John Birch was better known in death than life. Shot and killed by Communists in China in 1945, he posthumously became the namesake for a right-wing organization whose influence is still visible in today's Tea Party. This is the remarkable story of who he actually was: an American missionary-turned-soldier who wanted to save China, but became a victim instead.
Terry Lautz, a longtime scholar of U.S.-China relations, has investigated archives, spoken with three of Birch's brothers, found letters written to the women he loved, and visited sites in China where he lived and died. The result, John Birch: A Life, is the first authoritative biography of this fascinating figure whose name was used for a political cause.
Raised as a Baptist fundamentalist, Birch became a missionary to China prior to America's entry into the Second World War. After Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for the U.S. Army in China, served with Claire Chennault, commander of the famed Flying Tigers, and operated behind enemy lines as an intelligence officer. He planned to resume his missionary work after the war, but was killed in a dispute with Communist troops just days after Japan's surrender.
During the heyday of the Cold War in the 1950s, Robert Welch, a retired businessman from Boston, chose Birch as the figurehead for the John Birch Society, believing that his death was evidence of conspiracy at the highest levels of government. The Birch Society became one of the most polarizing organizations of its time, and the name of John Birch became synonymous with right-wing extremism.
Cutting through the layers of mythology surrounding Birch, Lautz deftly presents his life and his afterlife, placing him not only in the context of anti-communism but in the longstanding American quest to shape China's destiny.
Lautz, a scholar of Sino-American relations, draws on myriad sources including government archives and personal letters to piece together the life of John Morrison Birch (1918 1945), the man who was posthumously enshrined as the figurehead for the John Birch Society (JBS), an archconservative political advocacy group. This book, the first academic account of its kind, is a full account of Birch's brief life that covers his humble, pious upbringing, his calling as a Baptist missionary in China, his in-field recruitment and work as a military intelligence officer, and his death in a quarrel with a band of Chinese Communist operatives. In 1958, Birch's fate was seized upon by Robert Welch, a right-wing ideologue, in his establishment of an organization that advocated for limited government, propagated a form of "conspiracy-minded anticommunism," and soon came to signify "radicals, extremists, paranoiacs, and super patriots." Lautz dispels numerous myths and convincingly argues that Birch was much less interested in political conservatism than he was in religious fundamentalism, and that the JBS "transformed him beyond recognition." By identifying connections between the JBS and the modern conservative movement, particularly the Tea Party, Lautz rounds out a commendable study that fills a significant scholarly gap. Maps.