Even as monstrous, self-published political novels go, The Turner Diaries is a stylistic wasteland. Written under a pseudonym by the white-supremacist activist William Luther Pierce, The Turner Diaries tells the story of a racist terrorist on a revolutionary crusade against the US government and liberal American society (“the System”). Befitting its role as a kind of how-to manual for kick-starting a race war, the book is written in concrete, simple prose nearly devoid of figurative language. A Jewish shopkeeper is murdered, black teenagers are assaulted, journalists are assassinated, federal buildings are bombed. On page after page, an orgy of violence unfolds, all narrated in flat, declarative sentences, building to a nuclear holocaust and the cleansing of the earth of all nonwhite people. There is only one real recurrent metaphor—cancer. Writes Pierce:
But there is no way we can destroy the System without hurting many thousands of innocent people—no way. It is a cancer too deeply rooted in our flesh. And if we don’t destroy the System before it destroys us—if we don’t cut this cancer out of our living flesh—our whole race will die…. Most [white Americans] hardly ever see a Black or a Jew, and they act as if there’s not a war going on. They seem to think that they’re far enough away from the things that are plaguing other parts of the country that they can keep on with their same old routine. They resent any hint that they may have to halt their pursuit of pleasure and affluence long enough to cut a cancer out of America that will surely destroy us all if it’s not eliminated soon. But it’s always been that way with Boobus Americanus.
The belief expressed here is that the majority of Americans are soft and insulated, ignorant of a long-running war, and that revolutionary racist terror is the only remedy for an American society suffering from a terminal cancer of liberalism and tolerance. This conviction may seem obscure and The Turner Diaries mere fiction, but as the historian Kathleen Belew demonstrates in her compelling new book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, it has been at the core of decades of white-supremacist organizing and violence.
Meticulously researched and powerfully argued, Belew’s book isn’t only a definitive history of white-racist violence in late-20th-century America, but also a rigorous meditation on the relationship between American militarism abroad and extremism at home, with distressing implications for the United States in 2018 and beyond. Two fundamental insights underpin the book: first, that there exists a profound relationship between America’s military violence and domestic right-wing paramilitary organizations, and, second, that the character of that relationship underwent a decisive change in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Foreign wars, like racial violence at home, are recurrent features—one might even say defining ones—of the American story, and Belew notes that spikes in domestic white-supremacist terrorism have regularly followed the close of major military hostilities. From the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan to the activities of the “second Klan” in the 1920s to the violence against the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, Belew observes that “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.”
These militants presented their activities as essentially reactionary—aimed at rolling back gains in minority rights—but they also, in most cases, understood them to be a kind of vigilante supplement for preserving the hierarchical social order of the militarized American nation with which they identified. Belew argues that from the late 1970s onward, however, this attitude changed. Unlike previous racist violence, a new strain of white militancy emerged after Vietnam that was not conservative at all: It envisioned overthrowing the state and entertained the idea of founding an all-white homeland and participating in outright genocide. As Belew documents, this new ideology proved so effective at attracting adherents and fostering coalitions that it can be seen as constituting a new social movement: white power. Over and against the attitudes and positions designated by the terms “white nationalism,” “white supremacy,” or even the “racist right,” “white power” came to represent something far more specific: a radical, well-organized movement of hard-core militants on a mission to turn the nightmare dystopia depicted in The Turner Diaries into a reality.
What triggered this shift? Belew argues that the precipitating event was the Vietnam War itself, not just in terms of what individual veterans experienced, but also what the war came to mean. Unlike America’s previous large-scale 20th-century wars, with their set-piece campaigns against opposing armies in uniform, Vietnam was an asymmetrical conflict waged against irregular forces, a “morally ambiguous proxy war” where the distinction between civilians and fighters was eroded from the start. With territory being won and lost in an endless churn, a consequent fetish for body counts as an alternative metric of military success encouraged a unique kind of brutality.
Meanwhile, anti-Vietnamese prejudice ran parallel to a remarkable amount of racial violence within the only recently integrated US Armed Forces (Belew documents a litany of racist incidents, including murders and Klan actions, on military bases in the United States and in Southeast Asia). But the most distinguishing characteristic of the Vietnam War was that, by any standard, it was a defeat. The fantasy of the US military as unstoppable, and of the American soldier as a “triumphant warrior,” was dealt a profound humiliation by a nonwhite, non-European army made up of soldiers whom many Americans were inclined to hold in contempt as racially inferior peasants dressed in “black pajamas.”
To explain this defeat, Belew argues, many Americans—veterans and civilians alike—embraced a narrative about the war that helped the United States recover its sense of honor, a kind of homegrown Dolchstoßlegende (“stab-in-the-back myth”). Vietnam became the story of the “soldiers’ betrayal by military and political leaders and of the trivialization of their sacrifice,” a story that mapped to the dramatic demographic changes, political turmoil, and economic downturn of the 1970s.
This crucible of factors led some veterans to embrace left-wing ideologies. But for many more, it helped to create a movement “inspired by feelings of defeat, emasculation, and betrayal…and by social and economic changes that seemed to threaten and victimize white men.” Given the right’s affinity for all things military and its ongoing ties to active-duty soldiers, the stage was set for a newly radicalized, empowered, and emboldened white-power extremism. This extremism had resonances with earlier versions of white extremism, but it was also distinguished by an emphasis on violence that was concerned with far more than merely supplementing the power of the American state and upholding a racist social order through barely legal—yet implicitly condoned—vigilantism.
Instead, these extremists turned to outright illegal violence in what they saw as a military campaign to redeem what the state had failed to accomplish, both on the battlefields of Southeast Asia and against the civil-rights protests back home. Key figures in this movement were indeed veterans, but its appeal traded on much more than veteran status. “Whether they had served or not,” Belew writes, “activists took from the war a tangle of testimony and potent narratives, as well as a set of uniforms, weapons, and political rhetoric. Primarily, the Vietnam War allowed men to take on the role of the soldier as an all-encompassing identity…. [A] shared story about Vietnam outweighed the historical reality of the war itself.”
Belew has receipts for all of this, and she doesn’t hold them back. Profiling influential white-power leaders, she traces how numerous Americans returned from Vietnam and formed groups united by shared dreams of ethnic purges and race war on the home front. For these activists—men like Louis Beam, a former US Army helicopter gunner turned Christian Identity preacher who led campaigns against the fishing communities composed of Vietnamese refugees in Texas—racial violence stateside was a continuation of their combat abroad.
Positioning themselves as the opponents of nonwhites, liberals, Jews, homosexuals, immigrants, and “Communists” (a particularly effective dog whistle), these white-power activists founded paramilitary training camps and separatist communities throughout the South, in parts of the Midwest, and in the Pacific Northwest (with the latter soon attaining the status of a desirable future all-white “homeland”). With impressive organizing savvy, movement leaders forged bonds among previously competitive white-supremacist groups and held conventions that brought Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and militia groups together for the sake of a shared agenda of racist extremism and terroristic violence.
Their efforts had far from negligible consequences. Belew traces the white-power movement over three key periods: an initial period of consolidation (1979–83), the revolutionary period following a “declaration of war” against the federal government in 1983, and the militia phase of the early 1990s. She stresses the cohesive character of white-power ideology, the recurrent ties between key players and groups, and the remarkable violence the movement generated—and not just in the American heartland. Indeed, as Belew demonstrates, white-power paramilitaries deployed themselves to patrol the US border, worked as mercenaries in conflicts in Africa and Latin America (sometimes with the benefit of CIA funding), and even developed plans to stage a coup and install a white-supremacist regime on the island of Dominica.
Drawing on networks of active-duty servicepeople, white-power groups equipped themselves with stolen and black-market US military materiel—including rockets, grenades, and mines—and developed sophisticated criminal enterprises for counterfeiting, illegally modifying weapons, and more. In real-life episodes that read like something straight out of The Turner Diaries (which became something of a movement bible), white-power activists targeted people for violence, murdered leftists and critics in the media, and robbed banks and armored cars.
In one particular episode, Belew describes the meticulously planned assault against a demonstration organized by anti-racist protesters led by members of the Communist Workers Party in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979. Armed to the teeth and coordinating their actions by CB radio, a caravan of white-power activists drove up to a crowd of demonstrators and, in the ensuing tumult, calmly proceeded to pick them off with their firearms, killing five people and wounding 10 before fleeing.
At their trial, the white-power activists presented themselves as “honorable and wronged Vietnam veterans” who had acted out of “self-defense,” sincere “anti-Communism,” and a desire to “protect” the white women in their group; despite multiple trials, not a single one was convicted. Today, less than a year after the fatal car attack on anti-fascist protesters at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Belew’s analysis of the Greensboro massacre—from its instigators’ rigorous planning to their cynical legal defense—rings both uncanny and horrifying.
Bring the War Home is a grim and sobering read—and, for many, it may arrive as a much-needed and troubling revelation: The sheer size of white-power extremism since Vietnam is frightening. Belew presents credible estimates that white power mobilized some 25,000 “hard-core” supporters in the 1980s, with 150,000 to 175,000 people buying its literature, donating to white-power groups, and attending events. Likewise, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands participated in militias in the 1990s. (“The John Birch Society, in contrast, reached 100,000 members at its 1965 peak,” Belew observes pointedly.)
Equally surprising for many will be the role of women in the movement: Rather than being simply passive objects of a patriarchal ideology that makes much of “protecting” (and subordinating) white womanhood, women were activists in their own right, creating their own white-power periodicals, founding spin-off groups, and even participating in various criminal enterprises. (In one instance, Sheila Beam, Louis’s wife, shoots a Mexican police officer while on the run with her husband.) And in what may be the most powerful rebuke to conventional wisdom, white-power activists—far from their stereotype as hapless hillbillies—emerge in Belew’s research as sophisticated operators, ahead of the curve in their use of communication technologies.
When, in 1984, Louis Beam set up LibertyNet, a secure online message board for white-power activists, it represented, as Belew notes, one of the first instances of computers being used for social-movement organizing. And the white-power model of propaganda and image management, which mobilizes and coordinates violent terrorism while also coyly disavowing responsibility for acts of “lone wolf” violence, is as much 2015 Charleston or 2017 Charlottesville as it is Oklahoma City in 1995.
Despite the size and sophistication of white-power extremism, it has consistently been minimized, both by the American media and in political and law-enforcement responses. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700. Although, in keeping with the white-power strategy of “leaderless resistance,” he claimed sole responsibility for the act, the ties implicating a network of white-power activists were abundant.
What was never acknowledged by many public figures at the time was how emblematic McVeigh was of the new turn in white racial violence. McVeigh was a veteran of the first Gulf War, and his radical ideology was old and familiar. He traveled in white-power circles, and for a time sold copies of The Turner Diaries at gun shows. His method in the Oklahoma City bombing appears to have been inspired by an event depicted in one of its chapters, and he was carrying documents with quotations from the book when he was arrested. Belew makes the point forthrightly: “McVeigh, trained as a combatant by the state, belonged to the white power movement. He acted without orders from movement leaders, but in concert with movement objectives and supported by resistance cell organizing.”
However, for most Americans, the event was an object lesson not in the threat of white-power violence but rather, paradoxically, in its limited scope. Oklahoma City should have been a wake-up call to the existence of a broad-based and highly organized movement; instead, Belew writes, it and many other acts of white terrorism were “largely narrated and prosecuted as scattered actions and inexplicable lone wolf attacks motivated not by ideology but by madness or personal animus.”
The power of Belew’s book comes, in part, from the fact that it reveals a story about white-racist violence that we should all already know. Instead, mainstream politicians and media voices have embraced the idea of white-power militants as mere misguided loners, not the representatives of an actual movement, and have demurred on any sustained interrogation of how white-power ideology might be implicit, in more “diffuse, coded, and mainstream” dimensions, in our society, our politics, and our habits of war. Thus, at the close of the millennium, the history of the white-power movement—the story of a dark dialectic between terroristic revolutionary violence and the state violence of American empire—was consigned to the dustbin of “the End of History.”
All the while, in a particularly grim twist, so many other aspects of American life—from civilian policing to television shows to best-selling video-game franchises—have become militarized as never before. Now, in 2018, coming up on nearly two decades of an apparently endless War on Terror, and with white-power violence prominent in our headlines once again, forcing a more serious reckoning is imperative—and Belew’s vital intervention is a necessary step toward that end.