Oxford University Press, New York, 2016, 317 pages
Book Review published on: May 12, 2017
John Birch was a man known more for his name than for who he was. The eponymous John Birch Society, formed in 1958 by Robert Welch, capitalized on Birch’s death in China shortly after the end of World War II. In his book John Birch: A Life, Terry Lautz sheds light on how Welch’s version of Birch’s death eclipsed the rest of Birch’s life. The book is a well-balanced blend of biography and analysis concerning the events of Birch’s life and the broader context of the burgeoning Cold War that gave his death very different meanings to different people.
Birch was the son of fervently religious parents. The Great Depression and his parent’s devotion to God were two major influences throughout his life. His parent’s experiences as missionaries in India as well as the teachings of Christian evangelist J. Frank Norris on the importance of Christian missionaries inspired him at an early age to be a missionary in China. After attending Mercer College in Macon Georgia, Birch went to China to serve as a missionary, arriving in 1940. After Birch learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to help U.S. Army forces in China. By coincidence, Birch met Col. Jimmy Doolittle after Doolittle’s bombing of Japan. Birch helped Doolittle by serving as his translator. Doolittle told Gen. Lee Chennault, the commander of the First American Volunteer Group, about Birch’s help and his desire to join the Army. Chennault agreed to have Birch join his unit as an interpreter. Birch’s linguistic skills allowed him to work as an intelligence officer, and he often cooperated with regional Office of Strategic Service (OSS) groups. It was the last OSS mission concerning Japanese forces that brought about Birch’s death. After the Japanese surrender, Birch and an OSS team patrolled an area around Qingdao to gather information about Japanese airbases. Chinese Communist troops confronted the team, and Birch refused to allow the troops to detain them. During this confrontation, the Chinese officer in charge shot and killed him. There was little recognition of his death at the time.
Birch’s death gained new meaning in 1958, when Welch organized a group of supporters to protest and stop what they saw as Communist subversion of the U.S. government. Welch chose Birch as the inspiration for his group because of his death at the hands of the Chinese. Welch saw his death as the first casualty in the coming war between Communist and democratic nations. His society created a myth of Birch that was much different from the person who existed.
Lautz’s work effectively shows the differences between the Birch who Welch created and the person Birch was. His work also places Birch in the broader context of World War II and the nascent Cold War. Using memoirs, letters, and accounts from those who knew Birch, Lautz displays the depth of devotion Birch had to both his religion and his country. The blend of biography and analysis make this book accessible to readers interested in the early Cold War period as well as John Birch, the person.
Book Review written by: Gates M. Brown, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas