What William F. Buckley Would Think of Today’s GOP
A significant milestone in the history of American conservatism passed largely unnoticed last month: the fiftieth anniversary of William F. Buckley Jr.’s editorial attack on Robert Welch, the head of the John Birch Society. Buckley’s successful effort to read the conspiracy-minded anti-Communist organization out of the conservative movement deserves to be remembered by the Republican Party. Indeed, the fact that today’s GOP has paid the anniversary little heed is a telling indictment of a party gone seriously astray. Rather than honor Buckley’s example, the right-wingers currently controlling the party have made an unabashed habit of defying it.
Welch was a retired candy maker who created the Birch Society in 1958 to mobilize conservatives against what he saw as an imminent Communist takeover of the United States from within. Buckley himself had sounded similar alarms on behalf of red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, but believed that Welch crossed into paranoia with his assertion that America’s government leaders—including President Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, CIA Director Allen Dulles, and most members of the Supreme Court—were active Communist agents. Buckley was also distressed by other Birch claims: that Red Chinese armies were massing at the Mexican border to invade the U.S.; University of Chicago professors were plotting to deprive Americans of their rights to vote and hold property; and elite groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bildergbergers were seeking to merge the U.S. with the Soviet Union in a one-world socialist government. The Birch Society’s notion that those who doubted these theories thereby revealed themselves as Communist sympathizers struck Buckley as self-reinforcing lunacy.
Having spent the better part of a decade doing research in Buckley’s archives, I can attest that it was no easy matter for Buckley to take on Welch and his Society. Many of the financial backers and readers of Buckley’s National Review magazine admired Welch and his organization; Buckley’s own mother was a Bircher. His editorial colleagues warned that criticizing Welch risked splitting the conservative movement. Buckley’s position as movement leader would be jeopardized by the liberal plaudits that predictably would follow his editorial condemnation of the Birchers; as Buckley put it privately, “I wish to hell I could attack them without pleasing people I can’t stand to please.”
Nonetheless, in February 1962 National Review ran a six-page editorial against Welch, arguing that he was damaging the anti-Communist cause by “distorting reality” and failing to distinguish between an “active pro-Communist” and an “ineffectually anti-Communist liberal.” It would be several years before Buckley excommunicated all Birchers from the conservative movement, but his editorial emphasized that “There are bounds to the dictum, Anyone on the right is my ally.”
Buckley paid a price for his stand, as National Review endured torrents of angry letters and cancelled subscriptions, and the defection of some of its deep-pocketed donors. But in the long run, Buckley’s break with Welch saved conservatism. At the time Buckley wrote his editorial, the movement had been tainted by its associated with the Birch Society: In the spring of 1962, Buckley was considered such a fringe public figure that he was invited, in earnest, by Hunter College to speak in an “Out of the Mainstream” lecture series along with leaders of the Nation of Islam, the Communist Party, and the American Nazi Party. By separating conservatism from the Birchers, Buckley made his movement respectable and introduced it into the mainstream of American political life.