The Surprising Roots of Recent White Extremism

By Joseph DardaApril 9, 2018

The Surprising Roots of Recent White Extremism

Bring the War Home by Kathleen Belew

THIS WAS NO ordinary jacket copy. “What will you do when they come to take your guns?” asks white supremacist William Luther Pierce on the back cover of his 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, an enduring literary icon among Klansmen, neo-Nazis, Identitarian Christians, and skinheads. Timothy McVeigh sold it at gun shows and brought pages of the book with him to Oklahoma City when he bombed the Murrah Federal Building in 1995. Pierce immodestly declared his creation “a novel with a message in the venerable tradition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Morris Dees, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, called it “an invitation to kill blacks and Jews.”

Part conspiracy thriller and part race war how-to manual, The Turner Diaries is written as the personal journal of a foot soldier in a guerilla movement against a Jewish-controlled government secured by black enforcers and abetted by white liberals. “The System,” as the government is known, outlaws guns, introduces tax incentives for mixed-raced couples, decriminalizes rape, and declares it a hate crime for white people to defend themselves from people of color. Turner’s resistance movement builds a cell network of ex-military men who execute coordinated terrorist attacks on the System, including the bombing of a federal building that may have inspired McVeigh. The diaries end with Turner crashing a plane into the Pentagon, sacrificing himself for his race. Though the prose is laughable and the premise absurd, it nevertheless put a mirror to a growing subliminal belief in the late 1970s that white men were the real victims of post–civil rights America — that it was time they took their country back.

That belief, Kathleen Belew argues in her new book Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, arose from the Vietnam War. The publication of Pierce’s novel coincided with some of the first revisionist Vietnam War films, including Coming Home and the Best Picture–winning The Deer Hunter. These films all, regardless of their more explicit politics, addressed the suffering of white veterans abandoned by their government in Southeast Asia and shunned by civilians at home. The United States pulled out of Vietnam amid an oil crisis and the Watergate scandal. Inflation rose as wages shrank. Manufacturing jobs moved overseas as organized labor came under attack. Some white men, feeling the sting of deindustrialization, blamed the civil rights, feminist, and antiwar movements and a government that they believed had surrendered to minority demands. The Vietnam veteran became the embodiment of their grievances. Ronald Reagan recognized the value of that story, suggesting in his 1980 presidential campaign that the government had been “afraid to let them win” in Vietnam and had subjected them to “shabby” treatment ever since. So did white supremacist activists, who found in this mythology an idea that would unite a growing white power movement: a belief in government-orchestrated anti-white discrimination. “We know now what we could not know in 1968 — our government never intended to win in Vietnam,” Klan leader Louis Beam wrote in 1983, calling for white vets to “bring [the war] on home.”

Belew, a history professor at the University of Chicago, counters the treatment of white terrorists as “lone wolves” by tracing the contours of an organized white power movement that connected radical white extremists from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and from Waco, Texas, to Oklahoma City. From 1978, when Pierce published his novel, to 1995, when McVeigh bombed the Murrah building, white supremacists banded together like never before, forming alliances through early computer networks, intermarriage, survivalist and paramilitary groups, and literature. But they also hid these connections by adopting the cell structure of Pierce’s fictional resistance movement.

Belew does the hard work of restoring those connections, revealing how white supremacists built a coalition of rural survivalists, urban skinheads, and anti-Semitic Christian Identity believers. The unified white power movement coalesced around stories not of triumph but of defeat. Klansmen and neo-Nazis set aside their differences — some Klan leaders held strong anti-Nazi feelings stemming from their service in World War II — to defend a white race that they believed to be under siege by black radicals, Jews, feminists, global elites, and a federal government that had left good white men for dead in Vietnam.

The late-20th-century white power movement may have been extreme, but it fed off some of the same revanchist discourse circulating in the halls of Congress and on Hollywood sets. That hasn’t changed. In February 2016, then-Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump hesitated to disavow David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, when Duke endorsed him for president. Then he appeared to bless Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and militia groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, as including “some very fine people.” The history of the white power movement suggests that the election of Donald Trump was not a perfect storm but a gale in the American weather.

The Ku Klux Klan has periodically surged and waned since its founding in 1865, and it prospers in the aftermath of war. Louis Beam returned to his home state of Texas in 1968 with a Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in aerial combat. A violent racist and fervent anticommunist, Beam joined the Texas chapter of the United Klans of America and pinned his combat medals to his white robes, seeing his Klan activities as a continuation of his military service. “The mere fact that I had returned from Vietnam didn’t mean the war was over. It was going on right here in the States,” he told an undercover reporter. “Over here, if you killed the enemy, you go to jail. Over there in Vietnam, if you killed the enemy, they give you a medal. I couldn’t see the difference.” As white veterans returned from Southeast Asia and joined the Klan and other hate groups, they militarized an emerging white power movement.

Beam purchased 50 acres of swampland outside Houston where he established Camp Puller, a paramilitary training camp dedicated to turning Klansmen into soldiers. His trainees traded their robes for camouflage fatigues, armed themselves with AR-15s, and manufactured landmines. From Camp Puller, Beam founded the Texas Emergency Reserve, the “special forces” of the Ku Klux Klan, to enforce the rule of law where he believed the government had fallen down on the job. He launched a Klan Border Watch to intimidate undocumented immigrants along the US-Mexico border and led a harassment campaign against Vietnamese refugee fishermen who had resettled along the Texas coast, where local white fishermen accused refugees of getting rich off welfare checks and harboring Viet Cong. (In fact, less than nine percent of Houston-area refugees received any kind of welfare, and most had allied with the United States in the war, some having served alongside the Americans.) The New York Times described the harassment campaign as “one of the last pitched battles of the Vietnam War.” The Texas district attorney eventually shut down Camp Puller, but the movement had spread. Other white supremacist groups built training camps across the South and throughout the western states in the late 1970s. The Invisible Empire Knights, a Klan affiliate, even founded a Camp Mai Lai — named for the My Lai massacre, in which American soldiers killed some 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians — outside Cullman, Alabama.

The Texas Emergency Reserve and other paramilitary groups claimed to be serving the state by enforcing immigration laws and weeding out alleged communists. That changed in 1983, when the white power movement declared war on the government itself. After a judge barred him from running military camps in Texas, Beam relocated to Northern Idaho, where he joined Aryan Nations, an arm of the Christian Identity movement. The 1983 Aryan Nations World Congress, held at the groups compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, marked a turning point for the white power movement as white supremacists from different ideological camps gathered to affirm their shared commitment to undermining the federal government. It marked what Belew calls “a tectonic shift for the movement,” a turn to all-out race war on the liberal state.

That year, Beam, then serving as Aryan Nations “ambassador,” published his influential Essays of a Klansman in which he began advocating a “leaderless resistance” that looked an awful lot like the cell-based terrorism of the fictional Earl Turner. Affirming the Aryan Nations declaration of war, he wrote, “The old ways have failed miserably […] Out with the conservatives and in with the radicals! Out with plans for compromise and in with plans for the sword!” The white power movement had consolidated against the legal structure it had once claimed to defend.

From the 1983 Aryan Nations World Congress to the Oklahoma City bombing, the white power movement grew more violent. In 1984, the Order — a white supremacist group named after the resistance movement in The Turner Diaries — murdered liberal talk radio host Alan Berg at his home in Denver and robbed an armored car near Ukiah, California, netting more than three million dollars in stolen cash. The Order gave some of their take to Beam, who used the money to build a computer network, Liberty Net, that connected white supremacist groups across the country through password-protected message boards. Aryan Nations, the Order, the Aryan Brotherhood, and local Klan chapters shared information and coordinated their efforts through Liberty Net, forming the first white supremacist social network of the internet era. In 1987, the federal government, using Liberty Net data as evidence, brought sedition charges against Beam and 13 other men. Beam defended himself by citing his mistreatment as a Vietnam veteran. An all-white jury acquitted him and his co-defendants of all charges.

White power leaders turned the trial into a rallying cry. A few years later, Beam could declare at a summit in Colorado, “For the first time in the 22 years that I have been in the movement, we are all marching to the beat of the same drum!” The war on the state had, he suggested, united the white power movement: “We are all viewed by the government as the same: enemies of the state. When they come for you, the federals will not ask if you are a Constitutionalist, a Baptist, Church of Christ, Identity Covenant believer, Klansman, Nazi, homeschooler, Freeman, New Testament believer, [or] fundamentalist.” These groups didn’t need to agree on everything. They believed in white supremacy and state-sanctioned white oppression. They were at war for the survival of their race.

The white power movement declined in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh was executed in 2001. Pierce died in 2002. Beam, now 71 and living in central Texas, has kept a low profile since the 1990s. But the last few years have made it hard to ignore that the movement is still with us. After 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black churchgoers in Charlestown, South Carolina, in 2015, his website and Facebook page showed a young man who waved Confederate flags; celebrated the white governance of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa, neither of which existed in his lifetime; flaunted the number 88, a neo-Nazi code for “Heil Hitler”; and lifted ideas from the website of the white separatist Council of Conservative Citizens. This may seem incoherent, and it is. But it isn’t without precedent. The white power movement created a culture in which, as Belew writes, “a suburban California skinhead might bear Klan tattoos, read Nazi tracts, and attend meetings of a local Klan chapter, a National Socialist political party, the militant White Aryan Resistance — or all three.”

What motivated Roof’s act of terror? The same thing that drove Pierce, Beam, and McVeigh: a belief in white supremacy mixed with a belief in white oppression, a call for white power augmented by a fear of white disempowerment. Roof did not act alone. He carried a powerful and poisonous story into that church that connects him to the white men who declared war on the government in Hayden Lake, robbed an armored car outside Ukiah, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, and now carry tiki torches down the streets of Charlottesville.

Throughout the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump excoriated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama for refusing to use the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” But none of these three was willing to call the Charlestown massacre what it was: an act of radical white extremism. Adding those three words to our political vocabulary would represent a small but important first step toward acknowledging that white supremacist violence emerges not from the disordered mind of a lone wolf but from a perceptible and ugly American movement.


Joseph Darda is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University.

LARB Contributor

Joseph Darda is an associate professor of English at Michigan State University and the author of three books, including, most recently, The Strange Career of Racial Liberalism (Stanford University Press, 2022).


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