The anti-communist climate that prevailed during the post-war period in the United States may be most vividly represented by the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee. A somewhat less familiar manifestation of Cold War uneasiness was the John Birch Society. The still-active conservative political advocacy group had its start in Indiana.
In December 1958, retired Massachusetts-based candy manufacturer Robert Welch, Jr. convened the group’s charter members in Indianapolis without informing them of his intentions. The group of twelve friends who met over two days at the home of Marguerite Dice included corporate tycoon Fred Koch, a former aide to General Douglas MacArthur, and a University of Illinois professor.
Named for a Baptist missionary and intelligence officer killed by Chinese Communists in 1945, the John Birch Society identified “collectivism” as the primary threat to the American way of life, as codified in the Constitution. As such, the group actively sought to oppose communism, socialism and totalitarianism. Although such an agenda was well in keeping with the post-war zeitgeist, it was in their adherence to conspiracy theory that the Birchers alienated themselves from most conservatives. The society opposed the Civil Rights Movement on the belief that it was part of a communist plot. Founder Welch went so far as to name President Dwight D. Eisenhower as an agent of the international communist movement.
National political influence by the John Birch Society reached its peak during Barry Goldwater’s ultimately unsuccessful bid for president in 1964. Longtime Indianapolis mayor William H. Hudnut recalled the group’s pervasiveness in the Circle City when he arrived in 1963. On the Bloomington campus of Indiana University, John Birch Society members captured headlines in early 1966 when they requested that the Indiana General Assembly investigate campus groups they termed “communist and pro communist.” The request spawned a free speech debate on campus, and ultimately led to the university’s suspension of the openly socialist W.E.B. DuBois Club.
Further evidence of the group’s presence in 1960s Indiana appears in the form of a cultural reference. The hero of Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five sports John Birch Society bumper stickers on his Cadillac.
For more information on the John Birch Society, go to http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ohq/105.2/toy.html