In outward appearance, the John Birch Society’s West Coast office on Mission Street isn’t much different from the chiropractic clinic next door or the legal and financial offices down the street. Except, that is, for a large world map in the window that shows the battle lines in the Cold War.
There are three categories of nations in the Birch view of the communist advance: those under communist control, those still free of communist domination and those in which the communist influence has reached 65% or more, a group that on the map includes Sweden, Spain, Mexico and large chunks of Africa and South America.
Conditions may have changed since the map was drawn in 1984, said Jim Toft, who manages the San Marino office, but the anti-communists’ position has not improved. These days, he complained, “it’s chic to be pro-Soviet. We’re being lulled to sleep by glasnost .”
Indeed, it is the John Birch Society that is in strategic retreat, planning to close its headquarters in Belmont, Mass., and its West Coast office in San Marino this summer and consolidate operations in a new office in Appleton, Wis.
John McManus, national public relations director, said the national and regional staff of 50 will be trimmed to 30. Only three of the eight employees in San Marino will be moving to Wisconsin.
Not many people come by the San Marino office these days, although dealing with the public has never been a vital function. A regional office was established here 25 years ago because office space was available from a member. The office has been moved twice, both times to buildings owned by members.
Most of the work involves serving chapters in 13 Western states, maintaining membership rolls and research files, and filling requests for society publications. A bookstore is maintained in front, Toft said, for the convenience of local members, although the curious occasionally wander in.
Char Gonzalez, a black woman who sits at the receptionist desk, said people are sometimes shocked to see her there because they are under the mistaken impression that the John Birch Society is racist.
“Back in the ‘60s, a lot of articles printed (about the society) in the newspapers were unfavorable,” she said. “I think it was probably a communist sympathizer doing all the printing . . . they must have paid an awful lot of money to have this (bad publicity) in the papers.”
Books and pamphlets defending Sen. Joseph McCarthy are on display in the bookstore that occupies the outer lobby. Visitors can also find everything from McGuffey’s Readers to books on homosexual influences on society. The political books range from the Federalist Papers to “Teddy Bare,” subtitled “The Real Story of Chappaquiddick.”
Toft said a number of society members have expressed interest in maintaining a bookstore after the San Marino office is closed. Otherwise, he said, members would have to travel to the group’s bookstores in Downey or North Hollywood.
Although the closing of the office will be a loss to local members, Toft said, the move will improve the organization. “It’s the old business axiom of reducing the overhead and putting it into the product,” he said.
McManus said the Reagan years were tough on the John Birch Society. Although membership increased last year, he said, it declined during most of the Administration of President Reagan, apparently because some people felt that a strong conservative in the White House made the work of the John Birch Society less important. McManus said the society tried to tell its members that Reagan’s “rhetoric would not be matched by his deeds,” but it took a while for people to see that.
McManus said the society does not disclose membership figures, but he said the total is in “the tens of thousands.” He emphasized that the John Birch Society is not cutting its services to members or reducing its staff of about 40 field workers, who organize volunteers and serve chapters across the nation.
“We envision that when all the dust settles and we get things humming in Appleton, we will have a more efficient organization and there will be additional programs and additional field staff,” said Toft, who is moving to Wisconsin. “And with field staff comes new membership.”
McManus said the society is moving to Appleton because it wants to be near the middle of the country and as a convenience to its new chief executive officer, G. Allen Bubolz, who runs five insurance, investment and real estate companies in Appleton.
Although the Birch Society has a large following in Southern California, Toft said the group is strongest in rural states such as Idaho. “There’s a theory,” he said, “that out in a small town, there’s not a lot of things to do, so why not go to a Birch meeting?”
It is more difficult, he said, to get and hold attention in urban areas. “We run into people all the time who say, ‘I didn’t know you were still around,’ ” Toft said.
Founded in 1958
The John Birch Society was founded by retired businessman Robert Welch in 1958 to combat communism. It was named after Army Capt. John Birch, who was killed in 1945 by Chinese Communists and is considered by the society to be the first hero of the Cold War. The society called for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren and for U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations, and it claimed that communist influence was at work at the top levels of government.
Thomas G. Gow, who is moving from California to become chief administrative officer at the new headquarters in Wisconsin, said the conviction that a high-level conspiracy exists separates the Birch Society from other groups.
“Our discussion that things are not just happening by chance but are manipulated by people who have planned them certainly separates us from some of the other conservatives,” Gow said. “The idea of a conspiracy is not an article of faith with us but a conviction based on a lot of research and evidence.”
More than 30 years after the death of McCarthy and long after McCarthyism has entered dictionaries as a term for indiscriminate, unfounded accusations, the Birch Society continues to label him a hero and to defend his work.
Toft said McCarthy was stopped because “he was digging, and he was right on the verge of unearthing some elements of the conspiracy. It got to the point where he represented a major threat.”
Toft said the move to Appleton could generate fresh interest in the society. Already, he said, he has heard stories that opponents are claiming that society members are moving to Appleton so they can hold seances on the grave of McCarthy, who is buried there.
McManus said it is ironic that the John Birch Society had its largest membership back in the 1960s, when it was under the strongest attack. He said that since the mid-1960s, the society has “had no real national attention,” apart from a few news stories when its chairman was killed in the Soviet downing of a Korean airliner in 1983 and when its founder died in 1985. McManus said that it is almost as if someone decided more than 20 years ago that the best way to hurt the John Birch Society would be to ignore it.