Edwin Walker: deep-state conspirator
- August 9, 2023
- Phil Tinline
General Edwin Walker, a war hero who became America’s ‘leading fascist’, was the target of an assassination attempt by Lee Harvey Oswald five months before JFK’s murder. A similarly febrile atmosphere stalks US politics today, though it is now politicians rather than generals who stoke it.
More than two years on from the storming of the US Capitol, the search for an explanation is far from over. In the search for the origins of the radical right resurgence, some have gone back to the militia movement of the 1990s, others to America First in the 1930s. But perhaps the closest specific precedent for the insurrection of 6 January 2021 lies somewhere in between: in the ferocious battles over the integration of Southern schools and universities in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
At the heart of two of these confrontations there towered a curious, largely forgotten, figure. General Edwin Walker, a commanding six foot three, was a hero of the Second World War. In 1957, at Little Rock, Arkansas, he led 300 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division as they forced back the segregationists who were trying to stop nine black schoolchildren enrolling at Central High School. But Walker’s heart was with the segregationists, and by 1962 he had marched out of the army and joined their side. When a black air force veteran, James Meredith, tried to register at the University of Mississippi, Walker issued a call for action, and took up position by a Confederate monument opposite the university, telling the rioting crowd to take the fight to the marshals trying to keep order. In the course of the violence, two people were killed. Walker was arrested, and charged with insurrection. The far right had found itself a leader.
As Peter Adams charts in a deft, deeply-researched new biography, The Insurrectionist: Major General Edwin A. Walker and the Birth of the Deep State Conspiracy (Louisiana State University Press), Walker was driven by a vision of the world that may sound familiar. He was an enthusiastic conspiracy theorist, who saw himself locked in deadly combat with a malignant ‘control apparatus’ that lurked deep inside the state. Integration was just part of a communist plot to undermine America. In Korea, he had overseen prisoner-of-war affairs; now, he detected everywhere the ‘brainwashing’ inflicted on POWs, not least in the textbooks that peddled un-American immorality to innocent pupils. The general, feared the Washington Post, inhabited a ‘nightmare world… of demons and hobgoblins’ – chief among which were the liars of the mainstream media. (His bid for political stardom soon crashed, however; it turned out he had the oratorical talents of a turkey.)
Adams smartly leaves it to the reader to spot the resonances with today: they’re obvious enough. Only at the end does he quote a journalist’s confident prophecy, made in 1961, that the extreme right would be unlikely ever to capture the Republican party – before observing that this now looks rather optimistic.
From one angle, all this may look like a mere prelude to the Age of Trump. But move the camera, and the Age of Walker reveals an ominous phenomenon of its own. One of the most striking aspects of Adams’ account is the evidence he presents that Walker was far from being an outlier in the upper reaches of the US military. In 1951, Walker had backed General Douglas MacArthur’s insubordinate demand that communist forces in Korea surrender. MacArthur courted public support for his opposition to President Truman’s ‘appeasement’, before Truman finally relieved him of his post. A decade later, well-founded fears remained that some in the military had never reconciled themselves to civilian control. Senator William Fulbright was among a series of liberal public figures who denounced anti-democratic beliefs and propaganda emanating from senior officers. In a report to the Secretary of Defense, Fulbright called out military seminars with alarmist titles such as ‘Project Alert’ and ‘Strategy for Survival’. A speaker at one such session reportedly called for the moderate Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to be hanged. In 1962, the fear that all this might culminate in a military coup was fleshed out in a bestselling novel, Seven Days in May. President Kennedy was sufficiently worried to encourage the director John Frankenheimer to turn it into a movie – even clearing out of the White House to make the shoot easier.
It’s not surprising, given this history, that Adams cites a Washington Post article from December 2021, in which three former generals warned that, come 2024, there might be ‘a threat from inside the military’. Adams quotes the officers declaring: ‘We are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time.’ But the evidence the officers offer for insurrectionary zeal among their former colleagues is thin. In 2020, sixty years on from Walker and LeMay, the thought of a coup – of invalidating the election by imposing martial law – was not coming from serving military officers. The idea was reportedly discussed by Trump and the maverick retired general Michael Flynn. Before the attack on the Capitol, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, was reportedly discussing how to stop a possible coup. True, a handful of serving military personnel took part in the insurrection at the Capitol, but Milley and the Joint Chiefs condemned it, sharply reminding servicemen and women that they were obliged to defend the Constitution and obey legal orders from civilian leaders.
And so the ideas Walker championed sixty years ago may be eerily similar to today’s, but they are stemming primarily from politicians rather than generals. Had Trump gone ahead with imposing martial law, it would probably have involved a bizarre reversal of what happened in Mississippi in 1962. The law that allowed Kennedy to federalise the National Guard at Mississippi and face down Walker was the 1807 Insurrection Act. Imposing martial law after the 2020 election may well have deployed that same law – not to combat the radical right this time, but to override democracy in its favour (breaking several other laws in the process). Some fear a restored President Trump would use his constitutional power as commander-in-chief to fire and hire his way to a military that would do his bidding, appointing a new array of Walkers to senior positions. He would need, however, to win power first. For the moment at least, the route to a far-right takeover appears to lie not through insurrection, but democracy itself.
If that happens, it will be the most intense expression so far of the deep polarisation of American politics. And here, too, Walker’s story has something to tell us. Just as he saw incipient tyranny lurking behind his opponents, so they threw the accusation back, casting those who thought like Walker as threatening a dictatorship. Each side’s fear echoed and amplified the other’s, in an ever more piercing feedback loop. One young leftist branded Walker as America’s ‘leading fascist’, and set out to shoot Walker through the window of his Dallas home. Lee Harvey Oswald missed by less than an inch. He and Walker loathed each other’s politics, and both hated the centrist President Kennedy, albeit for opposing reasons. When Oswald shot Kennedy five months later, Walker was one of Dallas’ extreme right-wingers, who many on the left thought must be behind it. Walker himself soon became a Kennedy conspiracy theorist, too, spying new signs of left-wing skulduggery. Once you find yourself in a maze of mirrors, it’s not easy to find your way out, or to rescue those within. But to stop Walker-like thinking reaching its apotheosis, Trump’s opponents may still need to try. Adams’ book is a significant addition to their toolkit.