Birchers, fluoride, and Frankfort Republicans Skip to content

Birchers, fluoride, and Frankfort Republicans

The crazy theories of the Birchers are now the policy positions of Frankfort Republicans.

Photo by Diana Polekhina / Unsplash

Nobody would be rooting harder for House Bill 141 than the late Robert W. Welch Jr., founder of the far-right-wing, paranoiac John Birch Society.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Mark Hart (R-Falmouth) would make fluoridated drinking water optional in Kentucky.

The Birch Society’s best-known conspiratorial flight of fancy was its claim that putting fluoride in water was a Moscow-directed mind-control plot. The Ku Klux Klan joined the anti-fluoridated water crusade.  

Mandated in our drinking water for years, fluoride is scientifically proven to prevent tooth decay and mouth disease. But as columnist Joseph Gerth wrote in the Louisville Courier-Journal, “There is a segment of the population that gloms onto junk science and uses it to disparage the scientific community’s advice on just about anything and everything we do to try to prevent  the spread of disease or preserve life on our planet.”

Forward Kentucky publisher Bruce Maples named Hart’s pet one of the “Four Stupid Bills” introduced in this session of the mega-MAGA majority General Assembly. “Some bills are obviously good, some are a mix of good and bad, and some are just bad,” he explained. “But these four go beyond bad and into ‘stupid.’”

Wrote Maples: 

“In a report on oral health in Kentucky, I found this statistic:

“Studies show that water fluoridation reduces the rate of dental caries by about 25% over a person’s lifetime. The CDC recognizes water fluoridation as one of the most important public health interventions of the last century for its contribution to improved population oral health.

“In 2012, Kentucky was #1 in fluoridation of its water systems, with 99.9% of the population receiving fluoridated water.

“And yet, with all that scientific evidence, our legislature is considering making it optional – which means, for any water system that is run by a for-profit company, it will become a thing of the past.”

Hart might not know it. But he's got an ally in Texan Alex Jones, the Infowars sleazeball who lied about the Sandy Hook school massacre and was successfully sued for $1.1 million by families of the victims. Jones said chugging fluoridated water makes you dumb, wrote Bruce Y. Lee in Forbes

He quoted Jones: “I grew up in Dallas, Texas, drinking sodium fluoridated water. All the scientific studies show my IQ has been reduced by at least 20 points.”

Advised Lee, “OK, if you enter “Alex Jones” and “IQ” into a PubMed search you get the following: ‘Search results, Items: 0.’”

Lee conceded that his fruitless search result “doesn't necessarily mean that Jones’ IQ is zero but it does suggest that no scientific studies have been done specifically on his IQ. Furthermore, in a Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) summarized numerous studies that have shown the benefits (preventing cavities) and safety of putting fluoride in community drinking water.”

On the other hand, it’s still possible “that Jones’ IQ has gone down by 20 points but there’s no real evidence that fluoride is the culprit,” Lee wrote, adding, “Did I mention that Jones sells water filtration devices?”

Anyway, the Birchers have always provided us a mother lode of laughable loopiness.   

For example, historian Matthew Dallek wrote that Welch said somebody hid a tube of radioactive radium in the upholstery of ultra-conservative Robert Taft’s chair on the Senate floor. The deadly device gave him cancer, which ultimately killed him, according to Welch.

The society said that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” The civil rights movement was communist-inspired and its goal was starting an “independent Negro-Soviet Republic,” according to the JBS, which also charged that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a commie.

The society didn’t want for fellow travelers in the anti-fluoridated water crusade.  

During the 50s, Golda Franzen of San Francisco “became the leading exponent of the idea that fluoridation was a ‘Red conspiracy,’” Donald R. McNeil wrote in a 1976 issue of The Wilson Quarterly. “She predicted that fluoridation would produce ‘moronic, atheistic slaves’ who would end up ‘praying to the communists.’”

Franzen’s nuttiness was echoed by Birchers and the KKK. But the anti-fluoride movement gained “particular salience during the anti-Communist fevers of the McCarthy era,” according to McNeil.

C. Leon de Aryan, who edited an anti-semitic publication in San Diego, “described the spread of fluoridation as a plot to ‘weaken the Aryan race’ by ‘paralyzing the functions of the frontal lobes,’” McNeil wrote.

The anti-fluoride campaign proved remarkably effective at first. In 1952, Seattle voters rejected fluoridated water by a wide margin. (Fluoridation failed by a narrower margin at the polls in 1963, finally passed five years later and took effect in 1970.)

In the first election, opposition was led by a committee that “drew support from Christian Scientists, a few dentists, health food operators, and fervent anti-Communists,” McNeil wrote. “Another set of allies, the chiropractors, published fluoride’s deleterious effects – tumors, brittleness of bones, oily sweat, undue financial anxiety, loss of memory, and nymphomania.”

Other cities voted down fluoridated water until most Americans opted to elevate science over nonsense and concluded it was a health benefit.

Odd as it may seem, fluoride made its way onto the silver screen in the 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The famous dark comedy satirized the cold war.   

In the film, U.S. Air Force Brigadier Gen. Jack D. Ripper, played by Sterling Hayden, schooled his British comrade-in-arms, RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) on the perils of fluoridated drinking water. “Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation? Fluoridation of water?” the cigar-puffing Ripper asked. “Well, you know what it is? Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?”

Ripper confided that he drank “only distilled water, or rainwater, and only pure grain alcohol.”

If Hart has his way, anti-fluoride Kentuckians will no longer have to wet their whistles with just distilled water, rain water, and Everclear. 

A footnote: Writing in The New Republic, Chris Lehmann mused that “Welch, who died in 1985, would doubtless relish the rise of a baldly conspiracy-obsessed twenty-first-century right, intoning its grievances against a ‘deep state’ and bruiting the notion of corrupt power elites’ complete treasonous control of the electoral system. Yesterday’s maladaptive crank has become today’s defender of the true and pure right-wing creed; whereas Robert Welch toiled in the mocked and marginal fringe of the ‘paranoid style,’ today scores of prominent GOP leaders — from Josh Hawley and Tucker Carlson to J.D. Vance and Marjorie Taylor Greene — proudly wave the Bircher standard of ultrapatriotic elite-baiting and victimhood.”

Sadly, so do most Kentucky Republicans.


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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY