At the height of the John Birch Society’s activity in the 1960s, critics dismissed its members as a paranoid fringe. After all, “Birchers” believed that a vast communist conspiracy existed in America and posed an existential threat to Christianity, capitalism, and freedom. But as historian Matthew Dallek reveals, the Birch Society’s extremism remade American conservatism. After a discussion with Dallek, Peter and Orlando share some of their thoughts and insights on Birchers, a deeply researched account of the rise of extremism in the United States.


Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right By Matthew Dallek

Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right By Matthew Dallek

Credit: Hachette Book Group


Orlando Montoya: Coming up in this episode.

Peter Biello: That's the same district that we now see Marjorie Taylor Greene representing.

Orlando Montoya: I'm going to get to Marjorie Taylor Greene. We're going to get to MTG.

Matthew Dallek: He was seen as the most extreme member of Congress in the 1970s and early mid 1980s. Yet, of course, today, McDonald's type is quite powerful.

Orlando Montoya: Murder, conspiracy, cover up. you might say. You know, what does this group stand for?

Peter Biello: This podcast from Georgia Public Broadcasting highlights books with Georgia Connections, hosted by two of your favorite public radio book nerds, who also happen to be your hosts of All Things Considered on GPB radio. I'm Peter Biello.

Orlando Montoya:  And I'm Orlando Montoya. Thanks for joining us as we introduce you to authors, their writings, and the insights behind their stories mixed with our own thoughts and ideas on just what gives these works the Narrative Edge.

Peter Biello: So, Orlando, what book do you have to talk about today?

Orlando Montoya: I have Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right by Matthew Dallek. So we are going to get into politics today. I got to give you a heads up.

Peter Biello: All right.

Orlando Montoya: And we're going to talk about the Birchers. I know it sounds like a tree, but it actually was the John Birch Society. They were a notorious and controversial movement within conservatism for many decades. We're talking about the '50s, the '60s, and the '70s. And the author we're going to hear from today believes that they led to the modern Republican Party. Have you ever heard of the John Birch Society?

Peter Biello: I have. I feel like I've seen billboards. Are there billboards? John Birch Billboards?

Orlando Montoya: Not anymore. I don't see — I don't think so anymore. There was in the past, though.

Peter Biello: Maybe faded billboards that still exist in some parts.

Orlando Montoya: A faded memory. You have them. But for people of our generation, it certainly wasn't something that we grew up with. Maybe we heard about it in history books, but is it history? Because the more I read this book, the more I realized it might not be so much history after all. And the thing is, there are so many Georgia connections to the Birchers, connections that I had no idea about. And so, you know, when I hear things new, I want to share them with you.

Peter Biello: Yeah, well, thank you for that. Was John Birch from Georgia.

Orlando Montoya: He was. He was actually from Georgia. Well, he wasn't born in Georgia, but he was raised in Georgia. He went to high school here. He graduated from Chattooga County High School, and he went to a college in Macon, Mercer University. But he actually has very little to do with the movement founding, I'm sorry to say. John Birch did not found the John Birch Society. That's where I'll introduce you to our author, Matthew Dallek.

Matthew Dallek: He was an evangelist turned warrior. He became an intelligence officer for the U.S. Army, and he was killed shortly after World War II by Chinese communist forces. And Robert Welch, the founder of the Birch Society, discovered and in the mid-1950s and early 1950s that John Birch not only had been killed but, as he argued in his short biography of Birch, that Birch's death had been covered up by American government officials who were part of this alleged communist conspiracy. And so the real crime was not just the murder of John Birch, but it was the U.S. government's efforts to cover up the crime as part of this communist plot. And so Birch became really the first victim of World War III, as many Birch leaders saw it and named it after this martyr.

Peter Biello: All right. So so some conspiracy thinking involved. I can see how one might lead to what we see today.

Orlando Montoya: Well, they're murder, conspiracy, cover up. You might say. You know, what does this group stand for?

Peter Biello: Yeah, what does this group stand for?

Orlando Montoya: They were very anti-communist. They were very God and country, very free enterprise. But those are all sort of mainstream conservative ideas. Those are ideas that Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater would all be comfortable with. So, you know, sort of what separates them from mainstream conservatism are several ideas. And Matthew Dallek in the book sort of — sort of puts them out there in almost list form. He comes back to them all the time. And those ideas are are explicit racism, anti international anti-establishment conspiracy theories, and violent and apocalyptic rhetoric.

Peter Biello: And this seems to have been happening, at least in some part, during the Eisenhower administration. Right? Am I timing this right?

Orlando Montoya: Yeah. Eisenhower was actually a focus of the Birchers. They thought that Eisenhower was a communist agent. Not making it up.

Peter Biello: I believe you.

Orlando Montoya: They tried to impeach Earl Warren, who was a Supreme Court justice. You may know Warren, the architect of liberal America, Brown v. Board of Education. And the thing about it is that they were sort of courted by mainstream Republicans, but in public, there was some distance.

Peter Biello: I see. So how do we get from that era to today? I mean, you said they they they led to the modern Republican Party. So how do we get from there to here?

Orlando Montoya: Well, there are a lot of characters that we have to get through between there and here. 'm going to go through them one by one. And I want to get back to the Georgia connections, because after the founder, Robert Welch, the second national chairman of the John Birch Society, was Georgia congressman Larry McDonald. Now, McDonald represented a district from Northwest Georgia from 1975 to 1983, and he became kind of like a showcase for like fanaticism and Bircher-ism. Right? And this was not like a moderate guy. And here I'm going to look at the book because it was extraordinary. Larry McDonald, he was a doctor. He had unorthodox views. He believed that apricot extract could cause cancer. And he admired dictators, at least Francisco Franco. He had a portrait of Franco in his office. And here's Dallek on Congressman Larry McDonald.

Matthew Dallek: McDonald was a leader of the Birchers. He was an ultraconservative Southern Democrat. He was very pro-gun. He owned many, many guns, which especially at the time was seen as pretty far right. And he opposed Tip O'Neill. The speaker for speaker was, you know, pushed out by the Democrats, basically kicked off his committees. And what I think is interesting about him in part in his career as that he really was the fringe of the fringe. He was seen as the most extreme member of Congress in the 1970s and early and mid-1980s. Yet, of course, today, McDonald's type is quite powerful.

Peter Biello: OK, So, and you said he was from Northwest Georgia.

Orlando Montoya: Yes.

Peter Biello: That's the same district that we now see Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Orlando Montoya: I going to get to Marjorie Taylor Greene. We're going to get to MTG, but I want to get through some other names from Georgia before we get there.

Peter Biello: Okay.

Orlando Montoya: We're going to go to Lester Maddox.

Peter Biello: The former governor.

Orlando Montoya: The former governor, correct. Governor of Georgia from 1967 to 1971. You might remember, he was a staunch segregationist. He owned a restaurant and he denied Black people service at his restaurant. He famously denied the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the honor of lying in state at the Georgia capitol after he was assassinated. Here's Dallek on Maddox.

Matthew Dallek: Maddox, I do not think was a member of the Birch Society, as far as I can tell. But around 1970, the early 1970s, he starts to speak at a lot of their conventions or their — their God and country rallies. He's sort of the marquee speaker. And Maddox would get up on stage and tell the Birch Society that civil rights, which again, by the early 1970s had basically become a more settled issue. And Maddox would say that civil rights was a communist plot. It was a communist conspiracy to take away Americans' rights. And so, again, I don't think he was a card-carrying member of the Birch Society, but he became a de facto leader of the society.

Orlando Montoya: So Maddox remains active in politics through the 1980s. He actually considers running for McDonald's district seat when McDonald dies. And this is the 1980s. So this is when Newt Gingrich is coming into power. You know, Gingrich was first elected in 1979 from a suburb northwest of Atlanta.

Peter Biello: OK

Orlando Montoya: And we're seeing a theme here. Yes.

Peter Biello: Was was he also elected on a "these people are communists" kind of platform?

Orlando Montoya: No, no.  By the time we get to Newt Gingrich, by the 1980s, the society had pretty much ceased to be a real force in conservative politics. They were beginning to be usurped, quite frankly, by other movements: the Moral Majority movement, the Christian Coalition, the Pat Buchanan wing of the GOP. So by the '80s, their influence had died away. But I think what Dallek would say was that their ideas lived on. So the John Birch Society fizzled, but Bircher ideas continued, and in some respects, those ideas morphed, you might say, metastasized into the conservative movement that we have today.

Peter Biello: Or if not the ideas, right. Simply the willingness to buy into and talk publicly about conspiracy theories.

Orlando Montoya: Conspiracy theories. The election was stolen. Global warming is a hoax. COVID conspiracies. The Birch Society was filled with conspiracies. Whether it was the death of John Birch, Eisenhower was a communist agent. The civil rights is a communist plot. President Taft was poisoned by a radium tube.

Peter Biello: Not apricots?

Orlando Montoya: Some of these were completely outlandish, but somehow they find their way into Congress. Here's where we get Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Peter Biello: OK

Orlando Montoya: Outlandish ideas. And, you know, we can't really equate one with the other. So I'm not saying Greene is a Bircher, but here's what Dallek said.

Matthew Dallek: You know, you never want to simply say, "Ah, that person's a Bircher" or you know that. But but I do think that, as I argue in the book, it is important to look at how Birch Ideas had an afterlife and became important to their successors. People, of course, can disagree. But what I argue in the book is that the Birchers were an important group that helped to establish this alternative political tradition on the far right, and that some of these current figures that you mentioned, that they picked up on these ideas. And I do think that these ideas have made a comeback. And so whether we're talking about banning sex education in the schools or banning books, or the more, what I would argue, more explicit forms of racism, the conspiracy theories — you know, Birchers propagated all these things. And I think that these are also central elements of the modern Trump-led MAGA movement. And so, again, you don't want to overdo the parallels, but the ideas I think did have an afterlife. And we've seen a remarkable resurgence of these ideas atop at least much of the Republican Party today.

Peter Biello: It's a question the Republican Party is grappling with right now, isn't it? How much of this fringe to embrace?

Orlando Montoya: You know, and both sides have their fringes. I tried to get Dallek to comment on the left's fringes, but he stayed on topic and everybody left, right, center really has to grapple with this polarization. It's a topic we cover in our day jobs, you know, And if you haven't been watching PBS NewsHour right now, Judy Woodruff has a great series going on about this polarization in our society. I think it's terribly important. I think learning about its history is fascinating. And certainly the Georgia connections were a surprise.

Peter Biello: So is there anything about the way Dallek writes this book that you think gives it the Narrative Edge?

Orlando Montoya: I like the quotes. I got to be honest with you. You know, you and I deal with quotes every single day, you know, picking out the right one, making sure, you know, it's in the right place. And I just love — I just love his quotes.

Peter Biello: Do you have a quote you'd like to end up with?

Orlando Montoya: I like many quotes, but William Grede ... he was a co-founder of the John Birch Society, along with Robert Welch, and he said, quote, "It was almost a disgrace to be a member, but now we're quite respectable." So there it is.

Peter Biello: Oh, wow.

Orlando Montoya: I hope you had a good time.

Peter Biello: I did this. I'm really looking forward to reading this one. All right.

Orlando Montoya: This is Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right by Matthew Dallek.

Peter Biello: Thanks, Orlando.

Orlando Montoya: Thanks for listening to Narrative Edge. We'll be back in two weeks with a brand-new episode. This podcast is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Find us online at

Peter Biello: You can also catch us on the Daily GPB News podcast. Georgia Today for a concise update on the latest news in Georgia. For more on that and all of our podcasts, go to