Friday, August 25, 2006

August 25

Chinese communists shot and bayoneted John Birch, Christ figure to a certain deranged sector of the American right, 61 years ago today. Born in Macon, Georgia in 1918, Birch inherited his parents’ missionary zeal and Southern Baptist faith; as a college student at Mercer University, Birch and twelve disciples organized a “Fellowship Group” that charted the progress of heretical ideas among the faculty, one of whom was castigated for speaking uncritically about the theory of evolution. Birch’s group, determined to purge the atmosphere of such poisons, successfully persuaded university administrators to conduct hearings into the spread of liberalism on campus. Five professors were eventually acquitted, though one -- a renowned theologian charged with assigning a doctrinally unsound text -- retired after the trial. The entire affair, according to one colleague, “broke him.”

After college, Birch spent two years at a Texas seminary before departing on a missionary venture to China in 1940. Two years later, he helped escort Jimmy Doolittle and several other American pilots to safety after they parachuted into eastern China following their famous raid on Tokyo. (While searching for Doolittle and his men, Japanese troops are estimated to have killed a quarter of a million Chinese civilians.) After the Doolittle rescue, Birch signed on as an intelligence officer for the 14th Air Force and the Office of Strategic Services, for whom he provided information about Japanese troop movements while maintaining his cover as a humble Baptist missionary. Shortly after V-J Day, Birch became involved in an altercation with Communists -- whom he loathed -- near the central Chinese city of Xi’an. After refusing to surrender his revolver, Birch was executed and mutilated, his body tossed into a ditch. As it happened, Birch was dispatched exactly 33 years after the founding of the Kuomintang, the Chinese nationalist party whose cause Birch believed he was championing.

Later hailed as the first American casualty of the Cold War, John Birch was immortalized by the former candy manufacturer Joseph Welch, who named an anti-communist club in his honor in 1959. The John Birch Society, whose membership rolls peaked at nearly 100,000 in 1964, promoted the view -- so rarely articulated in our current, more sober historical moment -- that liberalism and other varieties of “statism” and “internationalism” are engaged in a sub rosa project calculated to benefit a fanatical enemy bent on global domination.

In 1967, eight years after the formation of the John Birch Society, the American Nazi Party lost its leader, George Lincoln Rockwell -- assassinated outside an Arlington, Virginia laundromat on the anniversary of John Birch’s own martyrdom. Rockwell’s killer, John Patler. had been editor of The Stormtrooper, the American Nazi Party newsletter, until he was expelled from the organization for larding the paper’s articles with “bolshevist” themes.