“WE NEED EVERY ONE OF YOU,” proclaimed an anonymous 1985 article in a major white power newspaper. “We need every branch of fighting, militant whites. We are too few right now to excommunicate each other…. Whatever will save our race is what we will do!”
White power activists increasingly saw the state as their enemy. Many pursued the idea of an all-white, racial nation. The militant rallying cry “white power,” which echoed in all corners of the movement, was its most accurate self-descriptor.
Movement leader Louis Beam urged activists to continue fighting the Vietnam War on American soil. He referred to two wars: the one he had fought in Vietnam and the white revolution he hoped to wage in the United States.
In the wake of military failure in Southeast Asia, masculinity provided an ideological frame for the New Right, challenged antiwar sentiment, and idealized bygone and invented familial and gender orders throughout American society. The white power movement capitalized on this wave of broader cultural paramilitarism for its own, violent ends.
Conventional politics was unsalvageable and signaled a state of emergency that could not be resolved through political action alone. Their paramilitary infrastructure stood ready; the war could not wait.
The white power movement sought revolution and separation, the founding of a racial utopian nation.
A large contingent of white power activists in the post-Vietnam moment believed in white supremacy as a component of religious faith. Christian Identity congregations heard their pastors explain that whites were the true lost tribe of Israel and that nonwhites and Jews were descended from Satan or from animals.
White power violence reached a climax in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
War is not neatly contained in the space and time legitimated by the state. It reverberates in other terrains and lasts long past armistice. It comes home in ways bloody and unexpected.
The article spoke of emergency and government treachery. It foretold imminent apocalyptic race war. It called to believers in white supremacist congregations, to Klansmen and southern separatists, and to neoNazis. The white power movement united a wide array of groups and activists previously at odds, thrown together by tectonic shifts in the cultural and political landscape. Narratives of betrayal and crisis cemented their alliances.
Though often described by others as “white nationalist” and by its members as patriotic, this movement did not seek to defend the American nation, even when it celebrated some elements of US. history and identity. Instead white power activists increasingly saw the state as their enemy.
Many pursued the idea of an all-white, racial nation, one that transcended national borders to unite white people from the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, South Africa, and beyond. The militant rallying cry “white power,” which echoed in all corners of the movement, was its most accurate self-descriptor.
At the end of the tumultuous 1970s, in the wake of the Vietnam War and in the midst of economic turmoil and widespread distrust of public institutions, the white power movement consolidated and expanded. In these turbulent years, many Americans lost faith in the state that they had trusted to take care of them. Loss in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal undermined their confidence in elected officials and besmirched the presidency itself. As legislation dramatically increased immigration, many worried that the arrival of immigrants would change the very meaning of American identity. They saw the rights movements of the 1960s redefine race and gender relations at home and at work. They noted with alarm the government’s failure to help those who lost their farms to the banks or their factories to faraway places. As the mainstream right and left took up these concerns in a variety of ways, so did this troubled social and political context incubate white power activism.
PeopIe from all regions of the country answered the white power movement’s call to action, bridging the divide between rural and urban. They were men, women, and children. They were high school dropouts and holders of advanced degrees; rich and poor; farmers and industrial workers. They were felons and religious leaders. They were civilians, veterans, and active duty military personnel.
From its formal unification in 1979 through its 1983 turn to revolutionary war on the government and its militia phase in the early 1990s, the white power movement mobilized adherents using a cohesive social network based on commonly held beliefs. These activists operated with discipline and clarity, training in paramilitary camps and undertaking assassinations, mercenary soldiering, armed robbery, counterfeiting, and weapons trafficking.
White power violence reached a climax in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
A holistic study of the white power movement reveals a startling and unexpected origin: the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
The story activists told about Vietnam and the response to the war on the right were major forces in uniting disparate strands of American white supremacism and in sustaining that unity. As narrated by white power proponents, the Vietnam War was a story of constant danger, gore, and horror. It was also a story of soldiers’ betrayal by military and political leaders and of the trivialization of their sacrifice. This narrative facilitated intergroup alliances and increased paramilitarism within the movement, escalating violence.
In his speeches, newsletters, and influential 1983 collection Essays of a Klansman, movement leader Louis Beam urged activists to continue fighting the Vietnam War on American soil. When he exhorted readers to “bring it on home,” he meant a literal extension of military style combat into civilian space. He referred to two wars: the one he had fought in Vietnam and the white revolution he hoped to wage in the United States.
White power activists would also engage in other wars. Some would become mercenaries in military interventions ranging from Latin America to southern Africa. Others would fight in the Gulf War. Although they comprised only a small number of the combatants in these conflicts, their mercenary and active-duty soldiering assimilated them into the broader militarization and paramilitary culture that was more prominent in American society. Their ventures set the stage for later encounters, such as the sieges of separatist compounds at Ruby Ridge and Waco by militarized police forces, which would, in turn, spur the movement to its largest mass casualty.
The white power movement that emerged from the Vietnam era shared some common attributes with earlier racist movements in the United States, but it was no mere echo. Unlike previous iterations of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist vigilantism, the white power movement did not claim to serve the state. Instead, white power made the state its target, declaring war against the federal government in 1983. This call for revolution arrived during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which many historians have considered the triumph of the mainstream New Right.
Antistatism in general, and hostility toward the federal government in particular, had motivated and shaped earlier conservative and reactionary mobilizations as well as the New Right itself, but white power capitalized on a larger current of discontent among conservatives.
By 1984, Time magazine had noticed a “thunder on the right”: a growing dissatisfaction, especially among evangelicals, with the distance between Reagan’s campaign promises and his policies, particularly concerning social issues that galvanized voters, such as abortion.
White power activists responded to Reagan’s first term with calls for a more extreme course of action. Reagan’s moderation, as activists saw it, revealed conventional politics as unsalvageable and signaled a state of emergency that could not be resolved through political action alone. Their paramilitary infrastructure stood ready; the war could not wait.
After declaring war, activists plotted to overthrow the government through attacks on infrastructure, assassinations, and counterfeiting to undermine public confidence in currency. They armed themselves with weapons and matériel stolen from military installations. They matched this revolutionary work with the publication and circulation of printed material, recruitment drives aimed at mainstream conservatives, political campaigns, talk show appearances, and radio programs.
These activities both disseminated a common set of beliefs, goals, and messages to the movement faithful and worked to recruit new members. In the late 1980s, many activists reorganized into militias. Although some militias disclaimed white supremacy in public, many shared funds, weapons, and personnel with white power organizations.
While white power was certainly a fringe movement, it surpassed earlier mobilizations such as the anticommunist John Birch Society. Membership alone is a poor measure of white power activity, with records often hidden, distorted, or destroyed, but nevertheless illuminates the movement’s relative size. Scholars and watchdog groups who have attempted to calculate the numbers of people in the movement’s varied branches, including, for instance, Klansmen and neoNazis, who are often counted separately, estimate that there were about 25,000 “hard-core members” in the 1980s. An additional 150,000-175,000 people bought white power literature, sent contributions to groups, or attended rallies or other events, signifying a larger, although less formal, level of membership. Another 450,000 did not themselves participate or purchase materials but read the literature. The John Birch Society, in contrast, reached only 100,000 members at its 1965 peak.
With the 1983 turn to revolution, the movement adopted a new strategy, “leaderless resistance.” Following this strategy, independent cells and activists would act without direct contact with movement leadership. The aim was to prevent the infiltration of groups, and the prosecution of organizations and individuals, by formally dissociating activists from each other and by eliminating official orders. Popularized throughout the underground, leaderless resistance changed recruitment goals, emphasizing the importance of enlisting a small number of fully committed activists rather than large groups of the less committed. This is another reason membership counts alone could not accurately convey the movement’s impact, activity, or capacity for violence.
Yet to the degree that there is power in numbers, the movement reached a new peak during its militia phase. At the height of its mainstream appeal in the mid-1990s, the militia movement counted some five million members and sympathizers, according to one watchdog analyst. That number certainly represents the upper bound of possibility, and it is likely that the white-power-identified cohort of militia members and sympathizers was significantly smaller. However, five million places the militia movement in line with the largest surge of the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership peaked in 1924 at four million.
While white power activists held worldviews that aligned or overlapped with those of mainstream conservatism, including opposition to immigration, welfare, abortion, feminism, and gay and lesbian rights, the movement was not dedicated to political conservatism aimed at preserving an existing way of life, or even to the reestablishment of bygone racial or gender hierarchies. Instead, it emphasized a radical future that could be achieved only through revolution. While some white power activists might have longed for the reinstatement of Jim Crow laws, white-minority rule as in Rhodesia and South Africa, or slavery, most agreed that such systems could not be resurrected through electoral politics alone but would have to be achieved by more drastic measures.
This abandonment of the political process reflects a profound shift in the American electorate wrought by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which barred disenfranchisement on the basis of race. Reactionary politics, conservatism, and American nationalism had characterized the Klan in the early part of the twentieth century. The white power movement sought revolution and separation, the founding of a racial utopian nation.
Many activists connected ideas of a radical political future with belief in imminent apocalypse. The theologies espoused by white power activists in this period differed significantly from the Protestantism of the reactionary second-era Klan that peaked in the 1920s. White power religious radicalism emerged in part from Cold War understandings of communism as a threat to Christianity. At the same time, a large contingent of white power activists in the post-Vietnam moment believed in white supremacy as a component of religious faith. Christian Identity congregations heard their pastors explain that whites were the true lost tribe of Israel and that nonwhites and Jews were descended from Satan or from animals. Other racist churches adopted similar theologies that lauded whiteness as holy and sought to preserve the white race. Activists also adopted Odinism and other forms of neoPagan white supremacy that posited a shared, pan-European white cultural heritage.
The movement’s religious extremism was integral to its broader revolutionary character. While increasingly politicized evangelical congregations espoused belief in the rapture, a foretold moment when the faithful would be peacefully transported from the world as the apocalyptic end times began Christian Identity and other white theologies offered believers no such guarantees of safety. Instead, they held that the faithful would be tasked with ridding the world of the unfaithful, the world’s nonwhite and Jewish population, before the return of Christ. At the very least, the faithful would have to outlast the great tribulation, a period of bloodshed and strife.
Many movement followers prepared by becoming survivalists: stocking food and learning to administer medical care. Other proponents of white cosmologies saw it as their personal responsibility to amass arms and train themselves to take part in a coming end-times battle that would take the shape of race war.
A war of this scale and urgency demanded that partisans set aside their differences. The movement therefore was flexible in its adoption of racist symbols and beliefs. A Klansman in the South might participate in burning crosses, wear the white robe and hood, and embrace the Confederate battle flag alongside a Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War. A neo-Nazi in the North might march under the banner of the swastika and don an SS uniform. But the once disparate approaches to white supremacy represented by these symbols and ideas were drawn together in the white power movement. A suburban California skinhead might bear Klan tattoos, read Nazi tracts, and attend meetings of a local Klan chapter, a National Socialist political party, the militant White Aryan Resistance, or all three. At the Aryan Nations compound in northern Idaho, Klansmen and neo-Nazis ignited both crosses and swastikas as they heard Christian Identity sermons and speakers from an array of white power groups. Activists circulated among groups and belief systems, each of which might include theological, political, and pseudoscientific varieties of racism, antisemitism, and antifeminism.
Amid this multiplicity of symbolic presentations and beliefs, most white power activists found common ground. They believed in white supremacy and the need for a white homeland.
They feared that the government would eradicate the white population through interference with the birth of white children, through interracial marriage, rape, birth control, abortion, and immigration. The antisemitism long espoused by the Klan was reinforced by neo-Nazis. And the movement adopted a strict set of gender and familial roles, particularly regarding the sexual and supportive behavior of white women and their protection by white men.
Another unifying feature of the movement was its strident anticommunism, which at first aligned with mainstream Cold War conservatism and then transformed into an apocalyptic, antiinternationalist, antisemitic set of beliefs and conspiracy theories about what activists called the Zionist Occupational Government (ZOG) and, later, the New World Order.
Increasingly, white power activists believed that the Jewish-Ied ZOG controlled the United Nations, the US. federal government, and the banks, and that ZOG used people of color, communists, liberals, journalists, academics, and other enemies of the movement as puppets in a conspiracy to eradicate the white race and its economic, social, and cultural accomplishments.
To confront this grave threat, activists organized as a paramilitary army and adopted masculine cultural forms. The article that levied the plea “We Need Every One of You” was titled “White Soldier Boy” for a reason. It targeted young white men, not women, for recruitment into the presumptively male world of camouflage fatigues, military-style camps and drills, and military-grade weapons. It also spoke directly to combat veterans and active-duty military personnel.
In this respect, white power can be understood as an especially extreme and violent manifestation of larger social forces that wed masculinity with militancy, in the form of paintball, war movies, gun shows, and magazines such as Soldier of Fortune that were aimed at armchair and weekend warriors. This is not to suggest that such cultural forms were coequal with white power, or with conservatism more broadly. But it is not by coincidence that white power gathered steam amid the wider post-Vietnam “remasculinization of America.” In the wake of military failure in Southeast Asia, masculinity provided an ideological frame for the New Right, challenged antiwar sentiment, and idealized bygone and invented familial and gender orders throughout American society. The white power movement capitalized on this wave of broader cultural paramilitarism for its own, violent ends.
However, the white power movement departed from mainstream paramilitary culture in carving out an important place for women, relied on as symbols of the cause and as activists in their own right. As bearers of white children, women were essential to the realization of white power’s mission: to save the race from annihiiation. More concretely, their supporting roles, auxiliary organizations, and recruiting skills sustained white power as a social movement. They brokered social relationships that cemented intergroup alliances and shaped the movement from within.
In all these ways, its unity, revolutionary commitments, organizing strategy, anticommunist focus, and Vietnam War inheritance, white power was something new. Yet it has often been misunderstood as a simple resurgence of earlier Klan activity. Historians divide the Klan into “eras,” with the first following the Civil War, the second in the 1920s, and the third dedicated to opposing the civil rights movement. To understand white power as a Klan resurgence rests upon an artificial distinction between nonviolent and violent activism, in which the socalled fourth era refers to nonviolent, publicsphere activities, such as rallies and political campaigns, and the fifth era to the criminal activity of a secret, violent underground. This terminology arose from the white power movement itself and evokes previous surges in Klan membership that occurred one after another with lulls between. But the supposed fourth and fifth eras occurred simultaneously. This terminology therefore hinders an understanding of the activism it attempts to describe.
White power should be recognized as something broader than the Klan, encompassing a wider range of ideologies and operating simultaneously in public and underground. Such an understanding is vital lest we erroneously equate white power with covert violence and thereby ignore its significant inroads into mainstream society, which hardly came under cover of night. Activists such as David Duke mounted political campaigns that influenced local and national elections. They produced a vibrant print culture with crossover appeal that reached more mainstream readers. They traveled from church to church, linking religious belief with white power ideology. They created a series of computer message boards to further their cause. They pursued social ties between groups, cementing their political affinities with one another through marriages and other intimate bonds.
These political activists were often the same people who trained in paramilitary camps, plotted race war, and carried out criminal and terrorist acts. The death toll included journalists, state and federal employees, political opponents, and white power activists themselves. The Oklahoma City bombing, undertaken by movement activists, killed 168 people, making it the largest deliberate mass casualty on American soil between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks of September 11 , 2001.
But the body count alone cannot fully account for the effects of white power violence. That number ignores the lives disrupted by the movement’s rage. The dead left behind grieving, struggling families. And while many were physically attacked, many others were threatened. It would be impossible to tally those who were harassed and wounded emotionally, left too afraid to speak or work. But these wounds, too, bear out the long and broad ramifications of the movement’s violence.
Although the movement’s militancy, and therefore its violence, owes much to the rightwing framing of the Vietnam War, other elements of the 1970s also infused the movement. White power also responded to the changing meaning of the state, sovereignty, and liberal institutions in and after that decade. The dramatic, hard-won gains of feminism, civil rights, secularism, and gay liberation left the 1970s ripe for conservative backlash.
Another factor was emerging economic threat. The post-World War II welfare state had promised jobs, education, and health, but, beginning in 1973, a series of economic shocks displaced the expectation of continued growth and prosperity. An oil crisis brought about the realization that natural resources would not always be cheap and plentiful? Wealth inequality grew and unemployment rose. For the first time since the late 1940s, the promise of prosperity stalled.
Dwindling economic prospects became bound up with cultural backlash. Volition and need alike drove more women into the workforce, threatening both men’s exclusive access to certain jobs and the Cold War-era vision of the suburban, white nuclear family with a wife who stayed at home. The successful civil rights mobilizations of the 1960s gave way to white resistance as news coverage turned to black radicalism, urban riots, and integration. Forced busing of children to integrated public schools became a heated issue, and whites fought back both through school privatization and in heated public protest.
In this context, defense of the family intertwined with defense of free-market ideology. As the stark limitations of New Deal liberalism became clearer, and as civil rights laws made it more difficult to deny opportunities and benefits to nonwhites just as an economic downturn set in, the state could be recast as a menace to morality and prosperity? For many Americans, the state became the enemy. White power activists, driven by their narrative of the Vietnam War, took this sentiment to the extreme in calling for revolution.
Some have argued that white power did not properly constitute a social movement. This claim typically turns on a supposed disconnect between white power and the militia wave, or on a narrow definition of social movements that rests on centralized leadership and harmony among members. But social movement theorists attuned to the grassroots mobilizations of the mid to late twentieth century make the case for a more encompassing definition.
While white power featured a diversity of views and an array of competing leaders, all corners of the movement were inspired by feelings of defeat, emasculation, and betrayal after the Vietnam War and by social and economic changes that seemed to threaten and victimize white men.
White power also qualifies as a social movement through its central features: the contiguous activity of an inner circle of key figures over two decades, frequent public displays, and development of a wide reaching social network. White power activists used a shared repertoire of actions to assert collectivity. They rallied openly, formed associations and coalitions, and gave statements to the press. Public displays of uniformed activists chanting slogans and marching in formation aimed to demonstrate worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment to both members and observers.
Activists encouraged dress codes and rules about comportment and featured the presence of mothers with children, Vietnam veterans, and active-duty military personnel. Members showed unity by donning uniforms and by marching and chanting in formation. They made claims about their numbers. They underscored their commitment with pledges to die rather than abandon the fight; preparing to risk their lives for white power; and undertaking acts that put them at legal and physical risk. A regular circulation of people, weapons, funds, images, and rhetoric, as well as intermarriages and other social relationships, bound activists together. These actions produced common “ideas and culture,” what social movement theorists have called “frames,” that served to “legitimate and motivate collective action.”
The primacy of the Vietnam War among these frames is clear in the cultural artifacts that inspired and coordinated the movement. These included uniforms, language, strategies, and matériel derived from the war itself. Activists adopted terminology, such as “gooks,” associated with US. soldiers in Vietnam; camouflage fatigues; civilian versions of the era’s military weapons, as well as the genuine articles, sometimes illegally obtained; and training and combat methods modeled on soldiers’ experience and US. Army manuals.
Also essential in binding the movement together was the 1974 white utopian novel The Turner Diaries, which channeled and responded to the nascent white power narrative of the Vietnam War. The novel provided a blueprint for action, tracing the structure of leaderless resistance and modeling, in fiction, the guerrilla tactics of assassination and bombing that activists would embrace for the next two decades. Activists distributed and quoted from the book frequently. It was more than a guide, though. The popularity of The Turner Diaries made it a touchstone, a point of connection among movement members and sympathizers that brought them together in common cause.
Writing the history of a subversive movement presents archival challenges. White power activists routinely attempted to hide their activity, even when it was legal. Documentary resources are scattered and fragmentary. This is especially true of the period after 1983, when white power activists worked particularly hard to avoid being depicted as a coherent movement. They used old Klan strategies such as maintaining secret membership rolls, as well as new ideas such as cell-style organizing. Such strategies foiled government informants and forestalled public awareness of violence, obscuring the scale and intentions of the movement and limiting opposition. Activists understated or denied their involvement to protect themselves and their allies. But when they felt it useful, they also overstated their influence and membership in order to boost their apparent strength.
This deliberate obfuscation has clouded many journalistic and scholarly accounts. Press coverage too often portrayed organized white power violence as the work of lone gunmen driven by grievance and mental illness. Sensational truecrime and undercover reporting in pulp magazines and one-source interviews in small-town newspapers kept activists safely ensconced within their cells and depicted every case of violence as uniquely senseless. Thus groups went undetected, and the motivations underlying violence were rarely taken seriously. Accounts after the Oklahoma City bombing concluded that if white power had ever constituted a social movement, it had become so riddled by interand intragroup conflicts and personal vendettas that it no longer deserved the designation. Yet infighting had been a constant feature of white power formation and activity. White power organizing did change in the late 1990s, but this resulted from large-scale historical shifts such as increased pressure and expanding online activity, not internecine feuds.
Not all journalistic accounts of white power were so flawed. Veteran reporters from the Christian Science Monitor, the Oregonian, and the Houston Chronicle, among others, spent years covering white power on their beats and began to connect local episodes to activity elsewhere. And even the one-off accounts can be useful to the historian because white power activists sometimes spoke to undercover reporters directly and contemporaneously about their motivations.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), U.S. Marshal Service, and Department of Justice monitored the white power movement during this period, generating another source of archival materials. Authors of these records range from undercover agents who had deep familiarity with white power groups to clerical staff at the tail end of a long game of telephone, who sometimes misunderstood crucial details. The motivations of federal agents, some prevented crimes and mounted major prosecutions; others declined to report, prevent, or prosecute such groups; yet others unleashed their own violence upon separatist compounds, shaped these records as well, affecting their reliability. Government documents also vary widely in their level of redaction. Many such sources are accessible only through Freedom of Information Act requests, which means that not everything the government collected is available to researchers. Even full access would provide but a partial glimpse of white power activity, filtered through state interests and the perspectives of individual state actors.
When it comes to the flourishing of white power activism in prisons, sources are especially limited. Groups such as the prison gang the Aryan Brotherhood are largely absent from the archive.
We can detect some effects of their mobilizations, such as monetary contributions sent beyond prison walls. Members who joined the movement while incarcerated and continued their activism after release also have greater presence in available sources. But much less is known about white power mobilizations within prison walls.
Legal documents, too, provide less information than we might hope, particularly because the white power movement flourished between the end of excellent paper record keeping and the beginning of effective digitization of documents. While several acts of white power violence and harassment have resulted in civil and criminal prosecutions, many resources from those trials have been lost or destroyed, in whole or in part. Some of what remains can be obtained only at prohibitive expense. And what is available comes with the same complications as any trial record. Some people who testified about their roles in the movement, especially women, may have done so under the threat of separation from their families. Several activists made plea deals in return for testifying against the movement. Legal documents, especially testimonies, must be read with such motivations in mind.
An important source of information about the movement is the opposition. Watchdog groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Center for Democratic Renewal collected material on white power activists as part of their mission to combat intolerance. Some compiled extensive databases including biographical information, photographs, news clippings, and legal records. They also obtained photographs, transcriptions of conversations from undercover informants, journalists’ notes, and other items outside the published record. Although these files are rich with information, they, too, must be treated cautiously. Watchdog groups can have motives that reach beyond simple documentation: they exist through fundraising, and donations may increase when there is a sense of urgency. Watchdog groups may have sometimes overestimated the movement’s influence and level of organization.
A final, essential resource is the archive created by the white power movement itself. This includes correspondence, ephemera, illustrations, autobiographies, books, printed periodicals, and “zines.” Some printed material circulated widely and had a transnational readership. Activists selfpublished their writings on presses, mimeograph and Xerox machines, and the Internet. Large collections of these published materials are housed at three university libraries in the United States. Although these collections are fundamentally different, one assembled by a journalist writing on an episode of movement violence, one by an archivist who asked political extremists from across the spectrum for contributions, and one by collectors who obtained literature at meetings of extremist groups, the materials in these three archives are remarkably similar. They offer, therefore, a fairly complete picture of the movement’s printed output.
At the same time, one must be mindful of what an archival study of white power cannot reveal. Military service records, for instance, are not publicly available, nor are the membership rolls of each white power group. In their absence, one cannot make a quantitative study of the levels of veteran and active-duty-military participation in the movement. The archive offers very little information on the childhood and early life of most activists. Information on marriages and divorces, particularly involving those who, as part of their antistatist activism, refused to register unions, cannot always be corroborated by official documents. Nor can an archival study stray from the stated beliefs and concrete actions of white power actors in an effort to attempt a psychological assessment. In most cases, the historian has neither the training nor the access to enter this discussion. However, one can grapple with the record of speech and action to offer an approximation of a historical actor’s motives and actions.
Given these limitations, I have assumed that each document might reflect a particular agenda and have taken certain precautions as a result. When possible, I use multiple sources to corroborate information. If, say, a fact appears in a redacted FBI file, an undercover reporter’s interview with a white power activist, and a mainstream press report, it probably can be relied upon. I present unverifiable statements as such and identify those that are demonstrably false.
When relevant, I include information about sources, their biases, and possible alternative interpretations of the material in question.
That the archive is imperfect should disturb neither historians nor readers. Indeed, it is precisely the work of the historian to assemble an account based upon the information available, even if it is scattered, incomplete, and sometimes contradictory. In many ways, this approach enables a better understanding of how historical actors experienced their own moment, without the veneer of hindsight that clouds other kinds of accounts, such as interviews and memoirs produced years after the fact.
A sizable literature, both academic and journalistic, has engaged with portions of the white power archive, but this book is the first work to attempt a comprehensive approach. Unlike studies focused on one segment of white power, particular activists, events, locations, symbols, ideological discourses, or disputes-this one captures the entire movement as it formed and changed over time.
I find in the archival sources the story of the emergence, rise, and fall of a unique, cohesive effort to build a new nation on the ashes of a state accused of having abandoned its own. To understand the impact of this effort on American society, politics, and culture, and to take stock of its relationship with mainstream conservatism, requires engaging it synthetically, not piece by piece.
Bring the War Home follows the formation of the white power movement, its war on the state, and its apocalyptic confrontation with militarized state power. Part I documents the role of violence in motivating and constituting the movement. Chapter 1 traces the creation of a Vietnam War narrative that united the movement and inspired its paramilitary culture and infrastructure. Chapter 2 shows how paramilitary training camps worked to form white power groups and augmented their capacity for violence. In Chapter 3, I discuss the formal unification of the movement through a common experience of violence: the 1979 mass shooting of communist protestors in Greensboro, North Carolina. Chapter 4 documents the intersections between white power and other forms of paramilitarism by focusing on transnational antidemocratic paramilitary combat by mercenary soldiers, some with movement ties.
Part II turns to the white power revolution declared in 1983. At this point, the movement definitively distinguished itself from previous vigilante mobilizations, such as the earlier Ku Klux Klan, whose perpetrators claimed to act for the good of the state or to uphold its laws. In Chapters 5 through 7, I examine the movement’s declaration of war, use of early computer networks, and deployment of cell-style organizing. Critical to these efforts were attempts, some successful, to obtain stolen military-grade weapons and materiel from the state. I also recount the acquittal of thirteen movement activists on federal charges including seditious conspiracy. Their defense, based on a purported need to protect white women, demonstrates that even though white power broke away from earlier white supremacist movements, it maintained a degree of ideological and rhetorical continuity with them, even as it turned to newly violent antistatism in its revolutionary actions.
Part III describes the crescendo and climax of white power revolution in which groups both confronted and participated in events characterized by apocalyptic, world-destroying violence. Although many were killed and others were harmed, the effort never achieved the biblical scale activists had anticipated. The movement was inflamed by encounters with state power, such as the standoff between federal agents and a white separatist family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.
Cataclysmic, militarized state violence helped to inspire the growth of militias, leading to the Oklahoma City bombing. That act stands as the culmination of two decades of white power organizing and is the most significant single event in the movement’s history.
The bombing destroyed an edifice, lives, and families, but not only those. It also shattered meaning, wiping out a public understanding of the white power movement by cementing its violence, in public memory, as the act of a few men. Despite its many attempts to disappear, and despite its obscurity even at the height of its strength during the militia phase, the movement left lasting marks on mainstream American politics and popular culture. It has continued to instigate and shape violence years after the Oklahoma City bombing.
The story of white power as a social movement exposes something broader about the enduring impact of state violence in America. It reveals one catastrophic ricochet of the Vietnam War, in the form of its paramilitary aftermath. It also reveals something important about war itself.
War is not neatly contained in the space and time legitimated by the state. It reverberates in other terrains and lasts long past armistice. It comes home in ways bloody and unexpected.
1 The Vietnam War
Forever trapped in the rice paddies of Vietnam. -Louis Beam, 1989
LOUIS BEAM SPENT eighteen months in Vietnam. He served an extended tour as a gunner on a UH1 Huey helicopter in the U.S. Army’s 25th Aviation Battalion. He logged more than a thousand hours shooting at the enemy and transporting his fellow soldiers, including the injured and fallen, to and from the front. By his own account, he killed between twelve and fifty-one “communists” before returning home to Texas, decorated, in 1968. But he never stopped fighting. Beam would use his Vietnam War story to militarize a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and to wage a white power revolution.
He brought many things home with him: his uniforms, virulent anticommunism, and hatred of the Viet Cong. He brought home the memory of death and mutilation sealed in heavy-duty body bags. He brought home racism, military training, weapons proficiency, and a readiness to continue fighting. His was a story about government betrayal, soldiers left behind, and a nation that spat upon his service and would never appreciate his sacrifice. Indeed, he brought home the war as he fought it, and dedicated his life to urging others to “bring it on home.”
On both the right and left of the political spectrum, the war worked to radicalize and arm paramilitary groups in the post-Vietnam War period. On the left, veterans played instrumental roles in groups organized around politics and labor, and in militant groups that fought racial inequality, such as the Black Panther Party. Occasionally these left and right-wing mobilizations would overlap and feed off one another, with white power activists robbing the same Brinks armored car company hit by the leftwing Weather Underground a few years earlier, and with the paramilitary Latino Brown Berets and the Klan Border Watch focused on the same stretch of terrain in South Texas.
Throughout the twentieth century, many veterans of color understood their postwar activism as an extension of their wartime combat. Veterans played key roles in fostering the civil rights and armed seIf-defense movements. The influence of key veterans upon the white power movement, therefore, is part of a longer story about veterans’ claims on society, and about the expansive aftermath of modern war.
Just as some veterans fought for racial equality, others fought to oppose it. Indeed, Ku Klux Klan membership surges have aligned more neatly with the aftermath of war than with poverty, anti-immigration sentiment, or populism, to name a few common explanations.
After the Civil War, the Confederate veterans who formed the first Klan terrorized both black communities and the Reconstruction-era state. World War I veterans led second-era Klan efforts to violently ensure “all American” racial, religious, and nationalist power. Third-era Klansmen who had served in World War II and Korea played key roles in the violent opposition to civil rights, including providing explosives expertise and other skills they had learned in the military.
After each war, veterans not only joined the Klan but also played instrumental roles in leadership, providing military training to other Klansmen and carrying out acts of violence. The effect of war was not simply about the number or percentage of veterans involved, but about the particular expertise, training, and culture they brought to paramilitary groups. Significantly, in each surge of activity, veterans worked hand in hand with Klan members who had not served. Without the participation of civilians, these aftershocks of war would not have found purchase at home. The overspills of state violence from wars, therefore, spread through the whole of American society; they did not affect veterans alone.
So, too, did the Vietnam War broadly affect American culture and politics. Narratives of the war as a government betrayal and as a source of grievance laid the groundwork for white power activism. Once again, the war story drew in both veterans and civilians. But the Vietnam War was also historically distinct; it represented loss, frustration, and doubt.
By intervening to support South Vietnam, the United States sought to halt the spread of communism, and to stop the Soviet Union, which supported North Vietnam and revolutionaries in the South, from amassing global power in the midst of the Cold War. In practice, the United States found itself intervening in a local, civil conflict, one shaped by the legacy of French colonial rule. American soldiers entered a morally ambiguous proxy war and faced an enemy comprising highly motivated guerrillas, partisan soldiers, and supportive or ambivalent civilians. This, together with enormous differences in culture and climate, created high levels of despair among the troops.
Combat in Vietnam often took a form unfamiliar to a generation of soldiers raised on World War II films that depicted war as righteous and tempered depictions of its violence. In Vietnam, American soldiers waged prolonged, bloody fights for terrain that was soon abandoned. They often described enemies and allies as indistinguishable. Infantry patrols embarked on long, aimless marches in the hope of drawing fire from hidden guerrillas. “Freefire zones” and “strategic hamlets”, designations that labeled as enemies anyone who did not evacuate from certain areas, placed civilians in the path of war.
And because success was often measured in the number of people killed, rather than in terrain held, a mix of circumstances in Vietnam created a situation in which violence against civilians, mutilation of bodies, souvenir collecting, sexual violence, and other war crimes were not just isolated incidents but ubiquitous features of war that permeated the chain of command.
The United States and its people had understood the wars of the first half of the century as shared civil projects, but the Vietnam War undermined this notion. When the commitment of soldiers, bombs, and money failed to produce decisive victories in Southeast Asia, civilians at home grew increasingly disenchanted with the war, helping to foster the narrative of abandonment that white power activists such as Beam would later exploit.
Mobilizations of protest in the United States, particularly the mass antiwar movement, openly questioned the war’s morality by critiquing American involvement as an imperialist exercise. Television broadcasts of wartime violence created what the writer Susan Sontag called a “new tele-intimacy with death and destruction.” Many returning veterans denounced the quagmire of war both in the streets and in the halls of government, and journalists documented wartime atrocities. As the war dragged on, victory in the realm of public perception seemed less and less possible.
Bring the War Home. The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America
by Kathleen Belew
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