Book Review: Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right by Claire Conner
Disclaimer: I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.
This is an autobiography of Claire Conner, daughter of Stillwell J. Conner, one of the first members of the John Birch Society and one of its most fierce advocates. In it, she shares the history of her family’s involvement with the notorious right-wing organization, and her personal journey from loyal but naive supporter of her parents’ cause through skepticism and eventually to rejection.
The John Birch Society, for those who may be unfamiliar, was founded in the 1950s by candy entrepreneur Robert Welch to fight the overwhelming menace of the international Communist conspiracy. It was named after a former missionary murdered by the Chinese Communists under murky circumstances, and stood against all forms of Communism and what its members believed to be Communist fronts. The UN? Communist plot. Ending racial segregation? Communist plot. Being anti-Communist but not in the same way as the John Birch Society? Communist plot.
This is a sad story in many ways. According to Ms. Conner’s account, her parents’ fanaticism blinded them to the damage they were doing to their family relationships. It also blinded them to the flaws in those they allied with, be it Holocaust deniers, violent criminals or just political opportunists. She recalls several instances of people being stuffed down her father’s memory hole rather than have him admit he was ever wrong about them.
The Conners also seemed never to notice that the dire predictions of a Communist takeover in four, five years tops, never came true, never came close to coming true. The JBS never admitted that previous predictions were wrong, just kept doomsaying to keep the troops in line and the money flowing.
A particularly telling story is that Ms. Conner’s parents, despite finding thousands of dollars each year to spend on the Society’s cause, told her that they could not spare one penny for her college education and she would have to pay for it on her own. Then when she won a generous scholarship, forced her to turn it down as they had already picked a more expensive college for her to go to. She reports that her father exploded with rage when asked why, if Claire had to pay for her own education, she couldn’t choose her own school.
Ms. Conner also discusses her involvement with the pro-life movement, originally stemming from her personal experience and her religious convictions, and how it was co-opted by political opportunists who didn’t actually care about the children, just about enraging their donor base into giving more money.
The book also discusses how parts of the JBS ethos are still alive and well in today’s Tea Party and other right-wing groups. The John Birch Society itself may be a tiny shell of what it once was, but rabid hatred of big government , racism and a fear of the Left still linger.
There are many footnotes, and a complete index, but no illustrations.
I highly recommend this book to history buffs, those curious about right-wing politics, and those interested in biography.