US Army Captain and Christian missionary John Birch was killed by Maoist forces in China shortly after the end of the Second World War.
The anti-communist American right named John Birch the first victim of the ‘war against communism’. To this end, Robert W. Welch Jr. founded an organisation in Captain Birch’s name in 1958, the John Birch Society (JBS).
Birchers as they were called, advocated for a hard-line anti-communist foreign policy while at the same time favouring small government conservatism at home. They were opposed to America’s participation in any and all internationalist bodies including the United Nations. They often saw any attempts at left of centre legislation in the US as part of a wider ‘communist conspiracy’.
Birchers were often a pain the neck for the Eisenhower administration who many on the anti-communist right thought was ‘soft on communism’.
Although never a member of the JBS, Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican Presidential candidacy was widely supported by many Birchers.
The JBS still exists though its influence has waned significantly. In many ways since the 1980s, the JBS became increasingly opposed to America’s interventionist militarism and today, the JBS has generally reverted back to a traditional anti-war, anti-interventionist conservatism.
Much to the credit of the JBS, Birchers opposed the Vietnam war and every subsequent US involvement in foreign military conflict. In this sense, the JBS was far more anti-war than many leftist groups at the time.
In one respect, the JBS is part of a legacy which traces its roots to the traditional conservative movement of US Senator Robert Taft who fiercely opposed the creation of NATO and opposed US involvement in the Korean War.
On the other hand, the JBS’s tendency to internationalise its strident opposition to communism was more part of the Goldwater Right who saw issues like Taiwan and attempts at detente with the Soviet Union as red-lines in the ‘war against world communism’.
While the Federal Government continues to balloon in ways which rightly horrify Birchers, libertarians and traditional conservancies, Donald Trump’s remarks on the scandal involving Otto Warmbier are increasingly akin to the militant anti-communism of the JBS of the 1950s and 1960s.
Warmbier was a US student who visited North Korea where he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years hard labour for the attempted theft of a poster in an employees-only area of a North Korean hotel. He was released early into his sentence after he fell ill, allegedly from botulism. He died on US soil, shortly after his release.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2017
The idea that Warmbier’s death means that he is a new John Birch, a new victim of communism is simply ludicrous. Warmbier was a tourist in North Korea and like tourists everywhere, one has to obey local laws and respect local customs. The phrase “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints” would have served Mr. Warmbier well.
His attempted theft of a poster, ironically something which in the US would be covered by private property laws, was simply a common criminal act, albeit one that was deeply insulting to North Korea as it would be in almost any country, especially given the reputation of American tourists.
Warmbier was a common thief, not an ideological warrior. John Birch was a military man and a religious missionary, Warmbier was neither. While many felt that the veneration of John Birch was excessive even by the standards of the Cold War, the idea of turning Warmbier into a new John Birch is that much more absurd.
It is true that the theft of a poster would be sentenced less severely in countries like Syria, Philippines or Russia vis-a-vis that of North Korea, but that is North Korean law which when in North Korea, such laws must be obeyed.
One shouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia if one cannot resist being drunk in the streets and one shouldn’t go to the United States if one cannot obey US laws and customs. This is the very justification correctly used by Donald Trump to put certain countries on a list whose passport holders are temporarily barred from entering the US.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Instead, one witnesses a US administration which sees North Korea through the lens of the John Birch Society while failing to adopt the better elements of the Birchers: an opposition to nation building, an opposition to big government, an opposition to foreign war and an opposition to entangling foreign alliances.
US officials are shortly due to meet with their Chinese counterparts to discuss the North Korean issue, something which in reality is something of a non-issue. It is hopeful that the US won’t put on a John Birch hat and use the death of Otto Warmbier as a casus belli during talks with China.
If an ominous Tweet from President Trump is to be taken at face value, this might already be too late.
While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 20, 2017