Robert Henry Winborne Welch Jr., was born in 1899 and quickly got a reputation as a child prodigy. At age twelve, he entered the University of North Carolina and was, by his own admission years later, “the most insufferable little squirt that ever tried to associate with his elders.” Raised as a fundamentalist Baptist, he tried to get his fellow students to come to Bible classes in his dorm room.
After four years, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy for two years before dropping out. He then entered Harvard Law School. Already a hard-line conservative, Welch left Harvard in the middle of his third and final year, “in disgust over what Felix Frankfurter was teaching – that labor and management were enemies.” Wile Professor Frankfurter went on to distinguished stint on the Supreme Court, the embittered Welch went home and began a candy company, “the one field in which it seemed least impossible to get started without either capital or experience.”
His Oxford Candy Company started making fudge from a recipe Welch bough from a candy store owner. He also began making caramels. One day, inspired by lollipops, he rolled out some of his caramel and stuck a stick into it. He called his new taste treat Papa Sucker. Powered by this success, the Oxford Candy Company did well enough for him to hire an employee, his brother James.
Things went along well enough for a while, but in 1925 James left and started his own candy company. Short the help, Robert made an unusual rights deal with the Brach Candy Company to manufacture Papa Suckers from its Chicago factory. Robert spent his time flying between his Brooklyn-based company and Chicago-based Brach, over-seeing the production of the caramel suckers.
In 1932, his candy company was hit hard by the Depression and went bankrupt. However, the James O. Welch Company, founded by his brother, was doing fine. In a reversal of fortunes, James hired Robert to take charge of his company’s advertising and sales.
One of the first things Robert did in his new capacity was to start making a candy identical to the Papa Sucker. To avoid legal problems with Brach, he changed its name to Sugar Daddy, hoping the new name would insinuate easy living and wealth.
His brother’s company began selling Sugar Daddies along with spin-offs like Sugar Babies, Junior Mints and Pom Poms. During the next three decades, the company’s annual sales increased from $200,000 to $20 million. Robert retired in 1956, a millionaire many times over.
Despite his money, Welch was very worried about holding on to it. He sensed foreign, alien philosophies floating through the land that threatened his fortune and sense of well-being. “There is no reason on Earth why we should let ourselves be infected by such diseases as socialism and communism, and other ideological cancers,” he wrote. In 1958, Welch decided to start an organization to wake America up to the grave dangers that threatened from every direction. He joined with ten other men and started the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, named after an Army intelligence agent who was killed in China ten days after World War II ended. Welch decided that Birch was the first casualty in World War III, which, as far as Welch was concerned, had already begun.
Welch believed hat all Americans fell into one of four categories: “Communists, communist dupes or sympathizers, the uninformed who have yet to be awakened to the communist danger, and the ignorant.” He believed it was almost too late to shake Americans out of their stupor: Wasn’t America already ruled by Dwight David Eisenhower, “a dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy?” Was not democracy itself nothing more than “a deceptive phrase, a weapon of demagoguery and a perennial fraud?” it was the Birch Society, he believed, that would bring America back to “less government, more responsibility and, with God’s help, a better world.”
But, of course, it wouldn’t be easy. Welch made up a map of the world, coloring each nation various shades of pink and red to indicate how “communistic” it was. The United States was a deep pink, and even the most brutal right-wing Latin American dictatorships that machine-gunned suspected communists by the carload were painted a light pink (“somewhat communistic”) instead of white (“completely free of communism”).
The John Birch Society achieved a surprising level of public awareness and claimed membership in the upper five figures. In the paranoid 1950s and ‘60s, Welch and his cronies funded scores of books, started bookstores all over the country, published a monthly called American Opinion and even opened a dozen summer camps to indoctrinate kids against communism. Welch used some of his Sugar Daddy earnings to buy billboards all over the country with the message “Impeach Earl Warren,” referring to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whom Welch believed was leading the country down the crimson path with his pro-union and civil rights rulings.
Welch was also opposed to the fluoride in the water (“a communist plot to make Americans into Mongolian idiots”), Norway (“secretly communist”), the Beatles (“Their songs are written by a communist think tank”), federal aid to education, arms negotiations, foreign aid, income taxes, collective bargaining, Social Security and much more. He wasn’t even particularly happy when Ronald Reagan was elected president, considering him hopelessly liberal.
As Welch’s political analysis ripened to full flagrant paranoia, he eventually decided that the “International Communist Conspiracy” was itself merely a front for something even bigger and scarier. The “inner circle that has been running the show,” for two centuries, he became convinced, was an ultra-secret cabal of masons that formed in Bavaria in May, 1776, and called itself “the Illuminati.”
Welch died in 1985, and his organization fell into irrelevancy and debt. the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism in Eastern Europe made it difficult for most of the world to take its message seriously (even though, the Society claimed, “the so-called fall of communism was just a clever hoax”). Even a move to Appleton, Wisconsin, to be close to the birthplace of their hero, senator and witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy, couldn’t sufficiently bolster the troops.
James Welch disavowed his brother’s views in 1961. He sold his candy company to Nabisco in 1963, but continued as a Nabisco director until 1978. James also died in 1985, just 27 days after his brother. Coincidence? Or was it conspiracy. . . ?