MERICA'S DEFEAT IN Vietnam produced a surge of men who felt betrayed by the federal government and who feared communism's spread to the United States. Further incensed by government scandals, economic struggles, and a changing cultural landscape in the wake of the civil rights movement's successes, some of these men sought to regain control through white power organizations.
So argues Kathleen Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago, in Bring the War Home, an engaging account of how and why the modern white power movement emerged from 1975 to 1995. By Belew's account, the movement encompasses the Klan, white separatists, neo-Nazis, and even radical tax resisters. Her research is thorough: She compares news reports, government records, and materials from the groups she studies to cross-check her analysis. Her argument falters, though, when it treats the militia movement of the 1990s as an "outgrowth" of this racist milieu rather than a separate movement with its own origins and concerns.
BELEW IS NOT the first writer to argue that the defeat in Vietnam helped fuel the growth of a new kind of reactionary politics. But she offers an unprecedented level of detail, engaging deeply with developments that other authors typically gloss over. Take her analysis of how white power activists sought out mercenary experiences in Latin America. (Klan leader Don Black, for example, was part of a failed effort to initiate a coup in Dominica. The aim was both to protect the U.S. from allegedly encroaching communism and to filter money to white power groups at home.) She links these members' decision to become mercenaries to tactics (such as booby traps), weaponry (such as AK-47s), and ideas (such as anti-communism) they associated with the Vietnam War. Through such shared concepts, Vietnam stayed relevant in white power circles long after the conflict ended.
A few other authors have mentioned white power figures' mercenary work and their lack of legal accountability for possible crimes committed along the way, from violations of the Neutrality Act to involvement in civilian massacres. But Belew alone shows these men's impact on the movement, as opposed to merely demonstrating their violent dedication to it. The mercenaries wanted to physically enact a redemption from the loss in Vietnam--in Belew's words, to "redeem the defeat." More radically, some prepared themselves to use these same techniques of war on home soil against a federal government they...