In this biographical account of the fascinating life of Robert H. W. Welch, the founder of the infamous John Birch Society (JBS), political historian Edward H. Miller addresses the rise of the far right and conspiracy theories in the United States. Miller is a professor and political historian at Northwestern University and his first book, Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), explored conservative politics from a business perspective, making him well positioned to explore the life of the candy magnate and conspiracist Welch. The biography draws on Welch’s personal papers for the first time and is intended to demonstrate his importance to the broader conservative movement. To do so, the monograph is divided into twenty-seven chapters which each deal with couple of years in Welch’s life. Together, these chapters aim to show Welch’s influence in political events.
A Conspiratorial Life argues that ‘Welch’s commitment to conspiracy theory made him easy to dismiss’, but that ‘Welch’s story needs to be told because historians got the conservative movement all wrong’[i] Miller successfully demonstrates that, contrary to popular discourse, Welch was never expelled from the conservative movement in the mid-1960s but rather remained an important figure in it. Moreover, Welch’s penchant for conspiracy theories helps us to better understand the rise of far-right conservatism in this century. Consequently, the monograph fits into a wide literature concerning post-war conservatism. Unlike standard accounts of conservatism such as George H. Nash’s landmark The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1976), Miller responds to calls to better understand the ideas of the radical right which in the wake of January 6 Capitol attack is ever-more pressing.[ii]
Miller follows Welch’s life chronologically and provides a gripping account. The first third of the book is primarily biographical in nature: here we learn about Welch’s early academic excellence; sibling rivalries; his failed sweet manufacturing business; and move to work for his brother’s more profitable enterprise.[iii] Although primarily a biography, given Welch’s long life across most of the twentieth century and Miller’s excellent historical contextualisation, the analysis also serves as a broader political history. Moreover, the argument and content matter mean that despite covering the well-trodden ground of post-war conservatism we are offered a fresh perspective into these events. The exploration of Welch’s dislike for Eisenhower and controversial charges against him offer a new insight on the demise of McCarthy and the Army-McCarthy hearings.[iv] Meanwhile, in another example, Miller de-centres the traditional narrative of Phyliss Schlafly as the architect of the stop-ERA campaign to show how the JBS also mobilised against the Equal Rights Amendment.[v]
Furthermore, Miller recognises that Welch was not necessarily a typical intellectual, but provides detailed discussion of Welch’s prolific writings and their circulation. We learn how Welch’s 1954 letter to Howard Pew denouncing Eisenhower as a communist was turned into The Politician by 1963, and also discover how in 1956 Welch began One Man’s Opinion which was transformed into the principal organ of the JBS.[vi]
Welch’s connections to the conservative movement are also explored in great detail. This is particularly effective in demonstrating how William Buckley and those associated with National Review were unsuccessful in limiting Welch’s influence. Miller shows how in 1964 the presidential candidate Barry Goldwater actually drew closer to Welch and the JBS despite Buckley’s attempts to prevent this.[vii] Meanwhile, details on the JBS’ publishing enterprises, summer camps and grassroots organisations which supported the police, or opposed the American labour leader Caesar Chavez are also provided.[viii] What is more, there is ample evidence, despite Welch’s poor financial management, of his connections to important right-wing donors.[ix]
The final chapter concludes with the words, ‘[Welch’s] influence on American conservatism cannot begin to be measured. Robert H. W. Welch will continue to influence American politics deep into the twenty-first century’.[x] Miller convinces the reader of Welch’s importance in the twentieth century; however it less clear how following his death in 1985 his ideas lived on into the twenty-first century. The epilogue does outline some of the ways in which twenty-first century America has transformed into a ‘Welchland,’ but it would have been interesting to learn more about how the JBS developed after Welch’s death and trace the circulation of his ideas more directly. [xi] Given that this is a biography of Welch and not a history of the JBS such an omission is understandable though.
Overall, Miller makes two vital contributions to the field of post-war American conservatism. He demonstrates the merit of using biography to explore the origins and circulation of ideas and shows the need to take fringe elements of the right more seriously. Consequently, A Conspiratorial Life is essential reading for those seeking to enrich their knowledge of American conservatism and the traction of conspiracy theories contemporary political life in the United States and, indeed, beyond.
[i] Edward H. Miller. A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism (Chicago: University of Chicago, Press, 2021), 8-9.
[iii] Miller, 32-60.
[iv] Ibid., 135-147.
[v] Ibid., 350.
[vi] Ibid., 160-177.
[vii] Ibid., 291-292.
[viii] Ibid., 318-326.
[ix] Ibid., 333-343.
[x] Ibid., 369.
[xi] Ibid., 376-382.