John Birch Society reborn in Tea Party movement?

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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The John Birch Society, a group denounced by the late conservative icon William F. Buckley, has been making the rounds at several Tea Party events and will host a table at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February for the second consecutive year after having not attended for two decades, save one year in the 1990s. Though marginalized by Buckley in the 1960s and 1970s, the society has started to make a resurgence of sorts by tying itself to the Tea Party movement.

Buckley pushed the John Birch Society and its followers, called “Birchers,” out of the American conservative movement after the group’s founder and leader, Robert Welch, expressed his view that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” In a column, Buckley denounced the John Birch Society and called Welch’s views “so far removed from common sense.” Buckley even went as far as not allowing any person who contributed to a John Birch Society publication to appear in the masthead of the National Review, the influential conservative news journal he founded and edited.

But Birchers don’t agree with Buckley’s assessment of them. Several think the reason Buckley disagreed with them was because of personal gripes he had with Welch, and that Buckley used Welch as a scapegoat to eliminate the threat of the rising populist movement, similar to the Tea Party movement.

Birchers still maintain their belief that Eisenhower was a communist. In one of the society’s publications, New American, the group released an explanation of Welch’s beliefs and new evidence on November 16. The new evidence is a letter from Eisenhower’s Agriculture Secretary, Ezra Taft Benson, to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, expressing his concerns with the effects of the president’s policies in dealing with communism, regardless of Eisenhower’s intent or motives.

“In my study of the conspiracy, which I am sure is weak compared with your own, the consequences of Mr. Eisenhower’s actions in dealing with the communists have been tragic,” Benson wrote to Hoover, referencing Welch’s remarks.

Antiwar.com editorial director Justin Raimondo, a John Birch Society supporter who has written about the John Birch Society in depth, told The Daily Caller that he believes Buckley’s most decisive split with Welch was over Vietnam. Welch advocated against entering an “unwinnable war,” as Raimondo puts it, something that infuriated Buckley and what Raimondo terms as other “neo-cons.”  So, Raimondo said, Buckley attacked the John Birch Society through Welch.

Ed Cox, a Bircher from Maryland, said the society has been wronged by the media, adding that it bases all its statements, including calling Eisenhower a communist, in fact.

“One of the reasons the John Birch Society is so attacked is because it’s so effective,” Cox said in a phone interview. “There are very substantiated facts on everything we put out there.”

Additionally, the John Birch Society’s public relations manager, Bill Hahn, wrote in the group’s August 2010 newsletter that the society has never been “excluded” from CPAC, but has chosen not to participate in the annual gathering of top conservatives.

“One of the false statements we have seen this year is that JBS had been banned or excluded from participating in the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC),” Hahn said. “In fact, JBS has never been excluded or obstructed from participating in any way. Up until 2010, the organization had made the decision not to be part of it, except for one time in the mid 1990s when we had purchased a booth at the last minute (apparently it was the last one available).”

Like Tea Partiers, Birchers want as little government as possible. They also have advocated a shift back to the gold standard in the economy and believe that isolationism is the proper foreign policy position. As a whole, the Tea Party movement hasn’t weighed in on foreign policy, nor has it endorsed going back to the gold standard, but many Tea Partiers do agree with Republican Texas Rep. Ron Paul on auditing the Federal Reserve.

Raimondo said the Birchers’ gold standard stance is fairly consistent with one of Paul’s economic recommendations.

Raimondo thinks the Tea Party movement is the rebirth of the John Birch Society. Raimondo says both are populist conservative movements and both are, in general, attacked by the media. He said Birchers were “just typical conservatives.” Like the Tea Party movement, Birchers faced criticism from liberals, conservatives and most media, Raimondo told TheDC.

“They were the Tea Partiers of yester-year,” Raimondo said. “Robert Welch, you know, was an idiosyncratic kind of guy…He represents the conservative movement prior to Buckley.”

Where the Tea Party movement differs from the John Birch Society, according to Raimondo, is that the John Birch Society was coordinated in a top-down, strictly managed manner. There was a clear leader, and that leader was Welch, which he said made it easy for “establishment” conservatives like Buckley, liberals and the media to “smear.”

The John Birch Society’s current president, John McManus, will also be speaking at an upcoming Tea Party rally in Boston on December 12 at Faneuil Hall.

Boston Tea Party leader Bob Dwyer, who has invited McManus to speak at several events the local chapter has had in the past, said there have been several people who have called him to complain about having Birchers there, but he responds that he thinks Tea Partiers and Birchers have a lot in common.

“If people have got a problem with a speaker, they can go right up to them after they’re done and say so,” Dwyer told TheDC. “Why not go straight to the horse’s mouth?”

Dwyer helped organize the nation’s first Tea Party rally in 2007, where now Republican Kentucky Senator-elect Rand Paul keynoted. Dwyer said Rand Paul and Ron Paul are the “true” beginnings of the Tea Party movement, not former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin or Fox News personality Glenn Beck, though, he says, both figures are certainly part of the movement.