Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Welch, Robert Henry Winborne, Jr. (1899–1985)

Conservative American extremist and founder of the right-wing John Birch Society. Born in rural Chowan County, North Carolina, on 1 December 1899, Robert Welch graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1916, then attended the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, during 1917–1919 and Harvard Law School during 1919–1921.

In 1922 Welch went to work as vice president of his brother's candy manufacturing company, retiring in 1956. He served on the board of directors of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). From this forum, he gravitated toward Republican Party politics. Through his work with NAM, he formed relationships with numerous conservative business leaders such as Texas oil magnate H. L. Hunt, the sponsor of radical right-wing groups and radio programming.

Deeply affected by the anticommunist crusade of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and other hard-line conservatives, Welch developed a conspiratorial interpretation of U.S. politics and recent historical events. In December 1958, he and eleven other right-wing ideologues founded the John Birch Society, named after a U.S. intelligence operative executed by the Chinese communists in 1945. The society espoused the bizarre belief that the entire U.S. federal government, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower and numerous high officials such as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Allen W. Dulles and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, were part of a vast communist conspiracy to subvert American ideals and surrender the nation to communism. Welch and his compatriots wielded considerable influence within conservative circles of the Republican Party, especially among the supporters of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a fierce anticommunist and the party's 1964 presidential nominee.

Welch's John Birch Society reached its peak of influence in the early 1960s, when fears over Sputnik 1, the illusory missile gap, and the Cuban Missile Crisis held the nation in thrall. Welch's organization claimed between 60,000 and 100,000 members with $5 million in annual contributions during this period. The society closely guarded the anonymity of its members, behaving as secretively as the supposed conspirators it condemned. The 1960 publication of Welch's defamatory Eisenhower exposé, The Politician, which named the president as "a willing agent of the Soviet Union," forced a break between Birchites and most mainstream conservatives.

Welch's ideology proved a product of deeply held Cold War fears and McCarthy-era hysteria that resonated well beyond the 1950s. Welch died on 6 January 1985 in Winchester, Massachusetts. His organization survived him, focusing on the threat of "one world government," the growth of federal "socialist" powers, and alleged plans of the United Nations (UN) to take over U.S. society through the "treason" of establishment politicians.

Michael E. Donoghue


Further Reading
Heale, M. J. McCarthy's Americans: Red Scare Politics in State and Nation, 1935–1965. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.; Welch, Robert. The Politician. Belmont, MA: Self-published, 1960.
 

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