How the Vietnam War Created America’s Modern “White Power” Movement

Sean Illing: The core claim of this book is that the modern “white power” movement really began as a response to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. What happened?

Kathleen Belew: It helps to explain how I came to this project. I was researching truth and reconciliation commissions and came upon one in the aftermath of an incident in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979, where a caravan of neo-Nazis and Klan gunmen opened fire on a leftist demonstration and killed five people, four of whom were card-carrying members of the Communist Workers Party. One of the shooters said at the truth commission in 2005 that he killed communists in Vietnam, so “why shouldn’t I kill communists here?” This represented a profound shift to me. It’s a collapse of all kinds of different distinctions that we like to think about. It collapses war and home. It collapses enemy and fellow civilian. It collapses different kinds of enemies, and it also collapses time. There’s no peacetime and wartime; it’s perpetual war. And the more I researched this movement, the more ideas like this kept emerging.

Illing: Obviously racism isn’t new in this country, so what was the binding narrative after Vietnam that brought all these elements together?

Belew: A lot of these groups were at odds with each other for various reasons, but the narrative of Vietnam was that it was an act of betrayal. They believed the government and the politicians betrayed them. The culture was deeply split by Vietnam, and that gap was never really bridged. So these racist groups took a revolutionary turn and united around the idea of toppling the government. At the same time, you had all these people with military training who were desensitized to violence and full of rage and hatred. So they obtained weapons they knew how to use, started a network of paramilitary camps, and reframed their struggle as a broader race war against the United States. It’s out of this environment that you get someone like Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Illing: To be clear, you’re not arguing that the Vietnam War turned people into racists or made the country more racist than it already was. You’re saying it created the cultural conditions that galvanized these racist groups and helped them organize around a common cause.

Belew: That’s exactly right.

Illing: You also note an interesting pattern in American history: In the aftermath of wars, there’s an uptick in white nationalism or white separatism. What’s the explanation?

Belew: Early in the research, I wondered if this was as simple as veterans being radicalized during war and returning home to foment violence, but I don’t think it’s that simple. There is scholarship that shows that the surge in violence actually appears throughout American society in all genders and age groups in the aftermath of warfare. So there’s something more fundamental going on here, and it could be as simple as the state unleashing all this violence during war and then it’s unable to control it afterward, but I’m not convinced that’s the whole story. If you look at the 20th century, especially the second half, there’s hardly a time when we’re not at war in some place. So there’s this perpetual engagement in state violence, and we should expect that violence to reverberate throughout society during and after war.

Excerpt from Illing, Sean. 2018. “How the Vietnam War Created America’s Modern “White Power” Movement.” Vox, April 13. Retrieved August 25, 2018 (https://www.vox.com/2018/4/13/17215492/white-supremacy-ideology-racism-trump). [Links and emphasis added. Image in original.]

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