Did The Vietnam War Create America’s Modern “White Power” Movement?

(Vox) How the Vietnam war created America’s modern “white power” movement

By 

Read this historian’s origin story of “white power” activism in the US.

“They believe in a racial nation that would be transnational in scope … based on the idea that white people are the chosen people.”

That’s how University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew describes the ideology of the “white power” movement in America. Belew is the author of a new book, Bring the War Home, that traces the origins of the white power movement to the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

She examines how various racist groups — skinheads, Klansmen, white separatists, neo-Nazis, militiamen, and others — united under a common banner and took the movement in a violent and revolutionary direction.

Belew also argues that the anti-government sentiment created by the Vietnam War helped consolidate and radicalize the white power movement in ways we haven’t fully understood. I spoke with her about the history she lays out in the book, and how it can help us make sense of race relations today.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You’re very careful about terminology in this book. When you use the phrase “white power movement,” what do you mean?

Kathleen Belew

I use “white power” to name the movement that, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, united Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, skinheads, white separatists, tax protesters, and militiamen in common cause, and eventually in a war against the federal government.

Some people have referred to this as “white nationalism.” I think that’s misleading because when you say the word “nationalism,” people assume you mean an excess of patriotism, but that’s not what these people believe.

Sean Illing

What do these people believe?

Kathleen Belew

They believe in a racial nation that would be transnational in scope and would involve a violent ending to the United States and remove all people of color and establish a new society based on the idea that white people are the chosen people.

Sean Illing

So this is a revolutionary movement in the sense that these groups don’t want to redeem or transform America because they think it’s beyond redemption. They want to blow it all up and start anew.

Kathleen Belew

Yes. Most of them would prefer Jim Crow America or slavery America, but they don’t think that’s achievable, politically. They believe revolution is the only answer.

Sean Illing

How big is this movement? What kind of numbers are we talking about?

Kathleen Belew

It’s a fringe movement at every point, but if you include all the various groups that it’s composed of (and you should), it’s quite a lot. It helps to think of it in terms of concentric circles. In the center, there’s a group of approximately 25,000 people who are hardcore members: They attend events, they buy literature, they make their whole lives about the movement. Those are the people who are willing to [commit] violence and sacrifice themselves.

Outside of that, there’s another 150,000 or so who aren’t quite that involved but who attend rallies, read the literature, and circulate the message. Outside of that, there’s another, bigger circle that’s roughly 450,000. Those are the people that don’t attend the rallies or purchase the literature but are interested enough to read it online. So they’re flirting with real involvement, but not quite there yet.

Sean Illing

The core claim of this book is that the modern “white power” movement really began as a response to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. What happened?

Kathleen Belew

It helps to explain how I came to this project. I was researching truth and reconciliation commissions and came upon one in the aftermath of an incident in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979, where a caravan of neo-Nazis and Klan gunmen opened fire on a leftist demonstration and killed five people, four of whom were card-carrying members of the Communist Party. One of the shooters said at the truth commission in 2005 that he killed communists in Vietnam, so “why shouldn’t I kill communists here?”

This represented a profound shift to me. It’s a collapse of all kinds of different distinctions that we like to think about. It collapses war and home. It collapses enemy and fellow civilian. It collapses different kinds of enemies, and it also collapses time. There’s no peacetime and wartime; it’s perpetual war. And the more I researched this movement, the more ideas like this kept emerging.

Sean Illing

Obviously racism isn’t new in this country, so what was the binding narrative after Vietnam that brought all these elements together?

Kathleen Belew

A lot of these groups were at odds with each other for various reasons, but the narrative of Vietnam was that it was an act of betrayal. They believed the government and the politicians betrayed them. The culture was deeply split by Vietnam, and that gap was never really bridged. So these racist groups took a revolutionary turn and united around the idea of toppling the government.

At the same time, you had all these people with military training who were desensitized to violence and full of rage and hatred. So they obtained weapons they knew how to use, started a network of paramilitary camps, and reframed their struggle as a broader race war against the United States. It’s out of this environment that you get someone like Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Sean Illing

To be clear, you’re not arguing that the Vietnam War turned people into racists or made the country more racist than it already was. You’re saying it created the cultural conditions that galvanized these racist groups and helped them organize around a common cause.

Kathleen Belew

That’s exactly right.

Sean Illing

You also note an interesting pattern in American history: In the aftermath of wars, there’s an uptick in white nationalism or white separatism. What’s the explanation?

Kathleen Belew

Early in the research, I wondered if this was as simple as veterans being radicalized during war and returning home to foment violence, but I don’t think it’s that simple. There is scholarship that shows that the surge in violence actually appears throughout American society in all genders and age groups in the aftermath of warfare.

So there’s something more fundamental going on here, and it could be as simple as the state unleashing all this violence during war and then it’s unable to control it afterward, but I’m not convinced that’s the whole story.

If you look at the 20th century, especially the second half, there’s hardly a time when we’re not at war in some place. So there’s this perpetual engagement in state violence, and we should expect that violence to reverberate throughout society during and after war.

Sean Illing

I’m curious how someone with your perspective looks at what’s happening right now in American politics. I realize you’re a historian and your focus isn’t on the present, but I’d love to hear how you make sense of race relations today.

Kathleen Belew

Well, one thing the historical archive makes clear is that white power activists seek violent action whether the government in power validates it or not. The real turn against state power in the white power movement happens in 1983, in the middle of the Reagan administration. And this was after people initially felt emboldened by Reagan’s election. The thing that pushes them to war and violence is the belief that they can’t achieve what they want through mainstream politics. I’m not sure Trump changes that belief in any way.

I think a lot of people experience the Trump administration as sort of a cataclysmic change from what came before, but it’s important to remember that what seems new is not necessarily new. A lot of people expressed shock at the confrontation in Charlottesville last year, but that was similar to the Greensboro shooting I mentioned earlier, and to many other episodes that just aren’t as known to the public.

I think the real question is, why are we still astonished by this — what has happened between 1979 and Charlottesville that made us think this is new or different? One of the reasons I think we need to study the history of this movement is so that we can see it as coherent, coordinated movement with deep roots, and not as the scattered actions of a bunch of lone actors.

Sean Illing

Reading your book, it’s clear that the people involved in the white power movement at the beginning really believed they were creating some racial utopia. But it’s been more than two decades and they’re no closer to it than they were when they started. Will the movement get more desperate, or will it continue to exist on the margins as it has?

Kathleen Belew

This is the question that gives historians the shivers because we hate taking historical data and using it to make a statement about what might happen in the future. I’ll say this, though: The history from 1979 to 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing, shows that there were several attempts to understand and stop white power activism. There were major trials. People were calling attention to this gathering threat, trying to organize and counterprotest.

But despite all those efforts, there wasn’t a decisive stop to the violence. There wasn’t really a decisive stop to the organized movement either. I think what history shows us is that this is a movement with flexible ideologies that is capable of going underground when there is pressure and then reemerging when there is not. I think it would take a real change in how people think about and write about and confront this kind of activism for there to be anything like an endpoint.

Comments are closed.