BRING THE WAR HOME
The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America
By Kathleen Belew
Illustrated. 339 pp. Harvard University Press. $29.95.
On a sunny Saturday last summer, in a grassy park no bigger than a city block, the flags of the Confederate South and Nazi Germany flapped side by side, hoisted by the same young white men who, the night before, had carried torches instead. Some wielded shields, some sticks, some guns. And their wardrobes bore enough resemblance to paramilitary uniforms that, afterward, people scrolling through pictures of the ensuing violence online had difficulty discerning alt-right marchers from the onlooking police.
Kathleen Belew’s gripping study of white power, “Bring the War Home,” was written before the city of Charlottesville became a hashtag, and is largely concerned with activities from the 1970s and ’80s. But it is impossible to read the book without recalling more recent events. Her activists — for indeed, these were activists building a grass-roots movement — consolidated power in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It is that starting point that hints at the book’s explosive thesis: that the white power movement that reached a culmination with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing emerged as a radical reaction to the war.
Sit with that for a moment, because it is a breathtaking argument, one that treats foreign policy as the impetus for a movement that most people view through the lens of domestic racism. But Belew, an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, perceives something more in the white power movement than metastasized racism. She sees the malignant consequence of the war, which, she argues, “comes home in ways bloody and unexpected.”
In Belew’s telling, a radical disillusionment with a governing elite that oversaw a losing war led some veterans (and others who did not serve but who were shaped by the war) into a militant rejection of the government, refracted through the lens of racism. Used, betrayed, discarded, these veterans would eventually take up arms against their own country, bringing the war home in defense of white America.
That the war coincided with major advances in civil rights — the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act — certainly matters. But those domestic reforms slip to the sidelines, in Belew’s telling, as foreign policy takes center stage. The men who built the white power movement, she says, have Vietnam constantly in mind, framing their fight as one of Rambos come home, ready to right the wrongs the government inflicted on the home front, just as Sylvester Stallone’s action hero did in Vietnam. As Belew shows, these men packaged their rage into a toxic mélange of racism, anti-Semitism, militarism, radicalism and manliness that became the white power movement.
By 1983, disparate groups including the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, Aryan Nations and Christian identitarians had developed a movement in open revolt against the government. For Belew, this represents a turning point, because that radicalism set them apart from previous movements dedicated to white supremacy. In eras before the civil rights movement, white nationalists could pursue their racist agenda without breaking from government policy. Indeed, their vigilante violence largely served to reinforce official policies like slavery and Jim Crow.
Not so with white power advocates in the 1970s. They were preparing for both a race war and a revolution: stockpiling weapons — many stolen from nearby military bases, others obtained on the largely unregulated firearms market — and girding for battle.
And the government? It saw little threat in these armed-to-the-teeth activists. Belew underscores how officials repeatedly failed to close loopholes or adjust judicial doctrine to address the growing threat, allowing the white power movement steadily to gain power.
And when the cataclysm came — after Ruby Ridge, after Waco, when Timothy McVeigh and his associates, whose ties to white power Belew convincingly sketches, killed 168 Americans and injured more than 500 others in the deadliest domestic terror attack in American history — both government lawyers and the news media generally treated the bombing as a lone-wolf incident, letting the terror cells of white power retreat from the public eye, unseen until their re-emergence in recent years.
It’s a stunning indictment of official culpability, and Belew constructs her case with forensic care. In doing so, she shows that, while racism is ever with us, policy choices ranging from local police strategies to the furthest reaches of foreign policy create the space for white power to flourish.