Robert Welch, the candy manufacturer who founded the ultraconservative John Birch Society, has died in a Massachusetts nursing home of the effects of a stroke he suffered more than a year ago, a spokesman for the group said Monday. Welch was 85.
Welch, whose death in Winchester, Mass., Sunday was announced by the society headquarters in nearby Belmont, stepped down as chairman in October, 1983, and suffered the stroke two months later. By then his once-controversial group had faded into near political obscurity.
Although the society says about 50,000 members still gather in small, monthly living-room meetings across the nation, its existence in the nation's political consciousness has been at a far lower level in the last several years than it was in its glory days of the early 1960s.
At its peak, Welch's group never claimed more than 120,000 members, but its notoriety, if not its political influence, was out of proportion to its numbers--thanks mainly to the teachings and proclamations of founder and chairman Welch.
It was Welch who promised to cut communists and "comsymps" (sympathizers) from the fabric of American society. It was Welch who called then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower "a dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy." It was Welch who inspired those "Impeach Earl Warren" and "Get the U.S. Out of the United Nations" billboards that dominated the highways of America in the 1960s as the Burma Shave signs had in the 1930s and '40s.
Although Belmont was the society's headquarters, Southern California was its sort of unofficial capital. With a regional command post in San Marino, Birchism spread through the region, its intense, almost exclusively white, upper-middle class Americans carrying the society's conservative banner.
Although then-California Atty. Gen. (and future Supreme Court justice) Stanley Mosk reportedly wrote off the typical Birch Society member as "a little old lady in tennis shoes," the society was in its day one of the most controversial political organizations in recent American history.
On top of it all was Welch.
Robert Henry Winborne Welch Jr. was born Dec. 1, 1899, in Chowan, N.C., the son of a prosperous farmer. Bright, if not particularly well-educated in rural schools, young Welch went off to the University of North Carolina, where, as he said decades later, "I was probably the most insufferable little squirt that ever tried to associate with his elders."
Raised as a fundamentalist Baptist, Welch conducted Bible class in the dorms. After he graduated, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis for two years.
He dropped out of the academy, returning to North Carolina to do a weekly summary of the news in verse for a Raleigh newspaper. That didn't last long, and Welch went off to Harvard Law School, where, already firm in his conservatism, he clashed repeatedly with soon-to-be U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, then a professor of labor law, over Marxist theories of labor.
Welch left Harvard in 1921 to go into business on his own and settled on candy manufacturing because it appeared to be "one field in which it seemed least impossible to get a start without either capital or experience."
Welch purchased a fudge recipe from a candy store owner and opened shop in a Cambridge loft, doing business as the Oxford Candy Co. Welch's products, a hard caramel lollipop called "Sugar Daddy" and a chocolate bar named "Tar Baby," were soon being distributed by wholesalers all over the Northeast, but the 1929 Wall Street crash did in his prosperous undertaking.
Welch, a talented salesmen, went to work for his brother's candy firm, the James O. Welch Co., and as an executive of that firm, he boosted sales from around $200,000 in 1935 to $20 million by 1956. During World War II, Robert Welch served on the wartime Office of Price Administration's advisory committee on candy and on the War Production Board. By the mid-1950s, he was a multimillionaire.
His prosperity allowed Welch time for travel, writing and the development of his increasingly right-wing political philosophy. He spent time in England in the late 1940s and was shocked by postwar socialism there.
"It's state socialism, pure and unadorned," Welch told gatherings of business and civic groups upon his return. "There is no reason on Earth why we should import, or let ourselves be infected by, such diseases . . . as socialism and communism and other ideological cancers."
Increasingly active at a time when conservatism and anti-communism seemed to dominate American political thinking, Welch ran unsuccessfully for the lieutenant governorship of Massachusetts in 1950, then became an outspoken supporter of Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft's unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.