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Unfolding Research: Exploring the History of the John Birch Society

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Unfolding Research is a recurring series in which people answer questions about their experiences conducting research in the Manuscript Division. This entry was written by Matthew Dallek. 

Tells us about yourself: who are you, where you are from, and what are you researching?

My name is Matt Dallek. I live in Washington, teach at George Washington University, and I am researching the John Birch Society, the far-right movement from the 1960s, and its role in radicalizing the American right.

In general, what are your research strategies and how have they changed over the years?

My main go-to strategy is trial-and-error. I arrived at the Library of Congress thinking I might review three or four collections and wound up looking at a dozen or more. Many of the manuscript collections were extremely useful and made it into the book; a handful of others were less relevant to my project. That’s just one example. When dipping into a collection for the first time, I tend to look over the first few documents in a given folder, which can sometimes clue me in to whether the folder is relevant to my topic. I’ve had days when my plan was to review multiple boxes but I only managed to review a single folder (or two) because the documents in them were so valuable. My other strategy is try to cast a wide net, investigating manuscript collections that provide a variety of perspectives. One reason that the Library of Congress is so great is that with such a rich trove of manuscript collections, researchers can find sources of support, criticism, and ambivalence about numerous controversies. That was true of my work on the John Birch Society (JBS).

What collections have you been conducting research in and why?

The breadth of collections in the Manuscript Division is incredible. I conducted research in the papers of journalists, activists, authors, pollsters, political organizations, even a Supreme Court Justice. The Lawrence Spivak Papers enabled me to examine popular reactions to an episode of NBC’s Meet the Press when Robert Welch appeared as a guest. The Herbert Philbrick Papers offered me a view into how a leading anticommunist criticized and supported the JBS. The Joseph Rauh and NAACP collections provided important voices of liberal criticism of the far right during the 1960s.

Did you have a favorite among these collections? Why?

The Spivak Papers were fascinating. I’m not sure if they get a lot of use. But they are a gold mine. They contain the voices of Americans reacting in real time to Spivak’s televised interviews. Folders are stuffed with letters (many hand-written) from viewers expressing outrage at Spivak for allegedly sandbagging Welch, the Birch founder. The fury at the national news media leaps off the paper. Not just Birch members but non-members sympathetic to Birchers blasted Spivak as a subversive and accused him of haranguing a real American. The missives provided a visceral sense of the loathing on the right and far-right for the mainstream press, providing mainstream and radical conservatives a shared enemy, a set of common grievances, around which they could sometimes rally.

What did your research in the Manuscript Division reveal to you regarding the John Birch Society’s connection to modern politics? Did this reinforce or challenge your expectations when you started the book?

Great question. The collections in the Manuscript Division painted a picture of a country awash in fear in the 1960s and afterwards—fear that democracy was on the brink of collapse; fear that mob violence would replace civic, reasoned debate about politics and policy; concerns that conspiratorial, nativist, and isolationist ideas would return to power in the United States, unraveling the fabric of democracy. Even Philbrick—a hero to many conservative anti-communists—expressed his fear that an American Hitler would seek to take power. A newly-acquired collection—the papers of Arthur Finkelstein—has some fascinating bits on tensions within conservatism during the 1980s.

What’s the funniest or most interesting document you encountered in the Manuscript Division on this project?

I read a letter or memo from the Joseph Rauh Papers—at least that’s my recollection–that contained a stray reference to Jerome Bakst and his research on the JBS. Bakst was director of research for the Anti-Defamation League. That letter got me thinking about whether Bakst and the ADL might have papers on the Birchers. That prompted me to make a series of inquiries and ultimately led me to conduct research in a different set of papers at another institution that gave me an altogether different perspective on the Birchers. One brief and unexpected reference to someone I had not known about led me down a path that I had not anticipated.

Matthew Dallek is a historian and professor of political management in George Washington University’s College of Professional Studies. His book, Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right, will be published in March.


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