William F. Buckley Conspired to Expose the John Birch Society

Mick West

Staff member
An interesting bit of conspiracy theory history comes from William F. Buckley's account of a 1962 series of meetings with Barry Goldwater and his advisors. The problem was raised that the conspiracy-minded John Birch Society, and its leader Robert Welch were discrediting and corrupting the conservative movement with the "mischievous unreality" of the theory that President Eisenhower was a secret communist agent — as well as several other more outlandish theories.

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It was [Russell Kirk's] opinion, he said emphatically, that Robert Welch was a man disconnected from reality. How could anyone reason, as Welch had done in The Politician, that President Eisenhower had been a secret agent of the Communists? This mischievous unreality was a great weight on the back of responsible conservative political thinking. The John Birch Society should be renounced by Goldwater and by everyone else—Kirk turned his eyes on me—with any influence on the conservative movement.

But that, Goldwater said, is the problem. Consider this, he exaggerated: “Every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society. Russell, I’m not talking about Commie-haunted apple pickers or cactus drunks, I’m talking about the highest cast of men of affairs.
There then followed an ordinary "conspiracy" of sorts where powerful men decided in secret upon a course of action:
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Time was given to the John Birch Society lasting through lunch, and the subject came up again the next morning. We resolved that conservative leaders should do something about the John Birch Society. An allocation of responsibilities crystallized.

Goldwater would seek out an opportunity to dissociate himself from the “findings” of the Society’s leader, without, however, casting any aspersions on the Society itself. I, in National Review and in my other writing, would continue to expose Welch and his thinking to scorn and derision.
Buckley was asked to define the "operative fallacy" of the Birch movement, and his answer hits upon one of the fundamental underpinnings of all conspiracist movements:
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“The fallacy is the assumption that you can infer subjective intention from objective consequence: we lost China to the Communists, therefore the President of the United States and the Secretary of State wished China to go to the Communists.”
If something happened (the fallacy goes) then someone must have made it happen. With a more modern conspiracy; if the consequences of the 9/11 attacks were war with Iraq, then the intent must have been war with Iraq.

The anti-Birch "conspiracy" continued:
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What would Russell Kirk do? He was straightforward. “Me? I’ll just say, if anybody gets around to asking me, that the guy is loony and should be put away.”

“Put away in Alaska?” I asked, mock-seriously. The wisecrack traced to Robert Welch’s expressed conviction, a year or so earlier, that the state of Alaska was being prepared to house anyone who doubted his doctrine that fluoridated water was a Communist-backed plot to weaken the minds of the American public.
Again, note that was in 1962, the year before the JFK assassination.

This has similarities to the CIA's 1967 concerns about JFK conspiracy theories, and Cass Sunstein's paper "Conspiracy Theories". In all cases there's a genuine concern about false conspiracy theories causing harm (either to the nation, or to the interests of the group), and so there's discussion of how best to address this problem.

Of course this creates problems itself, something we deal with here. If you actually believe in a conspiracy theory then when you hear that other people are discussing how best to discredit that theory then it's irrelevant that their intentions are good and the "discrediting" is simply exposing the facts. The conspiracist just sees another conspiracy, rebuttals become evidence they are correct.

It is a complex problem with no simple solutions. But the more perspective we have the better, and I think these historical roots should shine light for both sides.
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