John Birch

A Life


John Birch was better known in death than life. Shot and killed by Communists in China in 1945, he posthumously became the namesake for a right-wing organization whose influence is still visible in today's Tea Party. This is the remarkable story of who he actually was: an American missionary-turned-soldier who wanted to save China, but became a victim instead.Terry Lautz, a longtime scholar of U.S.-China relations, has investigated archives, spoken with three of Birch's brothers, found letters written to the women he loved, and visited sites in China where he lived and died. The result, John Birch: A Life, is the first authoritative biography of this fascinating figure whose name was used for a political cause.Raised as a Baptist fundamentalist, Birch became a missionary to China prior to America's entry into the Second World War. After Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for the U.S. Army in China, served with Claire Chennault, commander of the famed Flying Tigers, and operated behind enemy lines as an intelligence officer. He planned to resume his missionary work after the war, but was killed in a dispute with Communist troops just days after Japan's surrender.During the heyday of the Cold War in the 1950s, Robert Welch, a retired businessman from Boston, chose Birch as the figurehead for the John Birch Society, believing that his death was evidence of conspiracy at the highest levels of government. The Birch Society became one of the most polarizing organizations of its time, and the name of John Birch became synonymous with right-wing extremism.Cutting through the layers of mythology surrounding Birch, Lautz deftly presents his life and his afterlife, placing him not only in the context of anti-communism but in the longstanding American quest to shape China's destiny.
  • Oxford University Press; December 2015
  • ISBN 9780190262907
  • Read online, or download in secure PDF or secure EPUB format
  • Title: John Birch
  • Author: Terry Lautz
  • Imprint: Oxford University Press

In The Press

"Lautz skillfully provides one of the most important benefits of scholarly study - the correction of ignorant assumptions through disseminating historical fact. Lautz's effective, four-part account of Birch's 27 years provdies readers an opportunity to examine 20th-century fundamentalism, relatively unknown military efforts of WWII, the postwar rise of communism in China and anti-communism in the US. A valuable addition to any collection."-Choice
"This remarkable book made clear to me how wrong I was in my assessment of John Birch. Because his name is associated with the right-wing John Birch Society, I assumed he personified its extreme views. Read this gracefully written biography and learn the fascinating truth about this extraordinary Christian, patriot, and good man."-Lee H. Hamilton, U.S. House of Representatives, former member, and U.S. Homeland Security Advisory Council
"With the support of extensive and highly original research, Terry Lautz has written a fascinating and informative biography of John Birch, allegedly the 'first victim of the Cold War.' This is the engaging story of the real person behind the myth, and why and how the former was transformed into the latter as a symbol of conservative politics in America."-Chen Jian, Hu Shih Professor of History and U.S.-China Relations, Cornell University
"This engaging study of the life and legacy of John Birch offers an illuminating read for anyone interested in the American missionary and military experience in China or the politics of anti-Communism in the U.S. Based on exhaustive archival and interview research, Terry Lautz's wonderful book is full of surprises about the origins of the infamous John Birch Society and the (unlikely) man in whose name it was founded."-Elizabeth J. Perry, Henry Rosovosky Professor of Government at Harvard University and Director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute
"A fascinating window into the tumultuous events of American involvement in China during World War II. Lautz's depiction of the John Birch affair provides the human story behind a mythical figure in American political life. This is an eye-opening account that scholars as well as general readers interested in American and Chinese history and politics will value."-David Shambaugh, George Washington University and The Brookings Institution
"Most treatments of Birch's life have tended to present it as a short preface to the history of the society carrying his name. But now, in "John Birch: A Life" (Oxford), Terry Lautz reverses the usual proportions and presents a biography of Birch in which the society figures as a sort of epilogue. Lautz has the kind of credentials-a trustee of the Harvard-Yenching Institute; a member of the Council on Foreign Relations-guaranteed to give fits to any Bircher past or present, but his book is thorough, judicious, and, except for a few overdone academic references to Cold War "paranoia," respectful of larger historical realities. Even conservatives near the mainstream's right bank will be hard-pressed to see it as another anti-anti-Communist undertaking."--Thomas Mallon, The New Yorker
"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."-Kirkus Reviews
"Lautz rounds out a commendable study that fills a significant scholarly gap."- Publishers Weekly
"Mr. Lautz's meticulous, readable book tells the whole story, from Birch's birth in India to missionary parents to his controversial afterlife. It is a pungent and poignant tale that touches on several major themes of midcentury history-Western evangelism in China, U.S. relations with the Chinese Communists and the caustic accusations of treachery made against American officials after those Communists took power in 1949." --Richard Bernstein, Wall Street Journal
"The only way to learn about the real John Birch is to read about him - and Lautz's biography is the right place to start." --John J. Miller, National Review
"Beyond bringing us back to a chapter of irrationalism in our past, Lautz's equally interesting contribution is to rescue John Birch, the man, from obscurity and from the society that pirated his name." --Gabriel Schoenfeld, lThe Weekly Standard'
"Lautz painstakingly reconstructs the brief life of this missionary, soldier and spy, who arrived in China to save souls in 1940 and was shot dead by Communist soldiers five years later. Birch becomes a case study in the "well-meaning idealism and misguided adventurism" that had animated the interest of Americans in China since the 19th century... Lautz has written an enlightening reflection on a complex history."--Global Asia
"In his splendid new biography "John Birch: A Life," Terry Lautz of Syracuse University asks many questions about Birch's life and legend. The first, in the opening pages, is the most compelling: How did a young, obscure lieutenant killed in a remote province of China become the namesake of an anti-communist organization whose zealous supporters shook the foundation of American political life?"--Alaska Dispatch News

About The Author

Terry Lautz is a Moynihan Research Scholar at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and former vice president of the Henry Luce Foundation. He is also a director of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, trustee of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, and member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He graduated from Harvard College, served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and holds an MA and PhD from Stanford University.