One of my favorite movies is 1964’s Dr. Strangelove and one of my favorite film characters is the paranoid but bravado-filled Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper. Ripper, as played by Sterling Hayden, is convinced that the Russians have introduced fluoride to our water supply to poison our “precious bodily fluids.” He claims, “That's the way your hard-core Commie works.” In retaliation Ripper launches a back-door nuclear attack on Russia without the knowledge of his superiors. The story ends in a rhapsodic display of mushroom clouds underscored by, “We’ll Meet Again.”
Ripper’s convictions about fluoride echo those of the John Birch Society (JBS), a far-right organization that rose to political prominence in the 1960s. The JBS was against fluoridation, considering it mass involuntary medicine, but didn’t claim it was part of a Communist conspiracy. That’s strange because it thought virtually everything else was.
Birchers touted a whole litany of ultra-conservative beliefs and causes. They were virulently anti-Communist and pro-states’ rights. They believed in limited government and a strict interpretation of the Constitution; so much so that they thought civil rights and environmental legislation unconstitutional. They ranted against wealth redistribution and had a special hatred for the UN. To them it represented a path to one-world government and economic globalization. The JBS also called for a reduction in immigration, mounted a campaign to impeach the Chief Justice Earl Warren, and accused President Eisenhower of being a tool of the Communists and possibly guilty of treason.
Hmmm. Wait a sec. Where have I heard this song before? The tune may be different but the refrain is the same: the Commies are out to get us, the president is a Marxist, the UN will lead to one-world government…. I’ve got it! This aria is now presently performed by those lovely devotees of the Gadsden flag, the Tea Party.
There’s certainly a surface resemblance between the two, but might the Tea Party actually share some of the original DNA of the Birchers? Like most things, the answer comes easy if you follow the money. Candy maker Robert Welch and eleven others, including industrialist Fred Koch, founded the society. Today Koch’s sons, Charles and David, fund FreedomWorks, “a grassroots service center” that supplies substantial financial support for the Tea Party movement.
The JBS and Tea Party espouse agendas that are remarkably similar, though updated for 2015. The Tea Party now applies the fear of encroaching Marxism to Common Core, Obamacare, and even climate change. The last is considered a war on capitalism, but one wonders how this squares with the explosion of new green industries, the pursuit of renewable energy by corporations like PepsiCo and Ikea, and the far-right’s ongoing criticism of newly forged capitalist Al Gore for having made “millions” off environmental investments.
I would bet that most Tea Partiers believe their movement sprang up in 2008 with the election of Obama. I thought so too until I read of a 2013 study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco for NIH’s National Cancer Institute. It proved that the Tea Party’s origin was more AstroTurf than grass roots. The movement really began in the 1980s when third party groups were funded by tobacco companies to fight excise taxes and agitate against studies linking cigarettes and cancer. In 2002, tobacco-funded Citizens for a Sound Economy, a forerunner of FreedomWorks, and the Kochs rolled out the first Tea Party website, www.usteaparty.com, to help serve this purpose. Obama’s unexpected election in 2008 merely revived and invigorated the organization’s mission.
Today the John Birch Society is a shadow of its former self. Its membership numbers are kept under wraps, though it does continue to publish The New American magazine both on-line and bi-weekly in hardcopy. What tipped the Birchers to the rim of the dust bin of history were the increasingly bizarre theories of co-founder Welch. When he went after war hero Eisenhower, claimed that the US was already 60% Communist-controlled, and later insisted that the Vietnam War was a Communist plot, he was abandoned by supporters, including segments of the Republican Party.
There is a lesson in all of this for today’s Tea Party. As conspiracy theories multiply and even climate change is linked to Marxism, beware. The Mad Hatter beckons.
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.
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