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(background)  The John Birch Society’s American Opinion Book Store.  (foreground) Leontine Birabent Phelan, Pearl Chase, and an unidentified gentleman (not members of the JBS).

Santa Barbara Historical Museum

(background) The John Birch Society’s American Opinion Book Store. (foreground) Leontine Birabent Phelan, Pearl Chase, and an unidentified gentleman (not members of the JBS).


John Birch Society

S.B. Branch of the Society Formed in 1960


Monday, May 23, 2011

The John Birch Society had been founded in 1958 by Robert Welch, a retired prosperous candy manufacturer. He named his new organization after a Baptist missionary who had been killed by the Chinese Communists in 1945.

Starting out with only 11 members, the John Birch Society grew during the tense years of the Cold War. By the early 1960s, the Society claimed membership at close to 100,000 nationwide. The primary purpose of the organization in this period was to expose and root out what members perceived to be the pervasive and dangerous influences of communism in all aspects of American life. Welch had labeled President Dwight D. Eisenhower a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Other officials who had come under attack included Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and CIA director Allen Dulles.

A Santa Barbara branch of the society had formed early in 1960. Groups met in private homes for discussion and study. Within a year, the society had opened the American Opinion Book Store at 132 East Canon Perdido Street where society and supporting literature was made available to the public. Exact membership numbers were never made public; at its height S.B. society membership probably numbered a few hundred.

On May 7, 1962, Thomas M. Storke, editor and publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press, received a telegram from Grayson Kirk, the president of Columbia University. It read, “I have the honor to advise that Columbia University Trustees have awarded you Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.” The award was the culmination of the newspaper’s campaign against the John Birch Society.

Storke had been a newspaperman for virtually his entire adult life, starting out as a cub reporter for the area Morning Press at the turn of the century. By the early 1960s, he was arguably the most powerful and influential figure on the Santa Barbara scene, aptly dubbed, “Mr. Santa Barbara.”

In January 1961, the News-Press ran a two-part story by reporter Han Engh that portrayed the society in a less than flattering light, highlighting Welch’s Eisenhower comment, noting that the society’s literature called for the “takeover” of PTAs, and calling the society a “semi-secret” organization.

The Santa Barbara Society branch responded with newspaper ads and letters to the editor, objecting to the rather sinister tone of Engh’s pieces, and portrayed the society as a largely educational organization. At the same time, members in the area distanced themselves from some of Welch’s more inflammatory comments, especially the latter’s views on Eisenhower.

On February 26, 1961, Storke published the first in the series of editorials, which garnered the Pulitzer for the paper. It read, in part, “Every American must be alert for Red infiltration. But that does not lead logically to the conclusion that to fight Communism at home we must throw democratic principles and methods into the ashcan and adopt the techniques of the Communists themselves, as the John Birch leaders would have us do.” The editorial went on to denounce the society’s charges against leaders in government and education “and even ministers of the Gospel.” Storke followed up with a piece in a similar vein in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in December 1961.

When informed of the award the following spring, the 85-year-old publisher said the John Birch Society had a place in “our political spectrum” as long as “our political give-and-take be carried out in the open, with honor and integrity.” The John Birch Society, never a major force on Santa Barbara’s political scene, soon after faded away.

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Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.

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