Robert Welch, the candy manufacturer who founded the ultraconservative John Birch Society, has died in a Massachusetts nursing home of the effects of a stroke he suffered more than a year ago, a spokesman for the group said Monday. Welch was 85.
Welch, whose death in Winchester, Mass., Sunday was announced by the society headquarters in nearby Belmont, stepped down as chairman in October, 1983, and suffered the stroke two months later. By then his once-controversial group had faded into near political obscurity.
Although the society says about 50,000 members still gather in small, monthly living-room meetings across the nation, its existence in the nation’s political consciousness has been at a far lower level in the last several years than it was in its glory days of the early 1960s.
At its peak, Welch’s group never claimed more than 120,000 members, but its notoriety, if not its political influence, was out of proportion to its numbers--thanks mainly to the teachings and proclamations of founder and chairman Welch.
It was Welch who promised to cut communists and “comsymps” (sympathizers) from the fabric of American society. It was Welch who called then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower “a dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.” It was Welch who inspired those “Impeach Earl Warren” and “Get the U.S. Out of the United Nations” billboards that dominated the highways of America in the 1960s as the Burma Shave signs had in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Although Belmont was the society’s headquarters, Southern California was its sort of unofficial capital. With a regional command post in San Marino, Birchism spread through the region, its intense, almost exclusively white, upper-middle class Americans carrying the society’s conservative banner.
Although then-California Atty. Gen. (and future Supreme Court justice) Stanley Mosk reportedly wrote off the typical Birch Society member as “a little old lady in tennis shoes,” the society was in its day one of the most controversial political organizations in recent American history.
On top of it all was Welch.
Robert Henry Winborne Welch Jr. was born Dec. 1, 1899, in Chowan, N.C., the son of a prosperous farmer. Bright, if not particularly well-educated in rural schools, young Welch went off to the University of North Carolina, where, as he said decades later, “I was probably the most insufferable little squirt that ever tried to associate with his elders.”
Raised as a fundamentalist Baptist, Welch conducted Bible class in the dorms. After he graduated, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis for two years.
He dropped out of the academy, returning to North Carolina to do a weekly summary of the news in verse for a Raleigh newspaper. That didn’t last long, and Welch went off to Harvard Law School, where, already firm in his conservatism, he clashed repeatedly with soon-to-be U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, then a professor of labor law, over Marxist theories of labor.
Welch left Harvard in 1921 to go into business on his own and settled on candy manufacturing because it appeared to be “one field in which it seemed least impossible to get a start without either capital or experience.”
Welch purchased a fudge recipe from a candy store owner and opened shop in a Cambridge loft, doing business as the Oxford Candy Co. Welch’s products, a hard caramel lollipop called “Sugar Daddy” and a chocolate bar named “Tar Baby,” were soon being distributed by wholesalers all over the Northeast, but the 1929 Wall Street crash did in his prosperous undertaking.
Welch, a talented salesmen, went to work for his brother’s candy firm, the James O. Welch Co., and as an executive of that firm, he boosted sales from around $200,000 in 1935 to $20 million by 1956. During World War II, Robert Welch served on the wartime Office of Price Administration’s advisory committee on candy and on the War Production Board. By the mid-1950s, he was a multimillionaire.
His prosperity allowed Welch time for travel, writing and the development of his increasingly right-wing political philosophy. He spent time in England in the late 1940s and was shocked by postwar socialism there.
“It’s state socialism, pure and unadorned,” Welch told gatherings of business and civic groups upon his return. “There is no reason on Earth why we should import, or let ourselves be infected by, such diseases . . . as socialism and communism and other ideological cancers.”
Increasingly active at a time when conservatism and anti-communism seemed to dominate American political thinking, Welch ran unsuccessfully for the lieutenant governorship of Massachusetts in 1950, then became an outspoken supporter of Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft’s unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
While McCarthyism dominated the political landscape, Welch, then relatively obscure, played the same theme in a lesser key. In his speeches and radio broadcasts for Taft, Welch spoke of the betrayal of China and Eastern Europe by the “Acheson clique,” a reference to Harry S. Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson. “That there are more communists and communist sympathizers in our government today than ever before seems to me almost a certainty,” he said. “That some of them are men of great standing, in high places . . . is at least a frightening possibility.”
In 1954, Welch wrote a 302-page memorandum for conservative friends, which was rewritten and privately published six years later as “The Politician.” In it, Welch attacked Eisenhower as an “agent of the communist conspiracy” and labeled as members of the communist underground the President’s brother, Milton Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles.
Parts of the book became the center of a public furor in 1961, and Welch was denounced in the press and in Congress for his comments. He clarified his position somewhat by saying, “They were being used by the communists. I never said they were communists and I don’t say it now.”
Earlier, Welch had started his own magazine, “One Man’s Opinion,” which he renamed in 1958 “American Opinion.” It welcomed political articles from writers who were members of the “Americanist rather than the communist camp.”
Before that, Welch had written a booklet on the life of John Birch, an American Army intelligence officer who was killed by Chinese Communists a week after the end of World War II. Welch had seized on the obscure soldier as a sort of figurehead.
“With his death and in his death,” Welch wrote, “the battle lines were drawn in a struggle from which either communism or Christian-style civilization must emerge with one completely triumphant and the other completely destroyed.”
On Dec. 9, 1958, in Indianapolis, Welch founded the John Birch Society. In a speech to 11 invited guests, later published as “The Blue Book of the John Birch Society,” Welch called for the establishment of “Americanist” book stores and reading rooms, the creation of a conservative speakers’ bureau and the encouragement of such conservative broadcasters as Fulton Lewis Jr. and Clarence Manion.
He said the society should put its “weight onto the political scales” quickly, advising his listeners, “You have only a few more years. The danger is almost entirely internal from communist influences right in our midst and treason right in our government.” He urged Americans to resist the communist conspiracy “by themselves becoming conspirators against established government.”
Welch said the society would be “monolithic” with him at the top because “democracy is merely a deceptive phrase, a weapon of demagoguery and a perennial fraud.”
The John Birch Society began its work with a public campaign opposing an upcoming summit meeting between Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, then went on to oppose the civil rights movement, federal aid to education, collective bargaining, foreign aid, income taxes, the Social Security system and cultural exchange with communist countries.
Liberals like Hubert H. Humphrey attacked Welch for what they called his “red smears,” but the society in the mid-1960s reached its high-water mark with a membership of more than 100,000 at the time of conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful race against President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Goldwater and other established conservatives grew tired of Welch and the doctrinaire Birchers, who, some conservative activists claimed, spoke only to themselves and could not organize others. Goldwater suggested that Welch step down and conservative columnist Russell Kirk issued this reply to one of Welch’s wilder charges: “Eisenhower isn’t a communist; he is a golfer.”
By the late 1960s, some members of the society were openly unhappy with Welch’s autocratic rule. By then, Welch had come to believe that the communist conspiracy was merely a front for an “inner circle that has been running the show” in Washington and Moscow. He said these “insiders” were members of a 200-year-old Bavarian sect of Masons called the Illuminati.
Despite that, the society remained strong well into the 1970s, claiming a membership of 80,000 with a full-time staff of 110 and an annual budget of $8 million. By the early 1980s, society officials were revising their membership numbers down to about 40,000 nationally in 3,500 chapters, although the society still published two magazines, kept a dozen speakers on nationwide tours and operated 11 summer camps where about 1,000 children yearly learned the key tenets of “Americanism” combined with “wholesome horseplay.”
For the most part, though, the society in Welch’s later years was slowly sinking into obscurity. “It looked like they had mass appeal at one time,” said Stanford sociologist and political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, “but it was more journalistic attention than anything they were doing.”
“They’re out of date, an anachronism,” said David Lehrer, Western states counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, a group that had kept close track of the society over the years. A spokesman for the society once insisted that Welch, who seldom spoke to the press directly, had set up his organization to “live a hundred years.”
Welch wrote in his “Blue Book,” “It is my fervent hope that the John Birch Society will last for hundreds of years and exert an increasing influence for the temporal good and spiritual ennoblement of mankind throughout those centuries.”
His last public appearance was at the society’s 25th anniversary celebration in Indianapolis in 1983. Welch is survived by his wife, Marian, sons Hillard Welch and Robert Welch III, and six grandchildren. Funeral services will be held in Belmont.