Welch began the John Birch Society in Indianapolis, Indiana, as a way to fight the threat of communism in America and to champion what he termed the "free-enterprise system." In many ways, the organization was a vestige of McCarthyism, which raged on the U.S. home front in the early and mid-1950s.
A group enamored with wild and convoluted conspiracy theories, the John Birch Society campaigned rabidly against the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It went so far as to claim that the movement was a "communist plot" designed to tear the nation apart. The society is also known for its anti-Semitism. Over the decades the John Birch Society has taken strong stances against globalization, free trade, welfare, immigration, and the United Nations (UN), for which it holds particular antipathy.
By 1961, the John Birch Society may have had as many as 60,000–100,000 dues-paying members. Convinced that the world system was run by a small circle of internationalists and collectivists bent on world domination, the society launched a number of prominent petition, letter-writing, and lobbying campaigns designed to advance its agenda. Welch and other members of the organization denounced President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles as vehicles of the "communist conspiracy." The conservative pundit and writer William F. Buckley, a one-time friend of Welch, dismissed such claims as "idiotic."
The John Birch Society reached the peak of its influence during the 1964 presidential campaign. Welch and a number of John Birchers strongly backed Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater's 1964 bid to oust President Lyndon Johnson from the White House. After Goldwater lost the election by an overwhelming electoral defeat, the society lost some of its luster. Rightist Republicans also began to distance themselves from the reactionary movement. Nevertheless, the John Birch Society continued to spin conspiracies and agitate for the far Right. In the 1970s, the society denounced President Richard Nixon's administration for its environmental policies, health and safety laws, and opening of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC).
By the mid-1980s, the John Birch Society had suffered significant membership losses, although because of its decentralized and secretive makeup it is difficult to say how much. However, by the early 1990s the society was on an upswing. This was fueled by the UN's participation in the Persian Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush's pronunciation of a "New World Order," and the rise of antic, rightist radio talk show hosts. The advent of the Bill Clinton administration gave the society more grist, and it came out vocally in support of his impeachment after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The John Birch Society continues on, undeterred, and lobbies against free trade and the UN, among other issues.
Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.
Griffin, G. Edward. The Life and Words of Robert Welch: Founder of the John Birch Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: American Media, 1975.; Hardistry, Jean. Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. Boston: Beacon, 2000.