Buckley: Goldwater, the John Birch Society, and Me
One of William F. Buckley’s last published pieces describes the fight to purge the GOP of the influence of groups like the crackpot John Birch Society: Goldwater, the John Birch Society, and Me.
In the early months of 1962, there was restiveness in certain political quarters of the Right. The concern was primarily the growing strength of the Soviet Union, and the reiteration by its leaders of their designs on the free world. Some of the actors keenly concerned felt that Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona was a natural leader in the days ahead.
But it seemed inconceivable that an anti-establishment gadfly like Goldwater could be nominated as the spokesman-head of a political party. And it was embarrassing that the only political organization in town that dared suggest this radical proposal—the GOP’s nominating Goldwater for President—was the John Birch Society.
The society had been founded in 1958 by an earnest and capable entrepreneur named Robert Welch, a candy man, who brought together little clusters of American conservatives, most of them businessmen. He demanded two undistracted days in exchange for his willingness to give his seminar on the Communist menace to the United States, which he believed was more thoroughgoing and far-reaching than anyone else in America could have conceived. His influence was near-hypnotic, and his ideas wild. He said Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” and that the government of the United States was “under operational control of the Communist party.” It was, he said in the summer of 1961, “50-70 percent” Communist-controlled.
Welch refused to divulge the size of the society’s membership, though he suggested it was as high as 100,000 and could reach a million. His method of organization caused general alarm. The society comprised a series of cells, no more than twenty people per cell. It was said that its members were directed to run in secret for local offices and to harass school boards and librarians on the matter of the Communist nature of the textbooks and other materials they used.
The society became a national cause célèbre—so much so, that a few of those anxious to universalize a draft-Goldwater movement aiming at a nomination for President in 1964 thought it best to do a little conspiratorial organizing of their own against it.