Claire Conner’s father was a national spokesperson for the John Birch Society for more than thirty years; her mother was also a staunch follower. Conner holds a degree in English from the University of Dallas and a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin. Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right (coming in July from Beacon Press) gives an inside look at one of the most radical right-wing movements in American history and shows how it impacts our politics today.
Every year, during Holocaust Remembrance Week, the people of the United States promise to “never forget” the six million who perished in Hitler’s death camps. I make the same promise. Then I add my own personal vow—to never forget Dr. Revilo P. Oliver, a classics professor from the University of Illinois and a founding member of the John Birch Society. Using an energized, anti-Communist right wing network, Oliver peddled his revised history of World War II; one in which the Jews invented the Holocaust and foisted the story of their imaginary persecution on an unsuspecting world. I heard Oliver spin his vile “Holohoax” ideas right in my parents’ living room.
In late 1958, my parents became the first two members of the John Birch Society in Chicago. They were welcomed into the brand new organization by founder, Robert Welch, who introduced them to Oliver. Welch and Oliver were personal and professional friends. Over the years, Welch often described Oliver as one of the “ablest speakers on the Americanist side.”
Any friend of Welch got a warm welcome from my parents. The first time I met the man, however, he gave me the creeps. His long face was exaggerated by black hair slicked back with greasy pomade, bushy eyebrows and beady eyes and wide handlebar mustache. I never saw Oliver smile. But his lips often curled in a nasty snarl, especially when he was berating someone who dared to disagree.
Oliver was a frequent contributor to National Review, William F. Buckley’s magazine, and to the John Birch Society’s magazine, American Opinion. In the pages of these journals, he expressed some of his most controversial positions including a 1965 slam against the United States for “an insane, but terribly effective, effort to destroy the American people and Western civilization by subsidizing . . . the breeding of the intellectually, physically, and morally unfit.”
Oliver peppered his speeches and his articles with racial slurs and discredited historical assumption. In his role as a member of the John Birch Society speakers’ bureau, he railed against Communist subversion inside our government while insisting that President Roosevelt tricked the United States into World War II in order to help his friend, Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator.
Along with this interpretation of World War II, Oliver peddled his version of the Holocaust, one in stark contrast to everything I’d learned from our Jewish neighbors and my own father. Gone were the yellow stars and the death camps. Gone were the gas chambers and crematoria. Even the witness of American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald and Dachau was repudiated. Instead, Oliver said that there were no gas chambers and no exterminations.
My parents parroted Oliver. The Holocaust stopped being so terrible, the death camps turned into detention camps. Jews were imprisoned because they were traitors, not because of their faith. The “Final Solution” became fiction, and the Nazis were loyal military men following orders.
I’d met Jews with tattoos on their arms. I’d seen photographs from Buchenwald. I knew that millions of men, women and children were gassed and their ashes coated everything when the fires roared. I knew all of this as well as I knew my name. I was not even 14 and I thought my parents had lost their minds. Dr. Oliver had helped them
No matter what Revilo Oliver said, he continued to serve (with my father) on the John Birch Society National Council, the inner circle of the organization. My parents drank in everything he said and repeated most of it, almost verbatim. Robert Welch heaped praise on Oliver for his outstanding contributions to the Birch cause.
All of this Oliver devotion stopped abruptly in July of 1966, when Oliver headlined the New England Rally for God, Family, and Country, an annual Birch-sponsored festival held in Boston and billed as a reunion for conservative Americans. In his speech, “Conspiracy or Degeneracy, Oliver talked about “vaporizing” Jews as part of the “beatific vision.”
Oliver’s statements generated an avalanche of negative press, followed by internal Birch turmoil on how to respond. Oliver had said all of this and more for years and every single member of the Birch leadership had heard him. But time this was different. Oliver’s public and blatant racism sounded like it echoed John Birch Society policies. And the press covered it.
In early August, Welch told council members that Oliver had resigned. In a split-second, he vanished from my parents’ conversation. They pretended that Oliver had never been a Birch leader or a personal friend.
Revilo Oliver lived the rest of his life as a hero to neo-Nazis, skin heads and white supremacists. His views never moderated. In 1982, twelve years before his death by suicide, Oliver wrote that democracy would only be possible by “deporting, vaporizing, or otherwise disposing of swarms of Jews, Congoids (Africans), Mongoloids and mongrels (mixed-race) that now infest our territory.”
Oliver put an indelible mark on the John Birch Society, built a network of Holocaust deniers and recruited countless followers to spread his message of hate. This year, the theme of the Holocaust Remembrance is “heeding the warning signs.” There is no warning sign of more significance than the continuing presence of Holocaust denial in our public life. We can’t begin to understand today’s deniers if we don’t take a hard look at the man who fueled the denial movement.