The John Birch Society’s heyday was during the Cold War, when it was considered so extremely right-wing that William F. Buckley, the dean of American conservatives, pronounced them “far removed from common sense.” Jane Mayer’s recent Dark Money, on the influence of billionaire libertarians David and Charles Koch, has renewed interest in the Society. Their father, Fred Koch, was one of its founding members.
But who was John Birch? It turns out he had nothing to do with the organization. His name was chosen by Robert W. Welch, Jr., a retired businessman who launched the Society in 1958, because he felt John Birch, the first American casualty of the Cold War, was an exemplary, staunch anti-Communist.
John Birch was born in India in 1918 to American missionary parents and was raised in New Jersey and Georgia. In 1940, he arrived in China on a World Baptist Fundamentalist Missionary Fellowship. After Pearl Harbor, he offered his language skills and local knowledge to U.S. military intelligence. In uniform, he was shot and killed during a confrontation with Communist Chinese forces in August of 1945.
Scholar James P. Walsh dug up the details of long-classified records and other documents to tell Birch’s story in the voices of witnesses who were there.
Despite Japan’s surrender on August 14, 1945, over a million Japanese soldiers still remained in China at the end of the war. Things were very chaotic and fluid. In what was already a Chinese civil war, the contending forces of Nationalists (under Chiang Kai-shek) and the Communists (under Mao Tse-tung) were eager to take control of what had been Japanese-occupied areas. The U.S. supported Chiang. Japanese forces were ordered to remain at their posts until they could be replaced by Nationalists.
Scrambling confusion ensued.
In the quickly-moving chaos, John Birch’s “tactless anger,” as Walsh terms it, led to his murder. The U.S. military’s Judge Advocate found that Birch had used poor judgment and failed to take proper precautions. His superiors were chastised for not coordinating with regional Communist forces, and the Communists were condemned for killing an American soldier. All in all, it was not an auspicious start to the end of a war.
Those intent on making a martyr of Birch, however, skipped over the military’s judgments, and turned Birch’s name into a brand, one on the radical fringe of American politics. It’s doubtful that Birch, described as zealously sincere in his fundamentalist beliefs, would have been amused.
The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Spring, 1975), pp. 209-218
Wisconsin Historical Society