Robert Winborne Welch was born in Chowan County, North Carolina, on the 1st December, 1899. A fundamentalist Baptist, Welch attended the United States Naval Academy and Harvard Law School but dropped out of both institutions before graduating.
Welch founded the Oxford Candy Company in Brooklyn, New York. He initially employed his brother James but in 1925 he left to form his own confectionary company.
The Oxford Candy Company went out of business during the Great Depression. Welch now went to work for his brother's successful company. Over the years the James Welch Company introduced a wide range of popular products including Sugar Babies, Junior Mints and Pom Poms.
Robert Welch retired as a very wealthy man in 1956. He used some of this money to fund various extreme right-wing causes. This included supporting the work of Joseph McCarthy and other aspects of McCarthyism. In 1958 he established the John Birch Society (JBS). The organization was named after Captain John Birch, a member of the China Air Task Force murdered by Chinese communists on 25th August, 1945.
Welch made it clear he wanted a "secret, monolithic organization" that would "operate under completely authoritative control at all levels". Welch explained that "democracy is merely a deceptive phrase, a weapon of demagoguery, and a perennial fraud".
Welch believed that Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower, were part of a communist conspiracy. Welch sent out a letter claiming that President Eisenhower was a "conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy". In 1956 Welch wrote that other top government officials such as John Foster Dulles and Allan W. Dulles were "communist tools". In 1958 Welch became editor and publisher of the monthly magazine American Opinion. Contributors to this right-wing journal included Martin Dies and Westbrook Pegler.
The John Birch Society was also opposed to the Civil Rights movement. Welch was one of the first to attack the government of Fidel Castro. In the February 1959 issue of American Opinion, Welch wrote "the fact that Castro was, and all of his adult life had been, a vicious, lying, brutal, murdering Communist."
The John Birch Society called on its members to urge Congress to stop foreign aid. It also campaigned against attempts by those organizations trying to abolish the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA). The JBS was also totally opposed to the United Nations, an organization it claimed was involved in "an insidious scheme to establish a tyrannical world government".
By 1961 Welch claimed that the John Birch Society had nearly 100,000 members. The JBS was very popular in Dallas, Miami, Palm Beach, Los Angeles and Houston. One member was Dan Smoot, the author of The Invisible Government. In the book he wrote: "'Somewhere at the top of the pyramid in the invisible government are a few sinister people who know exactly what they are doing: They want America to become part of a worldwide socialist dictatorship, under the control of the Kremlin".
Another important supporter of the JBS was William F. Buckley. The two men worked closely in an attempt to persuade the Republican Party to adopt Barry Goldwater as its presidential candidate. In September, 1960, Buckley, Douglas Caddy and Marvin Liebman established the far right group, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). The first meeting was held at Buckley's home in Sharon, Connecticut. Caddy became YAF's first president. Its first national council included eleven members of the John Birch Society. The main mission of the YAF was to “prepare young people for the struggle ahead with Liberalism, Socialism and Communism”.
In 1961 Welch published The Politician. In the book Welch accused Franklin D. Roosevelt of deliberately encouraging Japan to bomb Pearl Harbor. He described George Marshall as being "a conscious, deliberate, and dedicated agent of the Soviet conspiracy." Harry S. Truman had been used, "with his knowledge and acquiescence" by the communists who "controlled his administration". His most dramatic charge concerned Dwight Eisenhower who was said to have been "knowingly receiving and abiding by Communist orders, and consciously serving the Communist conspiracy, for all his adult life."
In April 1961 Major General Edwin Walker, commander of the 24th Infantry Division in Europe and stationed in Augsburg, Germany was accused of indoctrinating his troops with right-wing literature from the John Birch Society. With the agreement of President John F. Kennedy, Defense Secretary Robert McNarmara relieved Walker of his command an announced an investigation into the affair. Kennedy was accused of trying to suppress the anti-Communist feelings of the military. Walker resigned from the army in protest about the way he had been treated. In September 1961 Walker organized the protests against the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Attorney General Robert Kennedy responded by issuing a warrant for Walker's arrest on the charges of seditious conspiracy, insurrection, and rebellion.
Walker now became a leading figure in the fight against what he considered to be the liberal establishment. Based in Dallas, he gave many speeches around the country denouncing communism and liberalism. In February 1962 Walker stood for governor of Texas. Although he gained the support of Barry Goldwater, Walker finished last and John Connally went on to be governor.
On 10th April, 1963, Edwin Walker was victim of an assassination attempt while he sat at a desk in his Dallas home. It was later claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald had taken the shot at Walker. Marina Oswald reported that she "asked him what happened, and he said that he just tried to shoot General Walker. I asked him who General Walker was. I mean how dare you to go and claim somebody's life, and he said "Well, what would you say if somebody got rid of Hitler at the right time? So if you don't know about General Walker, how can you speak up on his behalf?." Because he told me... he was something equal to what he called him a fascist."
Welch continued to work with William F. Buckley to help Barry Goldwater become the Republican Party candidate in the forthcoming presidential election. However, both Buckley and Goldwater grew increasingly concerned about the public image of Welch and the John Birch Society. Buckley was especially concerned about Welch's claims that the much loved Dwight Eisenhower was an agent of the American Communist Party.
Welch claimed that the Republican Party had been infiltrated by secret supporters of a communist conspiracy. One member of the JBS, Phyllis Schlafly, published a book, A Choice, Not an Echo, where she claimed that the party was being controlled by elitist intellectuals dominated by members of the Bilderberger group, whose policies were "designed to usher in global communist conquest". "A Choice, Not an Echo" became one of Goldwater's campaign slogans.
The JBS also suggested that John F. Kennedy and other leading members of the Democratic Party were part of this communist conspiracy. After the assassination of Kennedy the JBS turned its attention towards the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1964, another member of the JBS, J. Evetts Haley, published A Texan Looks at Lyndon. In the book Haley attempted to expose Johnson's corrupt political activities. This included a detailed look at the relationship between Johnson and Billy Sol Estes. Haley pointed out that three men who could have provided evidence in court against Estes, George Krutilek, Harold Orr and Howard Pratt, all died of carbon monoxide poisoning from car engines.
Haley also suggested that Johnson might have been responsible for the death of John F. Kennedy: "Johnson wanted power and with all his knowledge of political strategy and his proven control of Congress, he could see wider horizons of power as Vice-President than as Senate Majority Leader. In effect, by presiding over the Senate, he could now conceive himself as virtually filling both high and important positions - and he was not far from wrong. Finally, as Victor Lasky pointed out, Johnson had nursed a lifetime dream to be President. As Majority leader he never could have made it. But as Vice-president fate could always intervene."
It was estimated in 1964 that the John Birch Society was spending $10 million a year on 7,000 weekly television and radio broadcasts. The editor of the Idaho Statesman wrote: "When day after day they hear distortions of fact and sinister charges against persons or groups, often emanating from organizations with conspicuously respectable sounding names, it is no wonder that the result is: Confusion on some important public issues; stimulation of latent prejudices; creation of suspicion, fear and mistrust in relation not only to their representatives in government, but even in relation to their neighbors.”
The JBS continued to grow and by 1964 it had an income of $3,000,000 and employed a staff of 200. Around 100 people were employed at the JBS headquarters in Belmont, a suburb of Boston. In a survey carried out in 1964, the JBS was supported by 11 per cent of Americans. Despite this, Welch believed that the communist conspiracy continued to flourish. In 1970 he wrote in American Opinion that "America is becoming increasingly socialist. It is obvious that socialist government increasingly controls us from the cradle to the crematorium."
In 1975 Harry Dean claimed he had been an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation who in 1962 infiltrated the John Birch Society. He later reported that John Rousselot and General Edwin Walker had hired two gunman, Eladio del Valle and Loran Hall, to kill President John F. Kennedy.
Welch regularly published a "Scoreboard" showing the degree to which various countries are supposed to be under communist control. When he started the JBS he claimed that the USA was 20-40 per cent communist-controlled. By 1978 he claimed it had reached 60-80 per cent.
Robert W. Welch died on 6th January, 1965 and Lawrence P. McDonald replaced him as chairman of the John Birch Society.