Kathleen Belew
Big Brains podcst

Rise of the White Power Movement with Kathleen Belew (Ep. 16)

Kathleen Belew traces the history of white supremacy, from Vietnam through the Oklahoma City bombing

Kathleen Belew
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

The Vietnam War gave rise to the modern white power movement.

Historian Kathleen Belew makes that argument in her latest book, Bring the War Home—a previously unknown history of white supremacy, from the Vietnam War through the Oklahoma City bombing.

For example, in researching a 1979 anti-KKK rally in which a group of Klansmen and neo-Nazis murdered five people, Belew was surprised by the motivation of the killers, some of them Vietnam War veterans.

“They kept saying, ‘I shot communists in Vietnam, why wouldn’t I shoot communists in the United States?’” Belew says.

On this episode of Big Brains, Belew describes how she uses archival resources to understand the past and give context to present-day events such as the deadly 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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(Episode published January 7, 2019)



NARRATOR: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains with Paul M Rand, conversations with pioneering thinkers that will change the way you see the world.

PAUL RAND: I had a fascinating conversation with historian Kathleen Belew. Her book, Bring The War Home, traces the roots of the modern day white power movement to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Kathleen pored over classified documents and interviews to piece together this previously unknown history. She also talked about how studying the past can give context to present day events, such as the 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia. What she uncovered is truly eye-opening and so important to discuss in today's political climate.

RAND: We are pleased to welcome Kathleen Belew with us here today. Thanks for joining us on Big Brains.

KATHLEEN BELEW: My pleasure.

RAND: So I think in many cases, when people think of white supremacy and the white supremacy movement, they probably will trace it back to an earlier time. And your argument is actually it's actually due to foreign policy.

BELEW: Yeah. One of the things that happens is in the wake of the Vietnam War, veterans and active duty personnel with specialized knowledge begin to play a very pivotal role in this movement, both in bringing together groups and factions that had previously been at odds, and in escalating the impact of that violence against civilian targets. And let me be really clear about what I'm saying about veterans. This is not a book about Vietnam War veterans as a population.

RAND: Thanks for clarifying.

BELEW: I'm looking at a very, very tiny percentage of returning veterans. But those people play a really important role in this fringe movement that I'm studying, and an instrumental role in augmenting violence.

RAND: And when you talk about saying-- you call it the white power movement. What does that actually mean?

BELEW: So I think this is a really important terminology to think through. First of all, what I'm trying to do is convey that this is a unified movement, right? One way that people tend to try to understand things is to sort it into different categories. And I think the scholarship has overly sorted this movement into trying to count who is a neo-Nazi, who is Klansman, who is a skinhead, and make these discrete populations, when on the ground--

RAND: And all three of those in that case actually mean different things. Is that right?

BELEW: Yes. But also, there are overlapping ideologies, and people were filtering through these different groups. So one activist over the course of a lifetime might be involved in all of those ideologies, might go between Klan membership, neo-Nazi groups, skinhead groups and filter through this movement in a much more circular way. So white power is first of all meant to convey that it is a social movement.

BELEW: The other thing is that when we use a term like white nationalism to think about what this is, what people think about isn't reflective of the aim of what I'm studying. So if you hear the word nationalist, people usually make a couple of invisible assumptions. One is that nationalism is sort of like an overgrown patriotism. That has a positive connotation for a lot of people.

BELEW: The other is that the nation implied in nationalism is the United States. That's not true for the people that I'm studying. The people that I'm saying are envisioning a racial nation.

BELEW: So when they say white nationalism, they're talking about a violent transnational movement that is going to overthrow the United States, unite white people across the globe, and in some iterations of this belief system, sort of ensure an all-white world. That is not patriotism. That is not in line with sort of an older idea of white nationalism that we might think of, like the Klan in the 1920s where they're marching on the National Mall with their faces unmasked. That's not the same sort of a thing. So what I'm looking at is how exactly that radical transformation happens in 1983 where they move away from sort of this older support of the nation towards attacking it.

RAND: And that's when you look at it and say that transition actually happened after Vietnam, but it all kind of came to a head in '83.

BELEW: Yeah. I think the movement makes a very well defined revolutionary turn in 1983.

RAND: And what was that?

BELEW: So that happened in and around a movement convention called the Aryan Nations World Congress, which is sort of half a bringing together of these groups to make plans and sort of coordinate radical and violent action.

RAND: Was that in the United States?

BELEW: Yes. This happened in Hayden Lake, Idaho at the Aryan Nations compound. So it's half a radical convention and half a social gathering. So it's also a big spaghetti dinner, and bunk houses, and volleyball, and sort of youth events and things like that.

BELEW: And at that meeting, it's hard to know what happened because I'm not in the room. And there's not a reliable paper source. But based on witness testimony and based on the lived sort of archive of what we can observe afterward, there is a marked revolutionary sea change in the movement where people really start focusing their efforts.

BELEW: They begin to adopt a tactic called leaderless resistance, which is what we would now think of as cell-styled terrorism, the idea that you can have small groups of wholly dedicated activists working in concert, but without sort of prosecutable ties to leadership. One group commits a series of bank robberies and then distributes the money all across the country to different groups. They use that money to buy Apple mini computers, and then they use computer message boards to begin to coordinate their activism, and also to post personal ads and other sort of rhetoric and ideological writings. Sort of if you think about it very much like the way that people are using Facebook and the internet now to coordinate social activism, except these guys were doing it in 1983, '84.

RAND: Tell me, how did you get to the point of deciding this was an area to go for a deep focus?

BELEW: I actually set out to write something on truth and reconciliation commissions. So I found one. There was a truth and reconciliation commission in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2005 that generated an enormous amount of excellent documentary density.

BELEW: And it was about this event in 1979 where a united group of Klan and neo-Nazi gunmen confronted a anti-Klan demonstration held by the left, opened fire on that demonstration, and killed five people. The victims were four white men and one African-American woman. Now already as a historian, that's an event that doesn't fit properly.

RAND: What do you mean by that?

BELEW: It's too late, really, to be part of the civil rights violence that you would expect between the Klan and other people. The victims are all wrong for a civil rights altercation. So already, I was intrigued by this event.

BELEW: And then at the truth commission, people who were either perpetrators or affiliated with Klan and neo-Nazi groups at the time kept saying something along the lines of, 'Well, I shot communists in Vietnam. Why wouldn't I shoot communists in the United States?' Now that is a profound collapse of categories.

BELEW: That mixes up battlefield and homefront. That mixes up wartime and peacetime. That mixes up different kinds of communist enemies. And some of the leftists killed that day were card-carrying communists, but not all of them.

BELEW: I couldn't let go of that idea. So I found a very large archival repository of writings coming out of the white power movement, and this idea was strung through, this idea of ongoing warfare in the way that people understood what they were doing as either carrying out or directly connected to Vietnam.

RAND: Did this surprise you?

BELEW: Yeah, I mean, yes. And then there was sort of a double whammy of surprise because the second thing waiting in the archive is the extent to which this is a social movement, and the extent to which-- although most of the scholarship about this has rightly focused on paramilitary masculinity-- I mean, we're talking about training camps, and military command structures, and a whole bunch of things that are about masculinity and directly keep women out-- I was surprised by how integral a role women were playing in tying these groups together.

RAND: In which ways?

BELEW: So it turns out that to see this as a social movement, what you need is really to look at women, because that's how you see the way that marriages and other social relationships were holding these groups together. If you just trace the marriages between groups, you get to see a map of the way that these groups had connections with one another that reached across belief systems, across the country, across rural and urban divides. And these groups were very deeply, deeply dependent on women to do everything from drive getaway cars and do the dying people's hair so that they can be in disguise, to just the very simple social things like picking people up from the airport, taking care of people's children.

BELEW: When people need marriages, they post personal ads on Liberty Net, right? When people needed marriage counseling, they would turn to people within the movement. It was a very social movement.

RAND: So you started going after this, but it sounds like something changed in your thinking about what you wanted to write about or what you wanted to explore.

BELEW: Well, the social movement part of it really came to me from the archive. I thought I was sort of looking at the story of a few returning veterans who were engaging in activism. And actually, what it is is that those veterans were playing an instrumental role in escalating the impact of what was happening and shaping the activism in doing things like instructing other people in how to steal weapons from a military post, or how to use a grenade properly, or how to use semiautomatics and automatic weapons, things like that.

BELEW: But this social movement part of that I think is really, really important to understand. This is a kind of violence that we still usually think of and hear about as lone action. And in fact, it is an action that while reprehensible to me, is understandable, is ideologically driven, and is connected with similar acts across time and across regions.

RAND: The movement as it continues is certainly expanded beyond the veterans that came back disillusioned in the way that initially came about.


BELEW: Yeah. And let me clarify a little bit about what I think the impact of those veterans was on this movement. If you look at the long arc of American history, or even just the 20th century, we know that violence corresponds with the aftermath of warfare. It would be overly simplistic to read that as just veterans coming home. And in fact, that's not what the information bears out. It is a violence that surges across genders, across all age groups of American--

RAND: After warfare.

BELEW: After warfare. So all sectors of American society have these violent moments after combat. Now the Klan and similar groups have figured out how to use that to foment membership.

BELEW: So every surge of the Klan aligns with the aftermath of warfare. The aftermath of the Civil War, the aftermath of World War I, the aftermath of World War II, which is the Klan resurgence. That sort of foments the anti-civil rights movement action that many people would be familiar with. And then the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

BELEW: But the Vietnam War is different in a couple of really important ways. First of all, the narrative of that war that is told by the veterans that become involved in the white power movement is about government betrayal, about the wrongness of combat, about how they feel that they were left to die in this impossible situation. That's a narrative that is not unique to the white power movement.

BELEW: That's in every film we know about the Vietnam War and many of the popular biographies. I mean, this is a very familiar narrative of Vietnam. But what these people are doing is figuring out how to mobilize those feelings in order to recruit members to their cause, first of all.

BELEW: And then what they're also doing is figuring out how to rise this larger wave of paramilitary culture in the United States that's been studied by many historians in the 1980s. You can think of things ranging from popular movies about Vietnam, to paintball, to sort of armchair culture, like Soldier of Fortune magazine includes both real warriors and people who just sort of like to play that role. There's a whole groundswell of these opportunities in the 1980s. And this movement is sort of capitalizing on the way that people are attracted to that and using it to instill real violent action.

BELEW: Louis Beam, for instance, is a central character in my study. He's a man who served in Germany and then two tours in Vietnam as a Huey helicopter gunner. And came back, he uses a Texas veteran's land grant actually to buy the land on which he builds a paramilitary training camp. And the camp that he builds there is modeled on Vietnam War boot camps, and he uses it to train fishermen in the area who then go on to harass Vietnamese refugees who've settled on the Texas coast.

BELEW: So Beam is sort of using the apparatus of the Vietnam War, the training methods, the guns, the camo fatigue uniforms. There's a lot of pictures of rallies from this particular set of events. One of the pictures shows a man wearing a Klan robe made of camo fatigue material. The way that the war is sort of integral with this movement is very, very complex and deep.

BELEW: And then he does things like Beam, by way of sort of calling people to action, burns a fishing boat on which someone has painted USS Viet Cong. So he's even saying, here are these Vietnamese refugees who we can continue to fight right here on the Texas coast. Now it turns out that those refugees were there largely because they were American allies and people who had fought with the South Vietnamese forces and who were definitely not Viet Cong.

BELEW: And all of that happens before this revolutionary turn. So that's an example of people in the white power movement who they say what they're doing is simply continuing the Vietnam War in service of the state. They say, if you won't finish this war, we will finish this war. We will continue this mission that we were given.

BELEW: What happens in '83 is actually a really important point for understanding where we are in the current moment as well in that this revolutionary turn in '83 happens during the second term of the Reagan administration. It's a moment when arguably, the people represented in this movement might have had a lot to gain from the executive branch in power, and indeed the kind of anti-statism that they espouse was also coming from the White House itself in that period. Reagan famously said the government isn't the answer. The government is the problem.

BELEW: Or something like that. Excuse me. Let me paraphrase. So the fact that they saw Reagan's moderation, they saw that as a moderate moment. They saw Reagan as failing to follow through on his campaign promises, and that therefore, government was irredeemable.

RAND: Let's talk if we can a little bit more about what happened in Oklahoma City and how it relates to, again, the primary impetus of your book.

BELEW: One of the important things to understand about Oklahoma City is that although the bombing is the largest deliberate mass casualty on American soil between Pearl Harbor and 9/11, hugely important moment, we have not really solidified a narrative about what it was and what it meant. Many people still understand it as the action of one person, Timothy McVeigh, or a few co-conspirators. But in fact, it's a really good example of leaderless resistance-style violence carried out by a cell in concert with the goals and ideologies of the social movement.

BELEW: We can see that in everything from the things Timothy McVeigh read, including The Turner Diaries and some other Klan newspapers, to the things he used to frame the bombing, to the method used to carry out the bombing, even the building that he chose had been cased by people in this movement since 1983. He at one point stayed with an activist who knew this building so well in the early 90s that he could sketch it from memory. So this was a focal point of the movement. This wasn't sort of just like a accidental target choice.

BELEW: The other thing to understand about Oklahoma City is that it really brings into relief this question about how did we know about this movement that, as I mentioned, was recounted in front page newspaper articles and on television at length, and then somehow forget. How do we not cohere an understanding of what this was? And for that I think we have to go back just a couple of years earlier to this federal seditious conspiracy trial in Fort Smith, Arkansas in 1987, '88 in which 13 white power activists were acquitted of seditious conspiracy and other charges in a enormously embarrassing trial for the federal government.

BELEW: By any historical measure, these activists were in fact attempting seditious conspiracy. They talked about seditious conspiracy all the time. That trial together with these massive, I mean, they're tragic events at Waco and Ruby Ridge where the government sort of overstepped and brought down intense violence on white power and Branch Davidians in siege situations, they're tragic events, they're also public relations disasters for the government.

BELEW: So that altogether led to a policy change in which white power violence at the FBI level was going to be investigated only as the action of a few people and not as part of a movement. So when we get to the Oklahoma City bombing, when all of a sudden we're talking about large numbers of casualties, there's never a moment when it's investigated as part of a movement. Leads aren't followed, evidence is discarded, and the prosecution too is sort of at McVay and a few co-conspirators, many of whom make plea agreements to sort of even further make it about McVay.

BELEW: That has narrative consequences as well as legal consequences, has historical consequences. Because we don't then get this story of white power as a movement that has brought about this tragedy. We don't get that social understanding.

RAND: When you see the overtness of some of the activities today, how do we think about that in relation to what you're trying to articulate?

BELEW: I think that I see history as one set of tools by which we might understand our present moment. But I also think history gives you some reasons to not arrive overly quickly at ironclad conclusions about what a present event means. There are moments when I am incredibly impatient about wishing for more archival sources. For instance, I could tell you definitively who had and had not served if I could access military records and personnel records--

RAND: But you can't.

BELEW: --for the people in this book. No, because they're still classified for I think, it's another 18 years or something. So sometimes, you're just going crazy wishing the archive was available. But I mean, as a person who is drawn to my area of study by the impulse to try to understand better what we're seeing in the present, I sort of see history as-- well, I suppose I see history and the archive as tools we can use to shed light on the present, rather than as ways to cast the present into historical interpretation.

BELEW: Perhaps people will be thinking now about Charlottesville and about the altercation of torch-bearing neo-Nazis, and Klan, and other self-proclaimed alt right activists with counter protesters in Virginia of August last year. That's actually not really an unusual event. Greensboro was very similar.

BELEW: This movement has been holding mass rallies for decades. All of the events that I talk about in Bring the War Home furthermore were reported on at the time that they happened. So I'm not uncovering much of this. Much of this is about events that were reported in mainstream press.

BELEW: Greensboro was the subject of a-- although very deeply unfunny, but the subject of a Saturday Night Live sketch. There was footage of the paramilitary camps on shows like the morning news magazine shows. So it's not that we didn't have this before. The problem is more that we have not sort of solidified a popular narrative of what it is that allows us to have a history to slot it into. So it's more that we don't remember that there have been historical cognates for Charlottesville.

BELEW: Now that's an example of an above ground public facing action, just to be completely clear. What I'm talking about when I talk about undergrad action is obtaining military weapons from Army posts, or casing buildings and plotting assassinations, things like that, like overtly illegal, below ground, violently-oriented actions. That's the part that you can't really see until you have enough space to have a repository of newspaper archives, FBI archives, watchdog archives, to be able to kind of see what that underground machinations begin to look like. So that's the part that I can't see right now. But that is also the part that the archive would indicate would be continuing.

RAND: A general broader group of the population seems to feel more empowered right now under the current administration to be open to sharing and talking perspectives that possibly would not have been shared in the past. How does that fit into this?

BELEW: That's actually one of the central takeaways of this book. I think that many people in the United States had an idea that we had moved beyond race as a social issue. People on the left had an idea of multiculturalism or post-racialism, but people on the right also had an idea of colorblindness, right? These are both myths of being post-racial in some way.

BELEW: And people had very dearly embraced this as part of sort of a progress narrative of American history on both the right and the left. But the extent to which colorblindness has been important to the right begins to explain how people of color are joining the Republican Party, even as these rhetorics are surfacing right now. I mean, there's a lot of new scholarship on Latino conservatism and African-American conservatism, it's exactly about this. And it's partly because Reagan and others put forward this idea of colorblind conservatism.

BELEW: And we have this mythology on the left as well. The Obama era was said to herald this post-racial moment. People had this progress narrative of what American history could mean. I think what my book shows is where that overt racial violence went during that moment of that mythological understanding about being beyond race. And I think it's important to understand it now, because it shows that through line that connects us now to this moment where we're very clearly not beyond race.

RAND: Right. What has the reaction been to your book?

BELEW: You know, it's interesting. When I started this book, it was sort of thought of as a niche political extremism project. And it used to have a whole section in it called why it's important to study the fringe.

BELEW: But it's no longer necessary to explain why it's important to study the fringe, because the fringe has re-entered American politics in such a staggering and startling way. I will say, though, that I think the sort of public conversation about this as someone who studied this for a long time makes me very hopeful. There has not been another moment in the history that I have looked at where people have really understood and talked about this as a movement, as a set of ideas, as a set of understandings in this way. And I think that's the first step towards a different interaction with it.

RAND: What comes next as you continue your scholarship and writing?

BELEW: Yeah, I'd like to know that. It's always daunting to start a new project at the end of an old project.

RAND: Right. Of course.

BELEW: I'm still interested very much in sort of-- well, I'm interested very much in the 1990s. I think that we have a sort of a dearth of historical scholarship on the 90s. We have a lot of historical work and a very good popular understanding of the anxieties of the Cold War and sort of the way that people lived in fear of the bomb, the way that people organized their lives around this possible apocalypse that could come at any moment.

BELEW: And then there's this end of the Cold War in 1989 with the fall of the wall, and a lot of people who had this very deeply held belief that the apocalypse was near lost the enemy without losing that belief system. And I think that there's a way that the 90s can be understood between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the War on Terror as sort of people in search of an apocalypse. And there's a lot of people you can slot into that story. And I think for the people I'm writing about in Bringing the War Home, it's usually the government, like the new world order, the state. The big bad state slips into that spot, and it's sort of the apocalypse narrative stays intact, it's just with a different enemy.

BELEW: But I actually think a lot of people are sort of wandering around without an enemy in mind. And there's a lot of sort of-- I don't know. There's a lot of interesting historical action that generates from that confusion.

RAND: Well, it's wonderful to have you in. As a repeat, the title of your book is Bringing the War Home, the White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Kathleen, it's been great to have you here.

BELEW: Thank you for having me.

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