Skip to content Skip to footer

How Perpetual Warfare Abroad Is Fueling White Supremacist Violence in the US

A historian describes the correlation in the US between the aftermath of war and white supremacy.

America’s perpetual warfare abroad has led to an increase in white supremacist violence at home. That’s one of the key findings in Frontline PBS and ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson’s new investigation, Documenting Hate: New American Nazis, which premieres Tuesday evening on PBS. The documentary reveals the deep ties between the military and white supremacy, as Thompson examines the Pittsburgh shooting and the rise of violent hate groups such as Atomwaffen. Thompson interviews historian Kathleen Belew, who says there has always been a correlation in the US between the aftermath of war and the rise of white supremacist violence. “If you look for instance at the surges in Ku Klux Klan membership, they align more consistently with the return of veterans from combat and the aftermath of war than they do with anti-immigration, populism, economic hardship or any of the other factors that historians have typically used to explain them,” she notes. We speak with A.C. Thompson in Boston. His investigation premieres Tuesday on PBS stations and online.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re continuing to look at the rise of neo-Nazis in America in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and a spate of hate-fueled killings in the US in recent weeks. Still with us is A.C. Thompson, correspondent for FRONTLINE PBS and a reporter for ProPublica. His investigation Documenting Hate: New American Nazis premieres tonight on PBS stations and online at

In his investigation, Thompson spoke with Professor Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement in Paramilitary America on links between the military and Atomwaffen.

A.C. THOMPSON: We’re looking at a current group called the Atomwaffen Division, and they are actively recruiting military members. Does that surprise you?

KATHLEEN BELEW: Not at all. That’s a strategy pioneered by the white power movement in the period of my study and continued throughout the post-Vietnam period. One thing to understand is that throughout American history, there is always a correlation between the aftermath of warfare and this kind of vigilante and revolutionary white power violence. So if you look, for instance, at the surges in Ku Klux Klan membership, they align more consistently with the return of veterans from combat and the aftermath of war than they do with anti-immigration, populism, economic hardship or any of the other factors that historians have typically used to explain them. Nationalist fervor, populist movements — those are all worse predictors than the aftermath of war.

A.C. THOMPSON: Postwar periods tend to correspond then with an upsurge in white power, white supremacist activity?



A.C. THOMPSON: Below outlines a long history of military men who became key figures in the white power movement. George Lincoln Rockwell, World War II veteran and founder of the American Nazi Party; Richard Butler, World War II veteran and founder of the Aryan Nations; Louis Beam, Vietnam veteran and grand dragon of the KKK; Timothy McVeigh, Gulf War veteran and Oklahoma City bomber.

KATHLEEN BELEW: It’s important to remember, too, that returning veterans that join this movement, and active duty troops, we’re talking about a tiny, not even statistically significant percentage of veterans. But within this movement, those people who did serve are playing an enormously important role in instruction of weapons, in creating paramilitary activist mentality and training.

A.C. THOMPSON: When we speak to people involved in this movement today, they talk about leaderless resistance. Can you explain that to me?

KATHLEEN BELEW: Sure. Leaderless resistance is basically what we would understand today as self-styled terrorism — the idea that you can recruit a small number of committed activists, organize them and then they will behave on their own in a cell without direct ties with movement leadership.

If we think, for instance, about the Oklahoma city bombing, Timothy McVeigh is sort of the ideal soldier of leaderless resistance. He is in an infantry unit and serves in the Gulf and is involved in white power groups while he’s on post. He is consistently involved in this movement right up to the moment of the Oklahoma City bombing.

We know that this is part of the white power movement and an act of leaderless resistance, but we have this memory of that as an act of one person, and as a result, I think we’ve never really delivered a divisive stop to this activism.

A.C. THOMPSON: Because we don’t understand Oklahoma City as being an outgrowth of an organized movement that has been around for decades that is modeling the military that is involving military members, that the authorities have never really been able to put a stop to it?

KATHLEEN BELEW: That’s right. The military response to white power activism, like the court response to white power activism and the police response to white power activism, reflects the many ways that our society has not been prepared to deal with this kind of movement.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was professor Kathleen Belew speaking with A.C. Thompson. A.C., why is it then that the military and the federal government in its counterterrorism efforts places so little attention, of the billions of dollars that they spend on counterterrorism, in dealing with home-grown, right-wing extremist terrorism?

A.C. THOMPSON: That’s a great question, and I don’t think anybody really knows the full answer to that. I think one thing that we should say is that there has been more aggressive action from the FBI and the Department of Justice recently on this front. So we saw eight white supremacists involved in the Rise Above Movement who were active in Charlottesville and at other protests recently get arrested on rioting charges. We see the FBI looking at this connection between Atomwaffen and the Pittsburgh massacre.

But I think in general, there has been this massive turn towards focusing on 9/11-style terrorism and this sort of sense that the white supremacist, anti-government terrorism embodied by people like Tim McVeigh, embodied by people like Wade Page — who was a neo-Nazi who went into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and killed six worshipers — that that is not that important.

And I think that there has been a sort of loss of the expertise on white supremacist terrorism within the federal government. That everything now is jihadi-style terrorism, and that’s what people focus on, and so people don’t remember, don’t have the institutional knowledge to go after the white supremacists.

AMY GOODMAN: A.C. Thompson, for this report, you interviewed a member of Atomwaffen, well, named — you call him John. You disguise his voice. His face is blurred. This is a clip.

A.C. THOMPSON: Back in New York, our Atomwaffen source, John, agreed to talk over video chat with me and my colleague Ali Winston.

JOHN: So Atomwaffen Division, it’s a Nazi extremist group seeking to spread terror. The main thing is lone wolf activity.

A.C. THOMPSON: When you say lone wolf attacks, it sounds to me like you’re talking about basically terrorist acts?

JOHN: Yeah. They don’t see themselves as terrorists, rather they see the United States as the ultimate terrorist. Like what Adolf Hitler said, “How do you meet terrorism? You meet it with stronger terrorism.” Atomwaffen is made up of about 60 guys, and then you have what is called initiates, that guys were in the process of becoming members. And in order to become a member you have to prove yourself.

A.C. THOMPSON: So how many initiates would you say that there are?


A.C. THOMPSON: Or were.

JOHN: Oh, when I left, there was more initiates than there were members, it that tells you anything.


JOHN: All it takes is one guy to just snap and to do something like this. That’s what Dylann Roof said: “I’m tired of seeing nothing done in the white nationalist community, so I’m going to take a stand and I’m going to go into a church and I’m going to kill all these black people, because no one else is doing anything.” Who knows? There could be another Dylann Roof in Atomwaffen.

AMY GOODMAN: Dylann Roof, of course, is the young man who opened fire in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, gunning down African American worshipers as well as their minister. A.C. Thompson, you disguise John’s face, his voice. This journey you go on confronting white supremacists or those who want to talk about them is dangerous for yourself as well. But if you can tell us who John is, how you found him and then when you find James Mason, him talking about Trump emboldening these people?

A.C. THOMPSON: What I should say about John is the reason that John’s voice is disguised, his identity is disguised, and same with the other former Atomwaffen member that we interview in the field, is they’re not scared of the authorities, they’re not scared of the public; they’re scared of other current Atomwaffen members coming after them or their families and killing them. That’s why they’re disguised. And that’s the sort of fear that people have about talking about these groups when they have been inside these terror organizations.

We went out to Texas because Atomwaffen is currently sort of driven from a cell of people in Texas. Houston, Texas. There is a man named John Cameron Denton. He goes by the online handle “Rape.” Everyone in the group calls him “Rape.” And we confronted him out at a black metal, heavy metal festival in Houston and said, basically, like, “Hey, you’re talking about killing people all of the time. You’re making threats to people online. You’re celebrating mass murder. We would love to interview you about your views.”

He didn’t want to talk, but we did eventually get the guy, James Mason, who has sort of been the inspiration for this group, who is an advisor to the group, to talk to us. And what he said was pretty fascinating.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What did he say?

A.C. THOMPSON: We expected that he would say, “Overthrow the government, smash the state, impose fascism.” And he did celebrate Tim McVeigh. He celebrated James Alex Fields, the man accused of killing Heather Heyer. He did say “I welcome the chaos.” But the thing that he said that surprised us is he said, “But you know, I’m sort of reconsidering these days. We have Trump in office now, and I really see Trump as an ally, so I don’t really know where things are going to go from here, and I’m sort of rethinking my philosophy a little bit.” And that surprised us. That was a little bit of a shock to us.

AMY GOODMAN: A.C., very quickly, you have the Thousand Oaks killing of 12 people; that man served in the military. Parkland, he was in JROTC. The yoga studio killing in Tallahassee, he was in the military. In the last 10 seconds we have, how do you think this can be dealt with?

A.C. THOMPSON: I think one key thing is that we need military authorities to really keep an eye on the types of people coming into the service and the things that they’re doing in the service, and we need sort of general thoughtfulness and vigilance on this.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us. Again, A.C. Thompson, correspondent for FRONTLINE PBS and reporter for ProPublica. His investigation Documenting Hate: New American Nazis premieres tonight, Tuesday night, on PBS stations and online at That does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! produced by Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Sam Alcoff. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $44,000 in the next 7 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.