Pierce’s first move into politics was to join an organization called the John Birch Society in 1962. “I had read some John Birch Society literature while I was at Oregon State,” Pierce told me, “and I knew that at least they were anti-communist. They saw their job as opposing the influences of communists in the American government and society. I agreed with them that communism was a very bad thing, and that it posed a real threat to American life. So I joined the Birch Society. A conservative colleague on campus steered me to a chapter in Corvallis [Oregon].”
The John Birch Society Pierce referred to was – and still is, the organization still exists – a grass-roots organization dedicated to fighting communism and promoting various right-wing causes.1 At the time of Pierce’s involvement in the early ‘60s, the Birch Society had about twenty-five thousand members nationwide and was at the height of its prominence. Society members were grouped into chapters of from seven to twenty-five members whose leader functioned under the supervision of a section leader, who in turn reported to a national coordinator. It was one of these chapters that Pierce joined.
The Birch Society was founded in 1958 by a retired Boston candy manufacturer and one-time vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, Robert Welch, Jr. Welch was a graduate of the University of North Carolina (at seventeen years of age supposedly), had gone to Harvard Law School, and then joined his brother’s candy business and made a fortune. At the founding meeting of the Birch Society, Welch gave a speech to eleven friends he had called to an Indianapolis motel outlining the nature and purposes of the new organization – essentially to save America from communism. The speech was printed up and called the Blue Book and became the organization’s bible.
Welch named his organization after Captain John Birch, a Baptist missionary who was shot and bayoneted to death by the Chinese communists in 1945, ten days after the end of World War II. Welch thought that that made Birch the first casualty of the Cold War against the communists.
Basically, the Birch Society was an educational organization dedicated to changing the pattern of American thinking. At one point, it had a staff of two hundred fifty employees. The Society published two magazines, had a book publishing operation which sold posters, bumper stickers, tapes, and pamphlets, published newspaper ads and ran radio and television spots, had a radio show called Are You Listening Uncle Sam?, and operated the largest speakers bureau in the world. Some of the specific causes the Society took on during its heyday were achieving a quick and decisive victory in Vietnam; combating the civil rights movement, which it saw as communist-controlled; getting this country out of the United Nations; abolishing the federal income tax and the Federal Reserve system; impeaching the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren; setting up “support your local police” committees; and opposing sex education in the schools.
The Society developed the reputation for tolerating, and probably encouraging, anti-Semitic and racist members as long as they weren’t vocal about their views and thereby embarrassing to the organization. While the Society professed to being a friend of the Jewish people, when Welch talked about an “insiders conspiracy” many people came away with the impression that he was referring to Zionists as well as Communists. And when Birchers spoke of “big money interests,” the general consensus was that this was a code name for Jews. It wasn’t long before the Birch Society came to be the most vilified organization in America this side of the Ku Klux Klan. The Anti-Defamation League called them a group of “fascists,” “character assassins,” and a “danger on the right.”
Welch seemed to go off the deep end when he published a book calling Dwight Eisenhower a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” and made similar allegations against such respected Americans as General George Marshall, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and Supreme Court Justice William Brennan.2 Barry Goldwater, a hero to the political right, called Welch “intemperate and unwise” and criticized him for making “damaging, ridiculous, and very stupid statements.” As time went on, the Society lost more and more credibility. Welch died in 1985, and the Society today plugs on in virtual anonymity.
“Your Birch Society membership was your first real political activity. How long did you stay with them?” I asked Pierce.
“Not long at all – just a few meetings,” Pierce replied. “I found they weren’t really willing to deal with some of the issues I saw as important. They were against the civil rights revolution, but they wouldn’t deal with it on a racial basis. They approached it from the angle of communist agitators stirring up the Negroes, as they were called in those years. It’s true that communism was an important part of the civil rights movement; the communists did latch onto it. But the fundamental significance of the civil rights activity was racial not political. But when I brought that up to the Birch Society people, they wouldn’t go near it.
“If the Birchers were going to stress the communist aspect of the civil rights movement, why were they unwilling to look at exactly who these communists were? I said to them, ‘Why don’t we deal with the fact that so often these people are Jews? How can you make sense of communism without understanding the Jewish role in it from Karl Marx on through? The Bolshevik revolution in Russia would never have gotten off the ground if it hadn’t been for the Jews. And if you look at the communists and their supporters in this country, they are primarily Jews. Why, I asked them, are the columnists in the newspapers who are sympathetic to the civil rights agenda so often Jewish? The head of the NAACP had always been a Jew. It is obvious that if the Jews withdrew their support the civil-rights movement would collapse.’
“They immediately jumped on me. ‘Oh no,’ they said, ‘Gus Hall [the head of the Communist Party in the United States at the time] is not a Jew.’ [Hall was born in Minnesota the son of Finnish immigrants – real name, Arvo Kusta Halberg.] They wouldn’t touch it. They were scared to death of being labeled anti-Semitic. Or maybe Welch figured that from a strategic point of view it was best to avoid the very emotional issues of blacks and Jews and just focus on communism. Whatever was going on, I went to three or four meetings and said to myself ‘These guys are going nowhere,’ and I quit after three months.
“If the Birch Society had been willing to deal with the race and Jewish questions, the two most important issues as far as I was concerned, I might have been willing to stay with them. But the fact that they wouldn’t pushed me in the direction of thinking that somebody has to hit these issues head on. Somebody has to go public about them. I guess I have an obstinate personality. I became even more convinced that the anti-war and civil rights movements were too well financed and were having too big an impact on people’s thinking and that I had to deal with this issue as I saw it in some way.
“I started to write letters to anybody who came to my attention. I probably wrote to a dozen people. It was a hit-or-miss activity; I wrote to an eclectic group of people. I’d ask them what they thought was the best way to deal with the anti-war and civil rights movements. I asked them what they thought a concerned person ought to do and if they could steer me to somebody else I could contact, which, in some cases, I did. I remember one of the people I wrote was a conservative named Dan Smoot. He was a former FBI agent who had a radio program. Somebody had said ‘You ought to listen to Dan Smoot, he sounds a lot like you.’ So I listened to his show and wrote him a letter.
“One day, it must have been in about 1963,” Pierce told me, “I was watching the news on television and I saw a clip of George Lincoln Rockwell. It was brief, twenty or thirty seconds or so. Rockwell was trying to give a speech to a bunch of university students in San Diego and they were shouting him down and throwing bottles at him. [Rockwell gave a speech at San Diego State University in March of 1962, so it was probably in that year that Pierce saw the news footage.3] ‘Go back to Germany, you Nazi bastard!’ and that kind of stuff. Despite all that was going on, Rockwell did get two or three sentences out before members of the audience rushed on the stage and tore out his microphone, and I said to myself, ‘You know, he’s basically right. So I went to the library and looked up Rockwell’s address and wrote him a letter. About two weeks later I got a long handwritten answer from him, about a dozen pages. Rockwell billed himself as a National Socialist, and even before I had gotten in touch with him I had decided that’s what I was; although I thought that maybe Rockwell was just a clown. He operated out of Washington, D.C., and there was a physics meeting scheduled for there, so I used that opportunity to go talk to him.”
1 For background on the Birch Society, see Gerald Schomp, Birchism Was My Business (New York: Macmillan, 1970).\
2 John George and Laird Wilcox, Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Others on the Fringe (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1992), p. 217.
3 William Schmaltz, Hate: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party (Herndon, VA: Batsford Brassey, 1998), p. 136.