The seedbed of late twentieth-century conspiracy theory in America, the John Birch Society was founded in late 1959 by Robert Welch, a successful businessman involved in right-wing politics. Like many Americans, Welch was concerned about the threat posed by communism, but he suspected that Republican as well as Democrat politicians were dupes of Moscow, and became convinced that no one in American politics was willing to do what was necessary to fight the communist threat. In 1959, he invited a group of influential conservatives to a weekend seminar in Indiana, presented his views to them, and urged the formation of a new, tightly disciplined organization to educate Americans about communism and lobby for stronger measures against it. A name for the organization came from John Birch, a Baptist missionary killed by Chinese Communists 10 days after the end of the Second World War, whom Welch considered the first casualty of the Cold War. See Communism.

By the end of the weekend the John Birch Society had come into being. Over the next year Welch gave 28 similar seminars in cities across the US, and the Society finished 1960 with 18,000 members. This explosive growth did not pass unnoticed, and media from the liberal and moderate sides of the political spectrum began sniping at the Society. Hostile publicity extended from the pages of Time and Newsweek to Walt Kelly’s newspaper comic strip Pogo, which saw two of the animal residents of Okeefenokee Swamp form the Jack Acid Society and blacklist the others. Far more troubling was criticism from the right. Senator Barry Goldwater called Welch “far removed from reality and common sense,” while the conservative magazine National Review accused Welch of “damaging the cause of anti-Communism” (cited in Goldberg 2001, p. 44).

In response to the assault, Welch and the Society moved even further to the right. The unwillingness of American conservatives to embrace the Society’s viewpoint proved, at least to Welch, that the conspiracy went far beyond communism and other left-wing movements. In the early 1960s Welch encountered the writings of Augustin de Barruel and John Robison, the fathers of modern conspiracy theory, and became convinced that capitalist and communist systems alike were puppets in the hands of a sinister conspiracy of “Insiders” pursuing an agenda of world domination. These writers led him to Nesta Webster, the doyenne of early twentieth-century conspiracy theorists, who argued that a single Communist–Satanist–Jewish conspiracy headed by the Bavarian Illuminati was responsible for all the world’s ills. See Bavarian Illuminati.

In 1964 Welch began reorienting the John Birch Society to face this larger threat. Close to a third of the membership left, but Welch was simply ahead of his time. He had embraced the distinctive theme of late twentieth-century conspiracy theory, the belief in a single global conspiracy that controls the world in secret. In 1972 he gave this theme its classic name by labeling the conspiracy’s goal a “New World Order.” See New World Order.

The 1970s saw the Society’s analysis gain focus, as the Insiders were revealed as the members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a New York think-tank founded in the 1920s and supported by Rockefeller money. The CFR’s international offshoot, the Trilateral Commission, soon joined it on the list of Insiders, and over the next two decades the cast expanded to include the Bilderberg Group, an annual meeting of influential politicians and businessmen in Holland; the New Age movement; and the Rockefeller, Rothschild, Baruch, Morgan, Schiff, and Warburg banking families. See Bilderberg Group; Council on Foreign Relations (CFR); New Age movement; Trilateral Commission.

During the 1980s this vision of universal conspiracy found supporters at both ends of the political spectrum and became the most common form of conspiracy theory in America. These same years posed a serious challenge to the Society, however. Its founder suffered a crippling stroke in 1984 and died a year later, and his heir apparent, Georgia congressman Larry McDonald, was among those killed when Soviet fighters shot down a Korean airliner in October 1984. A financial crisis in 1986 nearly shut down the Society. The Reagan administration proved adept at co-opting criticism from the right, using the language of extremists while pursuing a middle-of-the-road course. The Society also came under attack from the extreme end of the Christian right because several important Society figures were Freemasons, and the Society refused to add Masonry to its enemies’ list. Some modern conspiracy literature refers to the alleged inner core of Freemasons in the John Birch Society as the “Belmont Brotherhood,” after the Society’s headquarters in Belmont, Massachusetts. See Antimasonry.

The Society survived these difficulties, but has never regained its mid-1960s size and influence. It remains a small but vocal presence on the extreme right, while the ideas it launched into popular culture have become central elements of the worldviews of tens of millions of Americans.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006