A significant milestone in the history of American conservatism passed largely unnoticed last month: the fiftieth anniversary of William F. Buckley Jr.’s editorial attack on Robert Welch, the head of the John Birch Society. Buckley’s successful effort to read the conspiracy-minded anti-Communist organization out of the conservative movement deserves to be remembered by the Republican Party. Indeed, the fact that today’s GOP has paid the anniversary little heed is a telling indictment of a party gone seriously astray. Rather than honor Buckley’s example, the right-wingers currently controlling the party have made an unabashed habit of defying it.
Welch was a retired candy maker who created the Birch Society in 1958 to mobilize conservatives against what he saw as an imminent Communist takeover of the United States from within. Buckley himself had sounded similar alarms on behalf of red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, but believed that Welch crossed into paranoia with his assertion that America’s government leaders—including President Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, CIA Director Allen Dulles, and most members of the Supreme Court—were active Communist agents. Buckley was also distressed by other Birch claims: that Red Chinese armies were massing at the Mexican border to invade the U.S.; University of Chicago professors were plotting to deprive Americans of their rights to vote and hold property; and elite groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bildergbergers were seeking to merge the U.S. with the Soviet Union in a one-world socialist government. The Birch Society’s notion that those who doubted these theories thereby revealed themselves as Communist sympathizers struck Buckley as self-reinforcing lunacy.
Having spent the better part of a decade doing research in Buckley’s archives, I can attest that it was no easy matter for Buckley to take on Welch and his Society. Many of the financial backers and readers of Buckley’s National Review magazine admired Welch and his organization; Buckley’s own mother was a Bircher. His editorial colleagues warned that criticizing Welch risked splitting the conservative movement. Buckley’s position as movement leader would be jeopardized by the liberal plaudits that predictably would follow his editorial condemnation of the Birchers; as Buckley put it privately, “I wish to hell I could attack them without pleasing people I can’t stand to please.”
Nonetheless, in February 1962 National Review ran a six-page editorial against Welch, arguing that he was damaging the anti-Communist cause by “distorting reality” and failing to distinguish between an “active pro-Communist” and an “ineffectually anti-Communist liberal.” It would be several years before Buckley excommunicated all Birchers from the conservative movement, but his editorial emphasized that “There are bounds to the dictum, Anyone on the right is my ally.”
Buckley paid a price for his stand, as National Review endured torrents of angry letters and cancelled subscriptions, and the defection of some of its deep-pocketed donors. But in the long run, Buckley’s break with Welch saved conservatism. At the time Buckley wrote his editorial, the movement had been tainted by its associated with the Birch Society: In the spring of 1962, Buckley was considered such a fringe public figure that he was invited, in earnest, by Hunter College to speak in an “Out of the Mainstream” lecture series along with leaders of the Nation of Islam, the Communist Party, and the American Nazi Party. By separating conservatism from the Birchers, Buckley made his movement respectable and introduced it into the mainstream of American political life.
Buckley’s struggle against the Birchers has clearly acquired new relevance with the rise of the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party is not the modern-day counterpart of the Birch Society; it more resembles the broad and diffuse right-wing upheaval of the early 1960s of which the Birch movement was a part, and which culminated in the conservative seizure of the GOP presidential nomination for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Still, there are parallels between the two phenomena that ought to concern conservatives today.
Tea Partiers for the most part have policed their ranks to exclude overt racists and anti-Semites, but have trafficked in wild, Birch-flavored conspiracy theories, such as the claim that Christians are persecuted in America and that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Muslim socialist. Glenn Beck, while he was the Tea Party guru at Fox News, peddled the views of Welch and Birch fellow-traveler W. Cleon Skousen to an audience of millions. In order to pass muster with grassroots conservatives, Republican politicians increasingly find that they must subscribe to the belief that global warming is a hoax concocted by the international scientific community.
Buckley felt that outlandish stances discredited conservatism by making it seem “ridiculous and pathological,” as he wrote to a supporter who had criticized his editorial. They allowed the media to tar all conservatives as extremists, and turned off young people. He insisted that conservatism had to expand “by bringing into our ranks those people who are, at the moment, on our immediate left—the moderate, wishy-washy conservatives” who comprised the majority of the Republican Party. “If they think they are being asked to join a movement whose leadership believes the drivel of Robert Welch,” he warned, “they will pass by crackpot alley, and will not pause until they feel the embrace of those way over on the other side, the Liberals.” Buckley consistently maintained that conservatism was the “politics of reality.”
Needless to say, it is not a keen grasp of reality that distinguishes the politics of the Tea Party. The many Tea Partiers who fail to distinguish between liberalism and socialism are only repeating the errors of the Birchers, whom Buckley criticized for their “neurotic oversimplifications.” In his later years, Buckley believed that the Republican failures in Iraq stemmed from a similar tendency to engage in ideological wishful thinking instead of hard analysis. He also cautioned against the tendency of conservatives to transform the cautious insights of supply-side economics, for example, into theological certainties, and to move toward ever more narrow and rigid definitions of doctrinal acceptability. Fanaticism and obsession, he believed, ultimately represented a surrender of individual freedom. As the high priest of the conservative movement, Buckley had latitude to advance unorthodox proposals such as the legalization of marijuana without being condemned for apostasy, but he also sought similar indulgence for other conservative thinkers.
Above all, Buckley wanted conservatism to be a responsible and effective governing philosophy. He recognized that a movement that delegitimizes its opponents as Communists and traitors is doomed to be irresponsible and ineffective. He warned against conservative triumphalism and refusal to compromise. He had been mentored by Whittaker Chambers on the need to balance the ideal with the practical, and to strive for conservative advances that inevitably would fall short of utopia. To live, Buckley reminded conservatives, is to maneuver.
Of course, any attempt to analyze how Buckley would view conservatism today can only be speculative. I have to admit that when I used to visit Buckley at his home in Connecticut, conservative politics was the very last topic he wanted to talk about, and instead we usually ended up discussing pop music and the intricacies of Yale history. But he obviously was proud of the conservative movement and his role in its creation and eventual victories. I suspect that he would have seen the Tea Party as a heartening reminder of the movement’s inexhaustible potential for self-renewal. And if the wayward ideological enthusiasms of some Tea Party supporters gave fresh importance to the tale of how Buckley saved conservatism a half century ago by disassociating it from Birch extremism, well, so much the better.
Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.