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167 Chapter 6 Conspiracy Conspiracies and conspiracy theories saturated the thinking and political activity of the John Birch Society between 1958 and 1968. Events big and small, from the Cold War and the rise of the civil rights movement to the “smear” campaign against the Society itself, were seen more clearly through a conspiratorial lens, Birchers believed. Conspiracies “explained” the admonishment of General Walker, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Watts riots, and the inability of the United States to secure victory in the jungles of Vietnam. They made comprehensible otherwise inexplicable reversals of fortune such as the Bay of Pigs debacle or Barry Goldwater’s disastrous election campaign of 1964. They accounted for—and connected together—such seemingly unrelated events as efforts to fluoridate the water supply, gun control legislation, and President Johnson’s “war on poverty” (all examples of dangerous and malignant collectivism, in Birchers’ eyes).1 A particularly striking, if tragic, illustration of the depth of the Birch Society’s conspiratorial inclinations occurred in March 1962, when Newton Armstrong Jr., a nineteen-year-old San Diego college student and editor of a conservative campus magazine called Evolve, was found dead, hanging from a rope attached to a ceiling beam, in his parents’ bedroom. Both his father—an active member of the Birch Society (he was running for the county Republican Central Committee at the time)—and the organization as a whole immediately shifted into conspiratorial mode. It wasn’t possible for his son to have bound himself with the rope that killed him, Armstrong Sr. believed, contending instead that his death was a “ritualistic murder” committed by “Communists or other subversives.”2 In the May 1962 Bulletin, Robert Welch reported that he had been asked by Armstrong to put aside “any questions of ‘good taste’ that might be involved” and to use “any and all publicity” about the murder of his son “to help to wake up other patriots as to what is already starting to happen in this country.”3 Welch had agreed to the request, he said, because although the young man’s death was the “first murder for political reasons . . . of which a member of the JBS family has been the victim,” it was also indicative of the broader “actions” and “pressures” that members—and “even prospective members”—of the Society were being made to bear, and unless something was done, “many patriotic citizens like ourselves” would soon be “disappearing into concentration camps.” 168   The World of the John Birch Society Armstrong Jr.’s murder, Welch argued, was comparable with that of John Birch himself, both men having given their lives “to the task of discovering and of making others realize the nature, methods, and purposes of the Conspiracy that seeks to enslave us.” As a result, in addition to establishing a Newton Armstrong Memorial Fund, Welch encouraged all Birch Society members to write their local newspapers demanding that the case be given “the publicity and attention which would certainly be normal and expected for an unsolved murder with such overtones of national significance and interest.”4 The coroner’s initial verdict of suicide was upheld in June 1962, following a six-week investigation by District Attorney Don Keller; the DA explained the strange positioning of Armstrong’s hands, which had prompted his father’s initial suspicions, as being the result of the youth trying to abort the suicide by relieving the pressure of the rope around his neck, but instead getting them entangled in it. Keller’s decision, though, only produced a renewed barrage of publicity by the Birch Society, including a nation-wide postcard campaign centered on the question: “Dear Comrades—Did your Communist friends murder Newton Armstrong Jr.?” Despite describing the campaign as the “most pressure” he had ever experienced in any investigation he had been involved in, Keller refused to reopen the case.5 Critics, opponents, and observers of the Society, both at the time and ever since, have generally regarded the organization’s embrace of the conspiratorial as a sign of its irrationality and extremism. Contemporary responses to the Birchers from various sectors of American society constantly emphasized its conspiracism and used it as a means of marginalizing and delegitimating the Society and its activities. This is not especially surprising, of course. Along with an advocacy of violence, conspiracy thinking has long marked one of the dividing lines between the acceptable and the unacceptable in mainstream political discourse. “They believe the unbelievable,” declared the Democratic Wisconsin senator Gale...


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