Conspiracy Theories

What to Do When Paranoid Conspiracists Are the Main Backers of the Most Libertarian GOP Presidential Contender?


If the year is 1962, and you are William F. Buckley, you tell the John Birch Society to take a long walk off a short pier. In the March 2008 issue of Commentary, Buckley takes us down memory lane to a fateful Palm Beach meeting where he, Barry Goldwater, Russell Kirk, and Jay Hall conspired to croak the Birchers:

The society had been founded in 1958 by an earnest and capable entrepreneur named Robert Welch, a candy man, who brought together little clusters of American conservatives, most of them businessmen. He demanded two undistracted days in exchange for his willingness to give his seminar on the Communist menace to the United States, which he believed was more thoroughgoing and far-reaching than anyone else in America could have conceived. His influence was near-hypnotic, and his ideas wild. He said Dwight D. Eisenhower was a "dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy," and that the government of the United States was "under operational control of the Communist party." It was, he said in the summer of 1961, "50-70 percent" Communist-controlled. […]

The society became a national cause célèbre-so much so, that a few of those anxious to universalize a draft-Goldwater movement aiming at a nomination for President in 1964 thought it best to do a little conspiratorial organizing of their own against it.

Whole thing here; link via The Corner. No, I'm not related.

Marginalizing the Birchers turned out to be a crucial turning point in the life of another right-wing media outlet, a little broadsheet we like to call the Los Angeles Times. Yes, it's hard to believe now, but the West Coast's largest newspaper was for eight decades a Republican kingmaker, champion of "True Industrial Freedom," and a bit of a rag (though former reasoner Tim Cavanaugh has been waging a sporadically effective "one-man jihad to rehabilitate the reputation of the pre-Otis-Chandler Los Angeles Times").

When Golden Boy and fourth-generation publisher Otis Chandler took over the paper in 1960, he consciously yanked the paper in the general direction of the New York Times, both in quality and politics. A critical moment in both of those processes was when he commissioned a five-part series in 1961 investigating the John Birch Society (which his own aunt and uncle were prominent members of). The official creation myth:

After the series was published, Otis asked for an editorial criticizing the Birchers. When [Editor Nick] Williams showed him the piece, the publisher said it wasn't tough enough. Williams wrote a new one, warning that the Birchers' extremism and smear tactics were subversive acts that could "sow distrust and weaken the very strong case for conservatism." Chandler signed it—and published it on Page 1.

The series and editorial landed like a bombshell. More than 15,000 readers canceled their subscriptions, and Chandler's breach with some members of his family was widened still further. Philip Chandler resigned from the Times Mirror board seven months later.

But the series also served notice that The Times was in the process of becoming a different—and much better—newspaper.

For what it's worth, the Birchers claimed that their problem was with the editorial, not the series itself.

I've always found it interesting that that three of the most oft-cited Otis Chandler acts to improve the journalistic quality of the L.A. Times were expressly political—the Birch takeout, the hiring of lefty editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad, and the hiring of lefty journalist Robert Scheer

NEXT: Friday Funnies

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  1. It is difficult to imagine a time when hiring Robert Scheer would have been a way to improve a newspaper, but I suppose it is possible.

  2. In a democracy all voters are equal. Some are just a lot more equal than others. The rest we marginalize with name-calling, secret back-room deals, and control of the press.

  3. ya the birchers are crazy, they said america had a bunch of communist taking it over. However, I was looking at the the 10 planks of marxism set out in the communist manifesto and now that we have the benefit of being educated so well the last 50 years….the 10 ideas set up in the communist manifesto are all pretty good ideas actually.

    1) Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

    property taxes, wetlands legislation and we should confiscate property in cases where people are suspected of drug or IRS violations.

    2) A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

    3) Abolition of all right of inheritance.

    even Warren Buffet is for this, it must be a pretty good idea.

    4) Confiscation of the property of emigrants and rebels.

    5) Centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

    Only a moron would be a against the federal Reserve Bank.

    6) Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.

    7) Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State, the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

    8) Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

    9) Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of population over the country.

    10) Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc. etc.

    so sure we have implemented a lot of this stuff over the last 70 years and Mandell House(founder of the Council on Foreign Relations and President Wilson’s right hand man) wrote a book about how he’d like to see a socialist takeover of america …

    but we onkly implemented all those dieas because they were so good…it had nothing to do with any actual effort on teh part of any organizaed groups…billionaires were mostly just randomly giving money away to a hodgepdoge of charities, billionaires are really dumb and don’t think much about what happens to their money anyway.

  4. So yes WFB was a great 90% libertarian man. I don’t really liek him much for his populist crap about how big governemnt is bad and taxes are unfair….I really love him for getting rid of all those racist conspiracy guys so we could get on with expanding the governments budget and the good social programs and defending the really good foreign policy ideas like putting in “the shah” supporting the house of saud and making sure humanitarians like Mugabe and other great marxist kept the continent of Africa out of our way.

    And only a conspiracy nut thinks the CIA traffics drugs, it is such a racist idea and there is just no evidence

  5. I think all of serious intellectuals should all sign a pledge. We cannot tolerate conspiracy theories, they must be eliminated. So in the future if any paranoid conspiracy theorist start to spread too many of their lies, we need to all come together and conspire against them to try to make sure people do not listen to their lies.

    We have got to let these folks know that conspiracies do not exist.

  6. It is difficult to imagine a time when hiring Robert Scheer would have been a way to improve a newspaper, but I suppose it is possible.

    With the caveat that Scheer is a longtime friend of mine who I have great affection for (true!), his long-form journalism, which is what he did for the first 15 years at the LAT, was vastly superior to the opinion-slinging you might be more familiar with.

    I think all of serious intellectuals should all sign a pledge. We cannot tolerate conspiracy theories, they must be eliminated.

    I cannot sign any such thing, at the risk of self-elimination.

  7. I’m not quite old enough to remember an LA Times that was ever anything except slightly to the left of Lenin and Lennon. That’s a bit glib, yes. The Times wasn’t really a commie rag but it definitely listed to the starboard at every important occasion.

    Happily, the paper has improved it’s outlook in the last decade, in part, by hiring the likes of Welch and Cavanaugh and running Op-ed pieces by Reason’s former editor Virginia. Not to mention a few pieces by someone near and dear to my heart.

  8. I’m not a sailor, BUT — isn’t port to the left and starboard to the right?

  9. I was facing the back, er, ah, the stern of the tub. 🙂

    Listing to the PORT side, dam it.

  10. Listing to the PORT side, dam it.


  11. I’m not a sailor…

    Apparently TWC isn’t either.

  12. The Birchers are still around. Last weekend at the California GOP convention, a bunch of them were standing around outside handing out NAU DVDs and copies of the New American. I was wearing a Ron Paul button, and they acted like I was a traitor for not wanting anything to do with them.

    In the middle days of the Birchers (1980s) they had a decent ideology, that was essentially libertarian. But underneath it all was their constant conspiracy mongering. It started with the communists, but quickly expanded to encompass every rightwing conspiracy theory out there. Their world view tells them that all evil in the world is due to a master shadow conspiracy of Insiders. Today a Bircher is nothing more than a 9/11 Truther who happens to know who Robert Welch was.

    If not for their conspiracism, the JBS could have been a great force for good. But alas, they thought that validating their paranoid delusions was a more important goal than promoting liberty and limited government.

  13. If you don’t know anything about the John Birch Society then this crossfire episode in 1983 is a pretty interesting introduction. The JBS guy died shortly after the interview.

  14. Buckley & Goldwater denouncing the excesses of Robert Welch was an important step in creating a modern conservative movement that would be reasonable, responsible and respectible.

    Today the “mainstream” conservatives have given up on the limited government views of Buckley and Goldwater. Other than libertarians, Birchers are the only conservatives who still hold to the limited government viewpoint.

    In recent years, the John Birch Society has devoted some effort to debunking conspiracy theories, including “black helicopters” and the 9/11 Truth Movement. But many people who join read other litte publications and hold to these conspiracy views which are not officially sanctioned by the JBS.

  15. So Matt,

    When will you run the stingy expose on Alex Jones, and get him to STFU ? I’d imagine it shouldn’t be that hard to out him as a profiteer that doesn’t really believe half the stuf he says. Then maybe Ron Paul will have a chance.

  16. The Bircher have never been libertarian but conservatives supporting the war on drugs, inequality in marriage laws, censorship, etc. They are social conservatives.

    When Goldwater, et al., chucked the Birchers out of conservative circles the Society wasn’t as insane as it became later. Welch was harping about the Communist conspiracy and Eisenhower being a plant by the commies but he got worse. He later adopted the secret Illuminati conspiracy theory and how these centuries old secret society was running the world. The Birchers now adopt that line and have been the main purveyors of that wacko theory. That they reject other wacko theories doesn’t mean they are sane — just that they are insane on other issues.

  17. To all Ron Paul spporters:

    When the voting started, Dr. Paul’s already limited media exposure turned off like a light switch. Do you really think that is just an oversight?

    The conspiracy is real. Check out

    And do look at the Larry McDonald video mentioned above, also available on

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