The link between veterans coming home and racial violence in America. Our expert can explain.October 7, 20193 min read
There is a long history of white supremacist and white-power ideology developing out of the wars the United States has fought.
In Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Harvard University Press, 2018), Kathleen Belew shows that, beginning in the 1970s, a small but committed number of Vietnam War veterans took the racist understanding of the Vietnamese and Asians more broadly that the U.S. military taught them and became instrumental in building the current white-power movement. These vets often did not initially know each other, but they eventually built a wide variety of organizations: the White Aryan Resistance, the latest, post-Civil Rights Era iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, various Christian Identity and white skinhead organizations, and the militia movement of the 1980s and 1990s.
In his forthcoming book, Guarding the Empire: Soldier Strikebreakers on the Long Road to the Ludlow Massacre, Otterbein’s Dr. Anthony DeStefanis has found that the men who fought the Plains Indians in the late nineteenth century and who served in Cuba and the Philippines during the Spanish-American-Filipino War (1898-1902) came to understand Native Americans, Cubans, and Filipinos as formidable but racially inferior enemies. When these same men joined the National Guards in states across the country and were called out on strike duty during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they took what they learned on the Plains and overseas to create a racist rationale for breaking the labor strikes of a working class that was increasingly made up of southern and eastern European, Mexican, and Asian immigrants. Many of these same men also joined the Second Ku Klux Klan that emerged in the late 1910s and became a nationwide organization by expanding the targets of its hatred beyond African Americans to include Jews, Catholics, and immigrants.
Racism is a many-headed hydra with multiple roots in experience at home and abroad. Some white southerners who were central in the project of creating and maintaining Jim Crow white supremacy were Confederate military veterans and it is clear that wars across the twentieth century – from Cuba and the Philippines to Vietnam – pushed some veterans into the white- power movement. Today, we know that white-power organizations concentrate on recruiting military veterans and we have seen a spike in support for these organizations among current members of the military. It’s no accident that some of these active troops and veterans served in the Iraq and Afghan Wars, where they faced a Muslim enemy with unfamiliar social and cultural practices, and who did not welcome the U.S. military presence with open arms. Clearly, we must reckon with what our wars overseas have brought back to the United States.
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Dr. Anthony DeStefanis is an associate professor of history at Otterbein University. He specializes in modern U.S. history with an emphasis on labor and the working class and immigration, race, and ethnicity. Dr. DeStefanis is available to speak with media regarding the history of racial violence in America – simply click on his icon to arrange an interview.