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Veterans and White Supremacy

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April 16, 2014

This article originally appeared in The New York Times on April 15, 2014.

By Kathleen Belew

When Frazier Glenn Miller shot and killed three people in Overland Park, Kan., on Sunday, he did so as a soldier of the white power movement: a groundswell that united Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other fringe elements after the Vietnam War, crested with the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, and remains a diminished but potent threat today.

Mr. Miller, the 73-year-old man charged in the killings, had been outspoken about his hatred of Jews, blacks, Communists and immigrants, but it would be a mistake to dismiss him as a crazed outlier. The shootings were consistent with his three decades of participation in organized hate groups. His violence was framed by a clear worldview.

You can’t predict whether any one person will commit violence, but it would be hard to think of someone more befitting of law enforcement scrutiny than Mr. Miller (who also goes by the name Frazier Glenn Cross). I’ve been studying the white radical right since 2006. In my review of tens of thousands of pages of once classified federal records, as well as newly available archives of Klan and neo-Nazi publications, Mr. Miller appears as a central figure of the white power movement.

The number of Vietnam veterans in that movement was small — a tiny proportion of those who served — but Vietnam veterans forged the first links between Klansmen and Nazis since World War II. They were central in leading Klan and neo-Nazi groups past the anti-civil rights backlash of the 1960s and toward paramilitary violence. The white power movement they forged had strongholds not only in the South, but also in the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, California and Pennsylvania. Its members carried weapons like those they had used in Vietnam, and used boot-camp rhetoric to frame their pursuit of domestic enemies. They condoned violence against innocent people and, eventually, the state itself.

Before his 1979 discharge for distributing racist literature, Mr. Miller served for 20 years in the Army, including two tours in Vietnam and service as a Green Beret. Later that year he took part (but was not charged) in a deadly shooting of Communist protesters in Greensboro, N.C.

In 1980, Mr. Miller formed a Klan-affiliated organization in North Carolina that eventually was known as the White Patriot Party. He outfitted members in camouflage fatigues. He paraded his neo-Nazis, in uniform and bearing arms, up and down streets. They patrolled schools and polling places, supposedly to protect whites from harassment. F.B.I. documents show that they also burned crosses. By 1986, Mr. Miller’s group claimed 2,500 members in five southern states.

The archives also show that Mr. Miller received large sums of money from The Order, a white power group in the Pacific Northwest, to buy land and weapons to put his followers through paramilitary training. Mr. Miller’s group paid $50,000 for weapons and matériel stolen from the armory at Fort Bragg, N.C., including anti-tank rockets, mines and plastic explosives. He targeted active-duty troops for recruitment and hired them to conduct training exercises.

Mr. Miller’s downfall came after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of black North Carolinians; as part of a settlement in 1985, he agreed to stop operating a paramilitary organization. In 1987, a federal judge found that Mr. Miller had violated the agreement, and barred him from contacting others in the white power movement. Outraged, and anticipating criminal charges regarding the stolen military weapons, Mr. Miller briefly went underground. He would write in a self-published autobiography, “Since they wouldn’t allow me to fight them legally above ground, then I’d resort to the only means left, armed revolution.” He was later caught with a small arsenal, but he began cooperating with prosecutors, testifying against other white supremacists in exchange for a reduced sentence. He was released in 1990, after serving three years.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a nine-page report detailing the threat of domestic terrorism by the white power movement. This short document outlined no specific threats, but rather a set of historical factors that had predicted white-supremacist activity in the past — like economic pressure, opposition to immigration and gun-control legislation — and a new factor, the election of a black president.

The report singled out one factor that has fueled every surge in Ku Klux Klan membership in American history, from the 1860s to the present: war. The return of veterans from combat appears to correlate more closely with Klan membership than any other historical factor. “Military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists carrying out violent attacks,” the report warned. The agency was “concerned that right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.”

The report raised intense blowback from the American Legion, Fox News and conservative members of Congress. They demanded an apology and denounced the idea that any veteran could commit an act of domestic terrorism. The department shelved the report, removing it from its website. The threat, however, proved real.

Mr. Miller obviously represents an extreme, both in his politics and in his violence. A vast majority of veterans are neither violent nor mentally ill. When they turn violent, they often harm themselves, by committing suicide. But it would be irresponsible to overlook the high rates of combat trauma among the 2.4 million Americans who have served in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the full impact of which has not yet materialized. Veterans of those conflicts represent just 10 percent of those getting mental health services through the Department of Veterans Affairs, where the overwhelming majority of those in treatment are still Vietnam veterans.

During Mr. Miller’s long membership in the white power movement, its leaders have robbed armored cars, engaged in counterfeiting and the large-scale theft of military weapons, and carried out or planned killings. The bombing by Timothy J. McVeigh, an Army veteran, of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 168 people, was only the most dramatic of these crimes. When we interpret shootings like the one on Sunday as acts of mad, lone-wolf gunmen, we fail to see white power as an organized — and deadly — social movement.

That Mr. Miller was able to carry out an act of domestic terror at two locations despite his history of violent behavior should alarm anyone concerned about public safety. Would he have received greater scrutiny had he been a Muslim, a foreigner, not white, not a veteran? The answer is clear, and alarming.

- Kathleen Belew is a postdoctoral fellow in history at Northwestern University.