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JOHN BIRCH by Terry Lautz


A Life

by Terry Lautz

Pub Date: Jan. 4th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-19-026289-1
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

A serious probe into the life of the Baptist missionary to China who posthumously (and thus unwittingly) served as the right wing’s poster child.

Who was the real John Birch (1918-1945)? Academic Lautz, who grew up in Taiwan and later became a scholar of Asia, was curious enough to delve deeply into the brief life of this young missionary and U.S. intelligence officer who was killed by the Chinese communists at the age of 27. The author situates Birch—who made his way to China in 1940 at the behest of a charismatic preacher to take up the work of training Chinese children to become Christian—squarely in the center of the political tensions between U.S.–backed Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists, both battling the Japanese invaders. Although Birch, brought up by a strong-willed mother and failed missionary father, only desired to be a simple fundamentalist preacher saving souls in rural China, he volunteered for the U.S. military in 1942 and was put to work in gathering intelligence for the Office of Strategic Services, which eventually led to his untimely death. Lautz also explores the co-opting of Birch’s life by conspiracy-minded conservatives like Republican California Sen. William F. Knowland, who believed the “loss of China” would spell a communist conquest of the whole region and first mentioned the young man’s name in a speech in Congress in September 1950 as “the first casualty of World War III.” Subsequently, Birch’s name would become synonymous as a martyr to the Cold War, ardently endorsed by his mother. His life was appropriated by businessman Robert Welch, who broadcast the myths about him and started the John Birch Society in 1958 (“less government, more responsibility, and a better world”). Lautz sorts the real story from the “lunatic fringe.”

A useful work that elucidates both the U.S. role in China and some elements of the contemporary conservative mindset.