Bill Buckley, Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society

Bill Buckley, Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society

Shortly before his death, the inestimable William F. Buckley penned one last note about the John Birch Society (JBS).

The article, Goldwater, the John Birch Society, and Me, recalls events in the early 1960’s which preceded Barry’s campaign for the Presidency.

Buckley had become concerned about the growing menace posed by Robert Welch and the John Birch Society.

The JBS was a powerful group of conspiracy theorists who believed, among other things, that President Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy” against the United States.

The JBS was slowly poising the growing conservative movement in the United States and threatening to turn it towards populism, racism, and ridiculous witch hunting in the search for imaginary conspirators.

Buckley finally denounced the society in the National Review:

How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points . . . so far removed from common sense? That dilemma weighs on conservatives across America. . . . The underlying problem is whether conservatives can continue to acquiesce quietly in a rendition of the causes of the decline of the Republic and the entire Western world which is false, and, besides that, crucially different in practical emphasis from their own.


Goldwater risked his political career by responding supportively in the next issue of the same magazine:

I think you have clearly stated the problem which Mr. Welch’s continued leadership of the John Birch Society poses for sincere conservatives. . . . Mr. Welch is only one man, and I do not believe his views, far removed from reality and common sense as they are, represent the feelings of most members of the John Birch Society. . . . Because of this, I believe the best thing Mr. Welch could do to serve the cause of anti-Communism in the United States would be to resign. . . . We cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner.


This story is as important now as it was forty years ago. The wounds which Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater gave the John Birch Society turned out to be far from fatal. After decades in remission, the Bircher problem is once again growing in the conservative movement. Americans deeply in search of meaning and understanding in their political lives have become vulnerable to bizarre conspiracy theories which claim to provide answers to every possible political question.

The only real answer to this threat is education. Education is an effective immunization against the kind of bad thinking which leads people to believe in irrational conspiracy theories.

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