University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew’s new book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, claims to be the first complete history of the contemporary American radical right. And while that claim is certainly exaggerated, it is a serious book that gets much right.
As the title suggests, the book links the growth of what Belew calls the white power movement to America’s defeat in Vietnam and accompanying loss of confidence — an idea already explored in-depth in scholar James William Gibson’s 1994 book, Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America.
Bring the War Home does a good job of tracing the development of the movement from the original Klan through the mid-1990s. Belew hits the high points and focuses on some of the key characters, men like Klan theoretician Louis Beam. She documents the connections of white power activists to military and paramilitary experiences convincingly. She shows the militia movement was not nearly as distinct from the white power movement as is often claimed.
And she makes the entirely correct assertion that it is a terrible error — one frequently promoted by law enforcement and journalistic accounts — to see the movement as a hodge-podge of damaged people acting for their own inscrutable reasons. As every serious student of the movement knows, the expansion of the radical right is based on real ideology and real historical forces.
But Belew makes it all too simple.
For example, she describes the three major “eras” of the Klan — in the 1870s, the 1920s and the 1960s — as more or less direct results of the preceding wars (the Civil War, World War I, and World War II/Korea). Of course, those eras also resulted from Radical Reconstruction and failed efforts to help the freedmen; a massive influx of immigrants, most of them Catholics and Jews, early this century; and the advances of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Similarly, she describes the current white power movement as a product of Vietnam, paramilitary culture, and the “remasculinization” of America sought by the radical right. Essentially ignored are massive demographic changes, levels of foreign-born residents approaching the all-time highs of the 1920s, cultural sea changes like the legalization of same-sex marriage, and economic hardships for whole sectors of the economy that have accompanied globalization.
Belew also locates what she calls the “formal unification” (p. 2) of the movement in 1979, as a result of the murder of five leftists in Greensboro, N.C., by a caravan of neo-Nazis and Klansmen. She claims that “distinctions among white power factions melted away” that year and a “cohesive social movement” was born (p. 60).
As a longtime student of the radical right, I think that is a wildly overstated assertion. In fact, the radical right today is just as riven by splits, animosities, petty jealousies and sexual intrigues as it was in the 1970s. Even basic ideological questions — such as whether black or Jewish people are the chief enemy — split the movement right up to the present moment. In fact, most intelligent racist activists will concede that theirs is hardly a “cohesive social movement.”
Belew makes a second, similar claim — that the white power movement in 1983 “declared war on the state,” something she also describes as “a formal declaration of war” (p. 104). Among other things, she cites the bloody history of The Order, a white supremacist terrorist group that murdered enemies and robbed armored cars. And she rightly notes other important developments in the movement that year.
But the idea that there was a formal declaration is without evidence. Belew seems to accept virtually all the claims made by federal prosecutors in the so-called sedition trial of 1987, when 14 racist leaders were tried in Fort Smith, Ark. Chief among them is the idea that The Order and all kinds of other political violence were the direct result of a major, movement-wide conspiracy allegedly hatched at the 1983 Aryan Nations World Congress in Idaho. The jury unanimously rejected those allegations, declining to convict any of the defendants at all.
Belew similarly declares that Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead, was “connected … directly to the highest levels of the white power movement’s war-on-the-government leadership and messaging” (p. 213). She cites claims most experts see as discredited, including that McVeigh once served as a security officer for militia activist Mark Koernke; that at least five men helped build the bomb; that there had to be five bombs, not one, to cause the bomb damage; and that others at an eastern Oklahoma white supremacist compound known as Elohim City were involved.
Although it’s known that McVeigh did have some help — from Army buddies Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier, along with Fortier’s wife — Belew suggests the conspiracy is much larger. McVeigh, she says, “could not have acted alone” (p. 227). Later, she puts it like this: “[E]vidence … points to his long participation in the white power movement and as a soldier in its cell-style underground” (p. 234).
But these suggestions are based on weakly sourced newspaper accounts, assertions by a mentally unstable government informant who made a series of unproven claims, and the theories of McVeigh defense attorney Stephen Jones, who wrote a baseless book claiming a conspiracy emanating from the Philippines. At one point, Belew cites a lone newspaper story claiming that McVeigh was a member of the Zinc, Ark., chapter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. There is no basis for that claim, but Belew cites it as proof of McVeigh’s activist role.
Bringing the War Home is a worthwhile book that makes many good points and offers the fruits of 10 years of exhaustive archival research. But it is marred by a number of minor factual errors and a larger number of major, interpretive errors. Readers should approach it carefully, not as the final word in analyzing the American radical right, but as one more useful tool that can be harnessed to understand the dynamics and development of this troublesome movement in U.S. political and historical context.
Mark Potok covered the militia movement and the Oklahoma City bombing as a newspaper reporter, and later spent 20 years investigating the American radical right as an official of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He has written extensively about these and related topics in newspapers, magazines and journals.
Mr Mark Potok is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a freelance journalist who covered the Waco standoff and the trial of Timothy McVeigh. For more information, see his profile here:
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