Shortly after the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States in January, 1961, the American press began to headline stories about an organization that few people had heard of before, even though it was more than two years old--the John Birch Society. Ostensibly dedicated to the ideal of "more responsibility and less government," the society seemed worthy of headlines partly because of its semi-secret nature and its monolithic structure (with all decisions being made by one man at the top), but especially because of the political views of its founder, leader and chief spokesman, Robert Welch, a retired candy manufacturer from Belmont, Massachusetts. Welch maintained that Kennedy's predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was a conscious, dedicated agent of the "Communist conspiracy" who had spent eight years in the White House leading the United States down the path to communism--it was this statement more than any other that made the John Birch Society as newsworthy as it was.
From the first, many people did not know what to make of Welch and the John Birch Society. While the American population has shared a kind of generalized anti-communism in recent years, few citizens were ready to believe, with Welch, that Eisenhower and his chief appointees, such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, were agents of the Kremlin, or that Presidents Truman and Roosevelt had willingly worked toward a communist takeover of the country, or that "democracy is a . . . perennial fraud." Few, also, were willing to agree that Earl Warren and the Supreme Court posed a greater threat to America than the armed forces of the Soviet Union, and almost nobody countenanced the John Birch Society tactics for combating communism, which Welch himself said were "mean and dirty." These tactics included copying the methods of the communists, organizing small cells of hard-core believers, setting up "front organizations" to dupe people into fellow-traveling with the John Birch Society, and harassing opponents in a wide variety of ways. At the beginning, most people tended to lump the John Birch Society together with the tiny "lunatic fringe" element in American politics.
When newspapers, magazines and government officials began to expose and denounce the John Birch Society in 1961, large numbers of letters to editors and Congressmen showed that, rather than being supported only by a handful of fanatics, Welch had many backers. Some of them deplored his charges about Eisenhower, but all were concerned over what they saw as the increasing . . .