried about what had gone wrong. The next year, shortly after the start of the Korean War, Republican senator William F. Knowland tried to make Birch a symbol of the new struggle, calling him “the first casualty of World War III.” Although his speech didn’t draw much notice at the time, it sat in the Congressional Record, where businessman Robert Welch found it three years later. Welch saw Birch as a latter-day Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War spy who was executed by the British, though not before uttering his famous last words: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Welch worked as a salesman for his brother’s now-defunct candy company — if you’ve ever enjoyed a Junior Mint or a Sugar Daddy, then you’ve sampled one of its lasting products — but his real passion was for exposing Communist conspiracies. In 1958, with the approval of Birch’s parents, he organized the John Birch Society, which Lautz describes as “the most effectively managed and best financed grassroots conservative movement in the United States.” At its height, it may have had 100,000 members — most of them sincerely concerned about the Communist threat abroad and the rise of big government at home. However worthy these causes, Welch soon revealed himself as delusional, claiming that President Eisenhower was an agent of the Soviet Union. This was the most flamboyant in a series of outrageous claims, ranging from the fear that water fluoridation was a Communist plot to the charge that the Bay of Pigs disaster was a bid to keep Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in power.
By the early 1960s, the John Birch Society posed a problem for the responsible leaders of the emerging conservative movement. They admired the way Welch had rallied ordinary Americans against New Deal liberalism but also saw him as a deeply flawed figure — a dilemma that has echoes in the current conundrum of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. “His influence was near-hypnotic, and his ideas wild,” wrote National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., in 2008, in an essay for Commentary that was one of the last things he ever published. Buckley recounted a conspiracy of his own, hatched in 1962 with Barry Goldwater, Russell Kirk, and others, to excommunicate Birch and his group from the conservative movement but not to alienate its well-meaning rank and file. It involved a 5,000-word “excoriation” of Welch in National Review, followed by a letter from Goldwater in which the future GOP presidential nominee urged Welch to resign.
Welch did no such thing — he continued to oversee the JBS until his death in 1985 — but his influence nearly vanished. Just as important, the dispute demonstrated the seriousness of Buckley and his allies in nurturing a conservative movement that was worthy of political success. Although the JBS has survived, its main function today is to let liberals launch ad hominem assaults whenever they want to defame some new outburst of conservative popularity. Shortly before the Republican congressional victories of 2010, for instance, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz took to the pages of The New Yorker to claim that tea-party groups were just those paranoid John Birchers, going by a new name.
Back in China, Birch was not merely forgotten but deliberately shoved down the memory hole. The place of his death bears no historical sign of the type routinely seen along American highways. His hilltop gravesite once displayed a marker, but it went missing long ago. His remains probably were moved as well. Their whereabouts are currently unknown, though Lautz speculates that an answer may lie hidden in one of China’s closed archives.
The only way to learn about the real John Birch is to read about him — and Lautz’s biography is the right place to start.