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Sign reading "Save Our Republic: Impeach Earl Warren" with American flag in corner
“Impeach Earl Warren,” postcard, circa 1966, Box 389, Hugo LaFayette Black Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Made at the Library: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right

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Join us at noon on Thursday, March 23, for a conversation with George Washington University political scientist Matthew Dallek about his new book, Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right (Basic Books, 2023), Manuscript Division collections, and the arc of American politics since 1950. Dallek will speak with Manuscript Division historian Ryan Reft and senior archives specialist Connie Cartledge.

Founded during the late 1950s and named for the first American killed by Chinese communists — a U.S. soldier and former intelligence officer turned Christian missionary — the John Birch Society (JBS) emerged in a nation that saw itself beset by external and internal threats. By the late 1950s, Americans had witnessed the expansion of communist governments in Asia and Eastern Europe and were fighting a hot war in Korea that pitted the United States against China and the Soviet Union. Domestically, the McCarthyite Red Scare exploited growing worries about communist subversion that left a portion of the American public open to theories of Marxist sabotage and influence.

Under the leadership of retired Massachusetts candy manufacturer Robert Welch, Jr., the JBS cut a bright and controversial path across the political scene of mid-century America, promoting conspiracy theories, opposing civil rights, and denouncing alleged communists and communism in American society. The JBS helped organize a campaign to impeach Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, for what one writer argued were “his pro-criminal and pro-Communist” interpretations of the Constitution.[1]

Critics lambasted the Birchers by deriding them as a “lunatic fringe” and condemning them “as representative of a ‘paranoid style in American politics’ that rebelled against modernity,” as Matthew Dallek notes. Yet more than any political group before them, Birchers understood how to harness negative media for positive gains. According to Dallek, the group discovered the perfect villain in “big city dailies and the big three television networks,” a set of common foes which “united Birch members and steeled their determination to vanquish liberalism and remake American life.”[2] Elements of Bircher rhetoric and direct action remain visible throughout American politics.

In writing Birchers, Dallek utilized numerous Manuscript Division collections, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records (NAACP), the papers of prominent anti-communist Herbert A. Philbrick, “Meet the Press” cofounder Lawrence E. Spivak, and Washington Post journalist David S. Broder, and the newly processed papers of Republican pollster Arthur J. Finkelstein, among others. Join us to learn more about Dallek’s research process, the Library’s manuscript collections, and the lasting legacy of the John Birch Society.

The event took place online only on Thursday, March 23, 2023, 12:00pm-1:00pm EDT. Watch the program here:

Request ADA accommodations five business days in advance at (202) 707-6362 or [email protected].

Made at the Library is an event series highlighting works inspired by and emerging from research at the Library of Congress. Featuring authors, artists and other creators in conversation with Library experts, this series takes a deep dive into the process of working with the Library’s collections.

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[1] Verso of postcard, “Save Our Republic: Impeach Earl Warren,” 1966, Box 389, Hugo LaFayette Black Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[2] Matthew Dallek, Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right (New York: Basic Books, 2023), 9, 66.

Comments (2)

  1. As a child living in the NYC suburbs in the 60s, I went to a JBS meeting with my father and a group of his WWII vet friends. They somehow had intel that membership of the JBS included former Nazis. When the meeting opened, the vets all stood up and called out the Nazis and threatened them with physical violence if they didn’t leave. Many of the audience members scuttled away and eventually the JBS panelists left through a backdoor.

  2. I’m 82 now so the date is so long ago it is like a lifetime ago; but probably the late 60’s. A group was trying to start a Public television station in the Indianapolis area which is now channel 20. The woman organizing it was Ardith Burkhart now long dead. I was asked to get people in our area to donate $5 each to help. Which I was doing. But a John Birch Society woman I had met at a church gathering wrote to our local newspaper telling citizens NOT to donate because it was a Communist led idea that would teach our children Communist ideas. And so we both wrote letters to the editor back and forth until finally Ardith Burkhart wrote and the John Birch woman gave up. NOW, all of a sudden they are taping their pamphlets on all our neighbor’s mailboxes and they are full of lies and crazy insane propaganda!!

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