In small-town Wisconsin, looking for the roots of the modern American conspiracy theory

APPLETON, Wis. — The decades fall away when you open the front doors.

It’s the late 1950s in the cramped offices – or maybe the pre-hippie 1960s. It’s a place where military-style buzz cuts are still in vogue, communism remains the primary enemy, and the decor is dominated by American flags and portraits of once-famous Cold Warriors.

At the John Birch Society, they have been waging war against what they believe to be a vast, diabolical conspiracy for over 60 years. The way they tell it, it’s a conspiracy with tentacles reaching from 19th century railroad magnates to the Biden White House, from the Federal Reserve to COVID vaccines.

Long before QAnon, Pizzagate, and the modern crop of politicians who love to repeat apocalyptic talking points, there was Birch. And beyond these cramped small city offices is a national political landscape that the Society has helped shape.

“We have a bad reputation. You know, ‘You guys are crazy,’ says Wayne Morrow, vice president of the Society. It sits in the group’s warehouse, amid ten-foot shelves of Birch literature, awaiting distribution.

“But all the things we wrote about are coming true.”


As the Cold War loomed and television was still largely black and white, the John Birch Society mattered. There were dinners at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and meetings with powerful politicians. On each coast there was a headquarters, a chain of bookstores, hundreds of local chapters, radio shows, and summer camps for the members’ children.

Well-financed and well-organized, they sent out feverish warnings about a secret communist plot to take over America. It made them heroes to a large section of conservatives, even as they became punch lines for a generation of comedians.

“They created this alternative political tradition,” says Matthew Dallek, a historian at George Washington University and author of “Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right.” He says it spawned a right-wing culture that initially fell far outside mainstream Republican politics.

Conspiracy theories have a long history in the United States, dating back to at least the 1800s, when secret forces allegedly supported Thomas Jefferson’s presidential bid. It was a time when such conversations moved slowly, spreading through sermons, letters, and inn visits.

Not anymore. Fueled by social media and the rise of celebrity conspirators, more and more Americans have lost faith in everything from government institutions to journalism over the past two decades. And year after year, ideas that were once relegated to fringe newsletters, little-known websites and the occasional AM radio station found their way into the mainstream.

Today, bizarre conspiracy theories are being cited by more than a few U.S. Senators, and millions of Americans believe the COVID pandemic was orchestrated by powerful elites. Prominent cable news commentators speak gloomily of government agents taking citizens off the streets.

But the John Birch Society itself is largely forgotten, relegated to a few squats along a busy strip mall in small-town Wisconsin.

So why take note of it today? Because many of his ideas—from anger about a mysterious, powerful elite to the fear that America’s main enemy was hidden within the country and biding his time—had permeated parts of American culture over the past half century. Those who came later simply surpassed the Birchers. Dallek says, “Their successors were politically savvy and took Birch’s ideas and updated them for contemporary politics.”

The result is a new political terrain. What was once on the edges has worked its way into the heart of the discourse.

For some, the fringe has reached all the way to the White House. In the Society’s offices they will tell you that Donald Trump would never have been elected if they had not paved the way.

“Most of Trump’s campaign was Birch,” Art Thompson, a retired CEO of the Society who remains one of its most prominent voices, says proudly. “All he did was put it out there.”

There is some truth in that, even if Thompson overstates things.

The Society had called for decades for a populist president who would preach patriotism, oppose immigration, withdraw from international treaties and root out the forces that sought to undermine America. Trump may not have realized it, but when he warned of a “Deep State” — a supposed cabal of bureaucrats secretly controlling U.S. policy — he was repeating a long-standing Birch talking point.

Trump, a savvy reality TV star, capitalized on a conservative political landscape shaped by decades of right-wing talk shows, fear of America’s seismic cultural shifts and the explosive spread of disinformation online.

While the Birch Society echoes in that mix, it’s impossible to trace those echoes. It is difficult to draw clear historical lines in American politics. Was the Society a driving force or a minor player? In a country fragmented by social media and dozens of offshoot groups, there’s simply no way to be sure. What is certain is this:

“The conspiratorial fringe is now the conspiratorial mainstream,” says Paul Matzko, a historian and researcher at the libertarian-oriented Cato Institute. “Right-wing conspiracyism has simply outgrown the John Birch Society.”


Their beliefs skim the surface of truth, with facts, rumors and outright fantasy coming together in a complex mythology. “The Great Conspiracy” is what Birch Society founder Robert Welch called it in “The Blue Book,” the collection of his writings and speeches that are still treated as almost mystical writings in the corridors of the Society.

Welch, a wealthy candy company executive, founded the Society in the late 1950s and named it after an American missionary and U.S. Army intelligence officer who was murdered by communist Chinese forces in 1945. Welch considered Birch the first casualty of the Cold War. Communist agents, he said, were everywhere in America.

Welch rose to fame and infamy when he claimed that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the hero general of World War II, was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” Also under Kremlin control, Welch claimed: the Secretary of State, the head of the CIA, and Eisenhower’s younger brother Milton.

Subtlety has never been a strong birch tradition. Over the decades, the Birch conspiracy grew to include the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, public education, the United Nations, the civil rights movement, the Rockefeller Foundation, the space program, the COVID pandemic, the 2020 presidential election, and climate activism change. In short, things the Birchers don’t like.

The leaders of the conspiracy – “insiders” in the Society lexicon – range from railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt to former President George HW Bush and Bill Gates, whose advocacy for vaccines, they say, is part of a plan to control the world’s population . Although his main focus was always on communism, Welch eventually came to believe that the roots of the conspiracy went far back in history, to the Illuminati, an 18th-century Bavarian secret society.

In the 1980s the association was already in decline. Welch died in 1985 and the reins of the association passed to a series of successors. There were internal uprisings. Although its appeal has waned, it is still a force among some conservatives: The videos are popular in parts of right-wing America, and the offices include a state-of-the-art basement TV studio for Internet news reporting. Its members speak at right-wing conferences and occasionally work booths at a provincial fair.

Scholars say membership has become much smaller since the 1960s and early 1970s, when membership estimates ranged from 50,000 to 100,000. “Membership is something that has been closely monitored from day one,” said Bill Hahn, who became CEO in 2020. He will say only that the organization “remains a growing business.”

Today the Society considers itself almost conventional. Almost.

“We’ve been successful in attracting mainstream people,” said Steve Bonta, a top editor of the Society’s New American magazine. The group has toned down the rhetoric and is more cautious these days in throwing around conspiracy accusations. But the members still firmly believe in it.

“As Mr. Welch pointed out on day one, there is a conspiracy,” Hahn said. “It is no different today than it was in December 1958.”

That’s how it can feel. Ask about the purpose of the conspiracy and things veer into unexpected territory. The sharp rhetoric reappears and again the decades seem to disappear.

“They really want to cut back on the population of the Earth. That is their intention,” Thompson said.

But why?

“Well, that’s a good question, isn’t it?” he answers. “It doesn’t make sense. But that’s the way they think.”


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