While other Americans were off on vacation this summer, or at least enjoying tennis or a dip in the pool, Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, went about the U.S. on what must have been a dreary mission. As Welch tells it in the society's bulletin, he spent a good part of the summer going "from one city to another, where acrimonious disputes were raging among our members." Even worse, admitted Welch, "about all I usually accomplished, in trying to pour oil upon these troubled waters, was to get myself completely splattered with oil."
Part of the trouble is Robert Welch himself. Though he agreed under pressure a few years ago to put some young men in important administrative posts, he still runs the society with an iron hand, brooking no opposition to his ideas and acknowledging no power to veto his decisions. Moreover, the society, founded on the notion that a Communist conspiracy was taking over the U.S., has lost some of its zip and fervor at a time when the U.S. is fighting an open war against Communists in Viet Nam.
No Fight. Dissension within the society came to a head with the resignation of two important members of the group's national council: Classics Professor Revilo P. Oliver of the University of Illinois, a Birch theoretician with views far out even by the society's standards,* and Slobodan Draskovich, a Yugoslav émigré who heads a Chicago-based group called the Serbian Cultural Club. Oliver and Draskovich accused Welch of leading the society away from its basic aim of militantly combatting Communism into a purely educational role. "The fight has gone out of Mr. Welch and the John Birch Society," says Draskovich. "The society is becoming increasingly frustrating to its members and decreasingly disturbing for the enemy."
Despite the unrest, however, the society is far from disintegrating. It has a staff of 250more than that of the Republican and Democratic national committees combinedat its Belmont, Mass., headquarters and at regional offices in New York, Chicago, Washington, Dallas and Los Angeles. Some 75 full-time field coordinators and 1,100 section leaders direct the society's chapters throughout the U.S. And though John Rousselot, the former California Congressman who serves as the Birchers' public relations director, admits that the growth in membership has slowed down, the society is still attracting new members. It officially claims a membership of just under 100,000, but some informed estimates place the figure as low as 32,000; the true figure is probably somewhere in between.
The society is more affluent than ever, profiting not only from the large contributions of anonymous wealthy donors but from a spate of its own activities. Its budget in 1964 was about $3,200,000; this year it will probably be in the neighborhood of $6,000,000. Last year the society's 360 "reading rooms" sold about $4,000,000 worth of materials. In addition to books and pamphlets, the society publishes a monthly magazine called American Opinion, a monthly newsletter and a weekly Review of the News. It runs a speaker's bureau that has a roster of 250 people. Its taped 15-minute broadcast, The John Birch Report, is used by 175 radio stations.