White Revolution and the Legacy of the Vietnam War

Bring the War Home (Harvard University Press, 2018).

Drawing on government documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and multiple archives of White Power publications, Kathleen Belew has written a comprehensive history of White Power vigilantism, paramilitary training, and revolutionary violence in the United States. In her new book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Harvard University Press, 2018), Belew focuses on the pivotal time between the mid-1970s and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing: the period that witnessed the rise and fall of the White Power terrorist organization the Order. Founded and led by Robert Mathews in 1983, and seeing itself as the vanguard of a White revolution, members of the Order committed a string of robberies and in June 1984 assassinated Jewish radio host Alan Berg. Belew makes the connections between the violence of the Order and the other factions—Klan, neonazi, Christian Identity, and paramilitary militias—that comprise a full-blown social movement.

Perhaps the most interesting argument in Bring the War Home is the idea that it was the American experience in Vietnam that radicalized White Power activists. It was that, Belew argues, that created the frame within which they moved from more-or-less “patriotic” vigilantism in defense of Jim Crow and its sensibilities—such as violent voter suppression in the South, or Klansmen patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border—to revolutionary efforts to disrupt or even overthrow the state to establish a new White dominated, or all-White territory. Woven through Belew’s narrative is the role of both crucial movement activists’ direct experiences in Vietnam, and the broader consciousness of the American war machine’s humiliating loss in that country. For White Power activists, losing a war to dark-skinned Vietnamese enemies echoed what they saw as the capitulation at home of federal and state governments to the Civil Rights Movement.

Belew traces the continuity between the Klan of the late ‘70s, the spread of paramilitary training camps run by Vietnam veterans, the Order, through the armed militias of the ‘90s leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing. Along the way, she points out how law enforcement has consistently underestimated the threat of White Power violence, often while misunderstanding its implacable opposition to the idea of a multi-racial state. This March, Belew talked to Steven Gardiner for The Public Eye:

PE: Early in the book you describe the moment in 1983 when what you call the White Power Movement declared war on the United States. In a closed-door meeting at the Aryan Nations World Congress, movement leaders seem to have decided that the time for racist vigilantism was over and all-out White revolution was called for. What factors made 1983 the breaking point?

Kathleen Belew: In a lot of ways, the White Power Movement mirrored what was happening in society at large. This is true of the movement’s revolutionary turn in 1983, which mirrored the feelings of people across the Right, particularly evangelicals, who were beginning to express frustration with what they saw as the moderation of the Reagan administration. Social issues like abortion were beginning to galvanize people. But the White Power Movement represented a much more extreme reaction to this moment. Its members saw the distance between Reagan’s campaign promises and his administration’s action as proof that electoral politics would never deliver the changes they wanted. White Power activists came to see a war on the federal government as the only option.

Typically, the phrase “bring the war home” is more associated with the Left, with the Black Power Movement and anti-war veterans. The link between Vietnam and the racist Right—though it seems intuitively powerful—is not one I have seen treated at length before. How did you come to see it this way?

The White power movement cohered around a common narrative of the Vietnam War, emphasizing gore, horror and an intense sense of betrayal by politicians, military leaders, and even civilians back home.

The White Power Movement cohered around a common narrative of the Vietnam War, one that emphasized gore and horror and, perhaps more than anything else, an intense sense of betrayal by the government, politicians, military leaders, and even civilians back home. This story created both an entry into the movement for a small but influential cohort of veterans and active-duty personnel and a performative identity for those who had not served. This is evident in the materials produced by the movement. They portray people in camouflage fatigues, marching in military formations, and armed with military-grade weapons. In one image taken by an undercover informant, a Klansman poses in a hood made out of camouflage material. This paramilitarism within the White Power Movement was far more than performative, though: it worked to escalate movement violence, pave the way to race war, and dramatically increase the civilian casualties that resulted from White Power actions.

KKK members and a white supremacist group the America First Committee, hold a rally in Marquette park, Chicago, Illinois, 28th June 1986. Photo: Mark Reinstein / Alamy.

In a remarkable speech to police chiefs in 1982, Ronald Reagan lamented the moral decline of America, suggesting that the growth of government and spending on the public good undermined individual responsibility. His speech was part of the New Right’s systematic attack on the idea of government as an agent of the public good. To what extent was the White Power Movement’s turn to fomenting revolution bound up with this more general attack on government?

Although anti-state ideas appeared in both mainstream conservatism and the White Power Movement in the 1980s, the people I write about were not conservative. They typically did not believe their goals could be achieved by simply maintaining existing order, or by turning the clock back to Jim Crow segregation or even slavery. They thought they would have to use more violent methods to achieve their ends. However, anti-state ideas sometimes connected White Power activists to the New Right, and even occasionally provided recruitment opportunities that appealed to that group.

Following the terrorist attacks of the Order and the Whidbey Island confrontation with founder Robert Mathews in 1984, federal law enforcement seemed to recognize that elements of the Far Right had turned from patriotic vigilantism to sedition, and reacted accordingly. Even so, in the early 1990s, there was another round of paramilitary training and organizing that culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing. Do you see a tendency on the part of federal law enforcement to minimize the threat posed by White Power terrorists?

The successful prosecutions of Order members in the mid-1980s were achieved under anti-racketeering laws, whereas a major federal seditious conspiracy trial failed to convict White Power activists in 1988. Further, the prosecution of the Order was piecemeal. Only a fraction of its members ever stood trial. Historically, although some federal agents have worked arduously to prosecute White Power activists, their efforts have often been stymied by a lack of understanding about the scope and nature of the movement. White Power activism is often depicted as the work of “lone wolf” terrorists, rather than as part of a wide-reaching social movement. But this movement reached across all regions of the country, included men, women, and children, and bridged urban and rural divides. My hope is that a more complete history of this movement will reveal these interconnections and enable more coherent opposition.

As you note, there seems to be a reluctance among both scholars and journalists to understand the political activity of the White Power Movement and the Hard Right more generally as constituting a social movement. Why is this and what are the consequences for our understanding?

The historical archive shows over and over again that the White Power Movement attempted to avoid being understood as such. Through strategies like leaderless resistance, which called for cell-style violence without direct command from movement leadership, the activists attempted to hide that they were a movement. The archive that disproves this idea is only recently available and Bring the War Home is the first to make use of it in full. Thousands of pages of government surveillance documents and previously unavailable movement publications make clear what these earlier accounts missed: that White Power was a social movement bound by networks.

Through strategies like leaderless resistance, which called for cell-style violence without direct command from movement leadership, the activists attempted to hide that they were a movement.

Following the Oklahoma City bombing, a combination of public revulsion and increased law enforcement crackdowns dampened the movement’s revolutionary activities. The center of gravity seemed to shift—away from trying to either carve out a White racial homeland or overthrow the United States government and toward pressuring the Republican Party, particularly on immigration. Do you see in today’s climate any indications of a new move toward revolutionary violence on the part of forces analogous to the ‘80s and ‘90s White Power Movement?

The historical record shows that in the absence of decisive prosecution, the White Power Movement has retreated, regrouped, and reemerged after moments of public backlash. While the Oklahoma City bombing did result in public attention and some new enforcement efforts, its investigation was limited only to the bombers and a few co-conspirators, with a more sweeping effort deliberately prohibited by investigative policy. The White Power Movement was not publicly confronted. Perhaps now, with a full archival history of the movement available and at another moment of intense public interest, we might hope for a different result.

What drew you to write about the White Power Movement and more particularly the revolutionary turn in the aftermath of the Vietnam War?

“I killed communists in Vietnam, why wouldn’t I kill them here?”

I was drawn to this topic through research on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held in Greensboro, North Carolina, to explore the 1979 shooting of five Leftist protestors by Klan and neonazi gunmen. The commission sought to understand how the gunmen were acquitted in state and federal trials despite extensive video footage of their actions. Although it had no subpoena power, several perpetrators and other White Power activists chose to testify, and many of them repeated a similar story that went, basically, “I killed communists in Vietnam, why wouldn’t I kill them here?” I found this intriguing because it represented such an intense collapse of enemies, and of battlefield and home front. As I began to review the writings of key White Power activists, this idea came up over and over again and gave rise to the book.