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How America's White Power Movement Coalesced After The Vietnam War

Apr 25, 2018
Originally published on April 26, 2018 9:50 am

In Aug. 2017, many Americans were shocked to see neo-Nazis and members of the so called alt-right demonstrating in Charlottesville, Va. But author Kathleen Belew says the roots of the rally were actually decades in the making.

Belew, who has spent more than 10 years studying America's White Power movement, traces the movement's rise to the end of the Vietnam War, and the feeling among some "white power" veterans that the country had betrayed them.

"To be clear, I'm not arguing that this is at all representative of Vietnam veterans — this is a tiny, tiny percentage of returning veterans," Belew says. "But it is a large and instrumental number of people within the White Power movement — and they play really important roles in changing the course of movement action."

In her new book, Bring the War Home, Belew argues that as disparate racist groups came together, the movement's goal shifted from one of "vigilante activism" to something more wide-reaching: "It's aimed at unseating the federal government. ... It's aimed at undermining infrastructure and currency to foment race war."


Interview Highlights

On how the Vietnam War changed the White Power movement

The Vietnam War narrative works first of all to unite people who had previously not been able to be in a room together and to have a shared sense of mission. So, for instance, Klansmen and neo-Nazis after World War II had a very difficult time aligning, because Klansmen tended to see neo-Nazis as enemies ... the people they were confronting in World War II. But after Vietnam they see common cause around their betrayal by the government and around the failed project of the Vietnam War. So that's one function.

Another function of the Vietnam War is to provide a narrative that shapes the violence itself, and this is partly material in that veterans who are trained in Vietnam War boot camps come back and create boot camps to train other White Power activists. People who didn't serve in Vietnam War combat even use U.S. Army training manuals and other kind of paramilitary infrastructure to shape White Power violence and they even choose Vietnam War issue weapons, uniforms and material and even obtain stolen military weapons to foment activism.

On the White Power movement turning on the state

The turn on the state happened in 1983. It happened at the Aryan Nations World Congress, which was a meeting of many different factions of the White Power movement and the thing that's important about this turn on the state is that it's openly anti-state for the first time in the 20th century. Prior Klan mobilizations had really been organized about maintaining the status quo or maintaining what historians would call "systemic power," which is to say, state power and all of the other kinds of power that are bound up in state power.

So if you think about the Klan in the 1920s, which is the example that most people are familiar with, it's very overtly and properly nationalist. ... It was out in the mainstream. It was very social. It was very overt. It was purported to be "for America" and their slogan indeed was "100 percent Americanism."

So fast forward to 1983, and we're looking at something completely different. This is now a coalition of united racist groups that is openly anti-government, that is focused on a transnational white nation and that is using texts and ideologies that call for an apocalyptic confrontation with everybody else.

On the White Power movement's early use of the Internet

The White Power movement pioneered some of the early Internet social network connection that we see now as early as 1983, '84, with a series of computer message boards that were password protected and not decrypted by the FBI for several years. ... It was called Liberty Net and it was founded in 1983, '84. Liberty Net was a series of computer message boards that put forward everything from common ideologies of the movement to personal ads to connect activists with one another and romantic and other kinds of social relationships to hit lists of targets for the movement violence. The movement matched that kind of activist with distribution of funds to buy computers, so there was a targeted effort to distribute the movement's resources around the country, so that everyone could get onto these early message boards.

On how her research has changed during the Obama and Trump administrations

One of the things that has happened just in the last few years is that this book has moved from being a niche story about political extremism to a book that has become really important to how we see the mainstream. ... Many people thought that they were living through a real progress moment of American history, and we had this idea, even as historians, of a "post-racial" moment, or a colorblind moment, or a multicultural moment. And I think what this story shows us is where overt racism went during the time that we thought of as peaceful and race-neutral. And that instead we were looking at this submerging and resurging story.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Many people were surprised seeing neo-Nazis and white nationalists marching in Charlottesville last September. My guest, Kathleen Belew, has written a new book that helps explain how white power has never really gone away, although the movement has changed over the years. Her book about the white power and militia movements in America is called "Bring The War Home."

The book begins in the '70s when some Vietnam War veterans applied their military experience to acting on their extremist views. The book ends with the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Belew writes that the bomber, Timothy McVeigh, represented the culmination of decades of white power organizing. Belew has been researching the white power movement for 10 years. She's an assistant professor at the University of Chicago.

Kathleen Belew, welcome to FRESH AIR. How do you think the history that you're telling from the '70s through the mid-'90s connects to the alt-right of today?

KATHLEEN BELEW: I think the most critical thing that this history can show us about the present moment is that what seems new in our present is not new. That is to say I think there's been a lot of feeling of shock and surprise around some of the events fomented by the alt-right and around some of the discourse put into the public sphere by the alt-right, but none of these things are new.

So to take one example, last week, there was something circulating about a swastika burning, I believe in Georgia, which is sort of like a cross burning that people are more familiar with as an action of the KKK. That has actually been part of this movement for decades. And to take an example, Aryan Nations in Idaho had frequent ceremonies of lighting both a cross and a swastika as a way of demonstrating alliances between neo-Nazis and Klansmen. So these sorts of events are not new. This history can show us a lot about how they formed, why they took the directions they did and the things that have and have not worked to respond to them.

GROSS: You also say that some American terrorists from the racist wing of the far-right, who we may see as lone wolves, might not really be lone wolves. Is there a recent example of that?

BELEW: Sure. I think one good example in the present moment is Dylann Roof, the gunman in the Charleston shooting in 2015. So Dylann Roof is an interesting example because he's someone who didn't need to meet these activists in real life in order to be radicalized and to see himself as part of a movement. And we can see in his manifesto that he's using a lot of the rhetorical framing that was common in the white power movement earlier. But I think even more clear is just in the way he presented himself.

So Roof posted pictures to social media wearing not only the 14 and the 88, which are sort of classic white power symbols that we can talk more about, but he also posted pictures of himself wearing the Rhodesian flag. So the Rhodesian flag is something that refers to a white power issue that wasn't even an issue during his lifetime, right? Rhodesia had become Zimbabwe by the time that Dylann Roof was born, I believe. But Rhodesia, as a white-minority-ruled government, was really important to white power activists in the 1980s. And it's a way that we can see how this movement is continuing to shape politics in the present even about issues that aren't live anymore.

GROSS: And with people like Dylann Roof, I don't know if he had associations with other white racist groups, but through the Internet, you don't have to show up in a physical space to feel a connection to them and to learn the rhetoric, to learn the symbols and to feel a part of it.

BELEW: Exactly. And it's this sort of powerful connection to a whole world of symbols that has worked to bring people into this kind of activism at least since the 1980s. The white power movement pioneered some of the early Internet social network connection that we see now as early as 1983-84 with a series of computer message boards that were password protected and weren't decrypted by the FBI for several years. So they used that series of message boards for all kinds of activism.

GROSS: So they had an early infrastructure in place for organizing on the Internet?

BELEW: Yeah, that's right. It was called Liberty Net, and it was founded in 1983-84. Liberty Net was a series of computer message boards that put forward everything from sort of common ideologies of the movement to personal ads to connect activists with one another in romantic and other kinds of social relationships to hit lists of targets for that movement violence. And the movement matched that kind of activism with actually distribution of funds to buy a computer. So there was a targeted effort to distribute the movement's resources around the country so that everyone could get onto these early message boards.

GROSS: Your book is subtitled "The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." So your umbrella phrase is the white power movement. Why have you chosen that as the description that you're going to use? And I'll use it too in keeping with your book.

BELEW: Sure. So I think it's important to call this the white power movement because I think that the alternative is confusing. I think that when people hear the phrase white nationalism, what they think of is nationalism and the nation. And I think that there is a way that that allows people to think of - sometimes without even realizing it - the American nation as the unit of nationalism. And that lets people sort of think of this as a overzealous patriotism, but it isn't that. White power activists who were white nationalists in this period were imagining a transnational racial nation that would unite white people across national boundaries and would create, eventually, a white nation and a white world.

So when we think of it as white nationalism, sometimes there's a slippage that lets people think of it as being continuous with a sort of patriotism or populism that's more mainstream. And I think that that's not what this movement really was. White power also is what they use to describe themselves, and it's a label that reached across a lot of different belief systems. Which is kind of how this movement worked was to unite many different belief systems within a common ideology.

GROSS: So you describe a major shift as happening in the white power movement during and after the war in Vietnam as vets start returning home to the U.S. What's the shift?

BELEW: So one thing that happens after the Vietnam War is broader than just its impact on the white power movement but impacts the whole of American society, and that is that people start to think about the Vietnam War in a different way, or they begin to use a different narrative structure for talking about the war. So this happens throughout the 1980s. And you can see this kind of narrative in many popular accounts of Vietnam. Any Vietnam War movie, memoir or novel from the '80s usually is using this kind of a narrative frame. It has to do with betrayal by authority, intense violence, gore, individual sacrifice and the sense of sort of not being allowed to win.

And we see this idea in everything from Hollywood movies to the speeches of President Reagan. Now, this idea of the war as a moment of betrayal or frustration is also fueling a huge surge in paramilitary culture in the United States, which appears in everything from paintball courses to gun shows to camo fatigue clothing to armchair warrior magazines. So that is happening in the mainstream.

GROSS: I will say, you know, a lot of vets return from the war with a narrative of the war was bad, the war had no meaning, it shouldn't have been fought. People died who needn't have died. So let's end the war. Let's work toward more peace. So that's one narrative. What's the narrative on the far-right from the vets returning home who belong more to a white power point of view?

BELEW: So white power veterans are using this surge of paramilitary discourse to figure out their own narrative of the Vietnam War that does several things within this movement. Now, to be clear, I'm not arguing that this is at all representative of Vietnam veterans. This is a tiny, tiny percentage of returning veterans. But it is a large and instrumental number of people within the white power movement, and they play really important roles in changing the course of movement action.

The Vietnam War narrative works, first of all, to unite people who had previously not been able to be in a room together and to have a shared sense of mission. So, for instance, Klansmen and neo-Nazis after World War II had a very difficult time aligning because Klansmen tended to see neo-Nazis as enemies - right? - the people that they were confronting in World War II. But after Vietnam, they see common cause around sort of their betrayal by the government and around the failed project of the Vietnam War. So that's one function.

Another function of the Vietnam War is to sort of provide a narrative that shapes the violence itself, and this is partly material in that veterans who are trained in Vietnam War boot camps come back and create boot camps to train other white power activists. People who didn't serve in Vietnam War combat even use U.S. Army training manuals and other kind of paramilitary infrastructure to shape white power violence. And they even choose Vietnam War-issue weapons, uniforms, and materiel and even obtained stolen military weapons to foment activism.

GROSS: So you write that unlike previous Ku Klux Klan interactions, after the war in Vietnam, white supremacists and the white power movement didn't claim to serve the state. They actually declared war on the federal government. What's the distinction that you're making there?

BELEW: So the turn on the state happened in 1983, and it happened at the Aryan Nations World Congress, which was sort of a meeting of many different factions of the white power movement. And the thing that's important about this turn on the state is that it's openly anti-state for the first time in the 20th century. So prior Klan mobilizations had really been organized about maintaining the status quo or maintaining what historians would call systemic power, which is to say state power and all of the other kinds of power that are bound up in state power.

So if you think about the Klan in the 1920s, which is the example that most people are familiar with, it's very overtly and properly nationalist. You can think of the famous pictures that are available for free at the Library of Congress - maybe people want to go look them up - of Klansmen marching down the National Mall in front of Congress unmasked but wearing their hoods and robes. It was out in the mainstream. It was very social. It was very overt. It was very for - purported to be for America. And their slogan, indeed, was 100 percent Americanism.

So fast-forward to 1983, and we're looking at something completely different. This is now a coalition of united racist groups that is openly anti-government, that is focused on a transnational white nation and that is using texts and ideologies that call for an apocalyptic confrontation with everybody else. So it's aimed at unseating the federal government. It's aimed at assassination of people involved in the federal government, including judges and state troopers. It's aimed at undermining infrastructure and currency to foment race war. And it's really angled in a much different way than those earlier moments of vigilante activism.

GROSS: In 1984, a group called The Order actually declares war.

BELEW: Yes.

GROSS: What was that?

BELEW: So The Order was a white terrorist group that carried out a series of robberies, assassinations and infrastructure attacks attempting to foment race war - and a counterfeiting operation, I should add. The Order - I think the most famous of these actions was the assassination of a Denver radio host named Alan Berg in 1984 who had called out the Klan in several public forums. The Order ended up being pursued by the FBI. And the declaration of war was almost an afterthought, penned as its leader was sort of huddled in a safe house in Whidbey Island, Wash., as federal agents got closer and closer. But that was certainly not the only white power group in this moment to declare war.

Other activists also went on the run and went underground and often, as part of their going underground, would pen a declaration of war. Typically, these documents called for an overthrow of the federal government on the grounds that the white race was in danger of being annihilated and described actions as self-defense and as simply, like, the only course of action left.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kathleen Belew. She's the author of the new book "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Kathleen Belew. We're talking about her new book, "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America," and it's a history of how the white power movement changed after the war in Vietnam.

So, you know, we've been talking about how some of these white power groups declared war on America. So this starts happening in the 1980s during the Reagan presidency. So how did the white power groups see themselves in relationship to President Reagan? Because President Reagan kind of declared war on the government in his own way. I mean, he's famous for saying, government isn't the solution to the problem, it is the problem. And he tried to limit the power of agencies and decrease their budgets. He, you know, named as the head of agencies people who were opposed to some of the work the agencies were doing. So I'm not saying that he was, you know, at all down with the white power movement, but I'm just wondering how the white power movement saw itself in relationship to President Reagan because he marked a turning point in government's relationship to itself.

BELEW: Certainly he did. And that - the white power movement saw the second Reagan term as a moment when electoral politics was no longer an option is really important to understand as context for our present moment. So the white power movement turned against the state in 1983 partly because they saw Reagan as too moderate compared to his campaign promises. And white power activists saw this as the moment when electoral politics would no longer be a avenue to action.

This is significant not only because it reflects a larger sort of dissatisfaction with Reagan that was expressed all through the right but particularly among evangelicals in 1983-1984 but also because this happened at a moment when, you know, to an outsider, white power activists seemed to have, you know, the ear of the executive in some important ways. They seemed to stand to gain a lot from the Reagan presidency.

GROSS: So as the white power movement turns, like, anti-government, you start seeing these conspiracy theories about like ZOG, the Zionist-Occupied Government. Tell us about ZOG.

BELEW: So ZOG refers to the Zionist Occupational Government, and it's a conspiracy theory that imagines that not only the U.S. government but international forces are sort of controlled by a cabal of internationalist, Jewish and duplicitous malevolent actors. So the idea is that the federal government is the enemy because it is controlled by outside and usually Jewish forces. This idea also has some sort of flexibility into future mobilization.

So you see people who believed in ZOG in the '70s and '80s begin to use the idea of the New World Order to signify something similar in the late 1980s and 1990s. And the New World Order has much more sort of recruiting power than ZOG does as a label because it's picked up in different ways from the mainstream right. So the New World Order is the idea that there is a super state that's controlled by internationalist forces. And you can see how ZOG kind of slots into that idea and works to recruit from the mainstream right by using that.

GROSS: So you've written about how, in the '70s and '80s, the white power movement described the American government as the Zionist Occupational Government and later started to think of the government as part of the New World Order, which was a way of - both of those were ways of demonizing the American government. Now you hear a lot of talk about the deep state. Do you see any connection between the New World Order and the Zionist Occupational Government and what is now called the deep state?

BELEW: I think so. I think - so one way to understand this is that the white power movement - and I think this is true of the alt-right - is using a set of tactics pioneered by the earlier Ku Klux Klan. So if you think about the Klan in the '20s, it's a very opportunistic belief system. That is to say that it is somewhat flexible. People can take or leave parts of it that work for them, right? So the Klan in the '20s was classically anti-black in the South, and that's what people usually think about when they think about the Klan. But the Klan was also anti-Mexican on the border, anti-labor in the Pacific Northwest, which was having a lot of union activity in that time period, anti-immigrant in the Northeast and even anti-Catholic in Indiana because Notre Dame was seen as a threat to sort of the Klan power structure in Indiana.

So if think about that sort of opportunism, I think that's what's happening with the way that these conspiracy theory beliefs sort of morph and reshape themselves over time. So the Zionist Occupational Government works really the same way as the New World Order within this belief system. But the Zionist Occupational Government, as you can see even as we're saying it out loud, is sort of unwieldy. It's less outward-facing. It's less useful as a recruitment mechanism than is the New World Order, which is, you know, short and succinct and works better in the '90s to affiliate with other popular concerns. So I think that's what's happening with the deep state too is sort of a way of reformulating the same idea that can work in the present moment.

GROSS: My guest is Kathleen Belew, author of the new book "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." After a break, we'll talk about the role of women in the white power movement. And rock critic Ken Tucker will review several current hip-hop hits. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "TWENTY YEARS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Kathleen Belew. We're talking about the white power movement and how it consolidated and expanded after the Vietnam War. Belew's new book, Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America," begins in the '70s and ends with the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. She's been studying the white power movement for 10 years. She's an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago. When we left off, we were talking about the white power movement in the '80s.

You know, along with the reshaping of the white power movement, you have some groups forming into militias.

BELEW: Yes.

GROSS: How do the militias start organizing, and when do they start organizing?

BELEW: So the militias begin to organize in the late 1980s. I think that the best way to think about this is that the militias are not the same thing as the white power movement, but they are an outgrowth of white power activism. So many militias share personnel, funding, strategy and even the same weapons as the white power movement of just a few years earlier.

GROSS: Who did they intend to fight with their weapons?

BELEW: I think that the militias are usually talking about self-armament as being able to one day fight the government, which brings us to a common question about this whole ideology, which is, how did they think that this war could ever succeed? War on the state in the 1980s or 1990s seems like a losing proposition, given the staggering power of the state itself and the militarization of the United States that continued through the Cold War, after the end of the Cold War and into the 1990s. I think that many people in this movement believed that they needed to arm themselves either for their own survival or to help foment a guerrilla war that would eventually wake up the masses of white people and raise a more persuasive army.

GROSS: Right, because even if you couldn't defeat the United States of America, you could try to kill some federal agents. Was that the philosophy?

BELEW: Yes. And the idea was that those actions wouldn't just be sort of, like, a thorn in the side of the state, but would awaken other white people to this idea of imminent, apocalyptic danger. So this feeling of, you know, being on the brink of annihilation is all through the movement documents. It's also important that a lot of people in the movement believed in Christian Identity, which was a political theology that held that white people were the true lost tribe of Israel and that people of color and Jewish people were descended from animals or Satan, but that white people would be in charge of clearing the world of nonwhite people before the return of Christ.

So critically, unlike evangelical Christianity, which has a view of the end of the world that includes rapture, rapture being the peaceful transport of the faithful to heaven before the sort of tribulation, end of days battles, Christian Identity doesn't give any kind of guarantee of safety at the end of the world. Christian Identity adherents are supposed to stay and clear the world of nonwhite people before Christ can return. So this ideology requires people at least to be survivalists, prepared to withstand this horrible time that they think is pretty near and in many cases, also called people to arm themselves as combatants for this, you know, apocalyptic holy war that would also take the shape of a race war.

GROSS: And this leads to a survival movement within the white power movement.

BELEW: Yes.

GROSS: So is the survivalist movement within the white power movement a kind of small faction or does it have a lot of - does it get a big foothold within the white power movement?

BELEW: I think survivalism is a very important current within white power activism. And it's also one of the ways that women form their activism as distinct within the movement. So if you see, for instance, a leaflet about an apocalypse sort of training camp - there's one called the End Time Overcomers Training Seminar (ph). Women in that seminar would be looking at, like, soap making, and survival medicine, and how to deal with radiation poisoning and things like that while the men are doing paramilitary parading and urban warfare and things like this.

GROSS: But you describe them as survivalist housewives in the book.

BELEW: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. So it's interesting. Instead of, like, learning to bake or something, it's, like, learning to deal with radiation poisoning. Is that what you said?

BELEW: Yes.

GROSS: Right.

BELEW: So before 1989, the way that the end of the world is imagined is always sort of as the eventual outgrowth of a Soviet nuclear attack, which, you know, aligns with how most Americans probably think about the apocalypse in the 1980s, and many Americans are thinking about the apocalypse in the 1980s. So it's of a piece of the preparation culture that drives many people to, like, stock food and figure out where they're going to go in the event of nuclear blast. Some people build shelters. But it's specialized in that these activists think they have to survive and then go to war.

GROSS: Is the survivalist movement within the white power movement one of the reasons why some groups locate to fairly remote regions in the Northwest?

BELEW: So the Northwest migration is partly about survivalism, but it's also partly about white separatism. So there is - there are several mapping projects in the '80s thinking about, where could be a white homeland? They write a lot about, you know, migrating to the Northwest and populating the Northwest with white children in order to create a white homeland there. And again, that's where women are really important to the movement. They need white women to move to this area, to have lots of children, to raise these children, to be within the movement and to kind of form this community. One leader writes, we will win this territory with our love for each other. We will outbreed the enemy.

GROSS: Yeah, and the idea of women having a really important role as, you know, giving birth to white children, that relates to one of the symbols in the movement, which is 14 words. Would you describe what those 14 words are?

BELEW: Sure. The 14 words, which I am not going to read here - I think I won't...

GROSS: Do you want me to read them?

BELEW: Uh, sure.

GROSS: Is it that you don't want to say them or that, like, you don't have...

BELEW: I would prefer not to say them.

GROSS: OK.

BELEW: The 14 words are a slogan penned by David Lane, who is an incarcerated member of The Order, that lay out the activism of the movement in a 14-word slogan that places the entire movement in perspective in terms of securing a future for white children. So it's a slogan that really pulls together this fear of annihilation with the revolutionary character of the movement.

GROSS: You're reluctant to actually say those 14 words. Why are you reluctant to say them?

BELEW: I am. You know, a lot of this work for me has been about how to create a historic - you know, a historical account of this movement that doesn't further the movement. And this comes up in interesting ways as you pursue the scholarship. I had - so there are many, many ephemera publications of this movement. They've been housed at University Archive (ph). And I have found a trove of interesting visual materials of this movement, including pen drawings, comic books, sketches and things like this, that I had hoped to include in the book and then realized in the permissions process that doing so would mean paying permissions to some groups that are still around. And I decided in the end that I didn't feel ethically comfortable with contributing money to these groups in order to get the images out there. So I am - I'm always aware of sort of how my scholarship might impact the movement in the present.

GROSS: Are you afraid if you say those 14 words and you recite them, it'll sound like an endorsement or that you'll be furthering the work of the white power groups?

BELEW: I suppose I would just prefer not to say them.

GROSS: Right. 'Cause - is it, to you, like saying the N-word or something - just, like, so offensive you don't want to say them?

BELEW: I wonder. I'm reluctant to have a sound bite of me saying those words.

GROSS: Like, it could be used in the wrong way.

BELEW: Yeah.

GROSS: Then I will not say them either.

BELEW: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

BELEW: I think it's very easy to Google what they are. But I think, you know, the 14 words and the number 14 are important to the movement because it is a - you know, it's a catchy slogan that has to do with the future of white children. And I think it's important to the movement because it really shows how all of these social movement issues that are so critical to white power activists and that often, you know, have a crossover appeal to the mainstream right, at bottom for these actors really are about the potential annihilation of the race. So when white power activists worry about - you know, when they oppose abortion, when they oppose LGBT rights, when they oppose immigration, when they oppose interracial marriage - all of these things for them, at bottom, are about the annihilation of the race.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kathleen Belew. She's the author of the new book "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "AXIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Kathleen Belew. She's the author of the new book "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." It's a history of how the white power movement changed after the war in Vietnam.

One of the books that's really important to the white power movement, you know, especially in the '80s and '90s, is "The Turner Diaries." I had heard about "The Turner Diaries" in the '80s and '90s. And this is a story that you describe as being about Earl Turner, a soldier in the racist movement, attempting to overthrow the government. This part I did not know. At the end of the novel, Turner prepares to fly a small plane loaded with a 60-kiloton nuclear warhead into the Pentagon. I mean, without the warhead, that's 9/11.

BELEW: Yes.

GROSS: Flying a plane into the Pentagon - and it just made me think about the parallels.

BELEW: That's really interesting. I hadn't thought about it quite in those terms. I think - yeah, I think one way that "The Turner Diaries" is really helpful for understanding this movement - and perhaps terrorism writ large - is the way that these activists imagine that these lone actions, you know, and scattered actions can one day lead to a real change. I think when you look at even an event like the Oklahoma City bombing, which is huge and cataclysmic, it's hard to really see how this movement thought that would change anything without the road map provided by cultural texts like "The Turner Diaries."

GROSS: You mean the - what do you mean by that?

BELEW: So "The Turner Diaries," which includes an event very much like the Oklahoma City bombing - in which Earl Turner bombs FBI headquarters in that case - gives sort of a series of diary entries that - the frame of the book is that it's a diary that is, quote, unquote, "found" after this revolution has succeeded. So it ends in Earl Turner's suicide mission flying this warhead into the Pentagon. But it shows an entire arc of activism that starts simply with him being, quote, unquote, "awakened" to the truth of white peril, all the way through the different kinds of actions that he takes that lead up to that big, final action.

And then there's, like, an endnote that explains how he succeeded and how, you know - it explains everything that happened after that action, including, you know, the clearing of the United States of populations of color and the eventual nuclear bombing of non-white people such that they achieve a white world and, you know, restart the calendar at Year Zero and start over.

I think that this question of how such a thing could possibly succeed is a really poignant one within the movement and is a really important thing to understand in terms of how people could imagine this activism in the real world.

GROSS: When you look at the white power movement now, do you see a bunch of small, unaffiliated groups each going their own way with their own membership and their own website? Or do you see them all being under the same umbrella and sharing similar goals and actually communicating with each other in some kind of united way?

BELEW: So my study of this ends with the Oklahoma City bombing. And in fact, the kind of study that I'm doing, which is drawing on archives and previously classified government documents and deep reading of what the movement members themselves were talking about, won't be possible for our current moment until several years from now. But I think what the history can tell us about this is that, like any social movement of the late 20th century, white power appeared to be fragmented at moments when it was actually very much united, at least in ideology - even when it had sort of squabbles between main leaders, which was a feature of white power activism throughout its, you know, long history.

There are a lot of misconceptions about this because people haven't really seen it as a social movement. And part of that is because white power itself was attempting to disappear. So beginning in 1983, at that same moment that the movement made a turn against the state and became revolutionary, they also picked up a strategy called leaderless resistance, which is what we might understand now as sort of cell-style terrorism. The idea is that activists can be coordinated in common cause without receiving direct instructions from leadership.

So within the frame of leaderless resistance, there's a lot of room for misconceptions about what exactly it is that people are doing. And one way we also might think about that in the present moment is that leaderless resistance also totally changes what it looks like to operate a social movement because if your goal is to recruit a small number of totally dedicated activists, then you're going to have smaller numbers than if your goal is to turn out, you know, hundreds of people for a cross burning. But it doesn't - it means that the number of people is less important than the amount of dedication to the movement. Does that make sense? It means that membership numbers are really a bad way to estimate how important and how influential a movement is.

GROSS: You don't need a lot of people to blow up one building.

BELEW: Exactly.

GROSS: You know, what you're describing is really terrorist cells, right?

BELEW: Yes.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if you think we in America take the white power movement seriously as terrorists.

BELEW: I think people are really reluctant to use that word for white power violence. And we see this in the way that the journalistic coverage unfolds of white power violence and in sort of the reluctance to label things as an ideology when, I think, comparatively, people are very ready to think about - you know, I - there's a loose category that's called, like, ISIS affiliated or ISIS sympathizer, right? But we don't see that readiness to label white actors that are doing similarly politically motivated acts of violence.

GROSS: You've been researching the white power movement for 10 years. So when you started, we were either about to have or we already had our first African-American president - our first and only. And now our president is somebody who is seen as having empowered the alt-right. So, you know, things have changed in the period that you've been researching the white power movement, so I'm wondering if the real-time events you've lived through in the past 10 years affect how you see the past that you're writing about or if the past that you've been writing about has affected how you've seen the political changes you've lived through in the past 10 years.

BELEW: Yes. One of the things that that has happened just in the last few years is that this book moved from being about a sort of niche story about political extremism to a book that has become really important to how we see the mainstream. I think that the way that I've come to understand this since that change happened is that we - many people thought that they were living through a real progress moment of American history. And we had this idea, even as historians, of sort of a post-racial moment or a colorblind moment or a multicultural moment. And I think what this story shows us is where overt racism and violence went during the time that we thought of as peaceful and race-neutral and that instead, we were looking at sort of this submerging and resurging story.

GROSS: Kathleen Belew, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

BELEW: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Kathleen Belew is the author of the new book "Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will have a roundup of hip-hop hits he's been enjoying. This is FRESH AIR.

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