The radical right's terrorist faction has long followed the 'anti-Communist' blueprint from the 1960s
Far-right terrorist gangs are all in the news these days, thanks to the recent arrests of members of The Base for planning to cause violence at the Richmond, Virginia, gun rally of Jan. 20, as well as to murder a couple believed to be antifascists in Georgia. But this is hardly the first such operation in the United States.
Their history, in fact, offers some real-life context about the nature of more recent iterations, including Atomwaffen Division and the Rise Above Movement, as well as The Base, not to mention Friday’s sentencing of would-be domestic terrorist Christopher Hasson. Gather ‘round, then, for the saga of Robert DePugh and the Minutemen—probably the progenitor of what we would now call a modern-day, far-right militant terrorist group. And like all of them, the Minutemen wrapped themselves in the flag.
First, let’s be clear: We’re not talking about those Minutemen—the border vigilantes who prowled the Mexico border during the first decade of the 2000s. I am talking about an even earlier iteration of a right-wing action/terror organization supposedly inspired by the Revolutionary War heroes, concocted by a vitamin salesman in the late 1950s.
Robert Bolivar DePugh was a Missouri man, born in 1923, who gained some wealth through a veterinary drug firm called BioLabs, which specialized in a vitamin for dogs that promised to increase their lifespans. In the mid-1950s he also began producing a malt-flavored, ultra-compact storage food designed for human consumption, called Minuteman Survival Tabs. You can still find a version of these tabs in stores today.
DePugh became devoted to the anti-Communist cause as an early member of the John Birch Society (JBS) in the late ‘50s, and became friends with JBS founder Robert Welch. But within a few years he had decided even it was too namby-pamby for his tastes.
DePugh was all about a militant approach, and in 1960 formed an offshoot he called the Minutemen. As a consequence—and because his rhetoric was so extreme—he was ejected from the JBS. In 1961, he published a manual for organizing guerilla-warfare militias, and published a monthly newsletter titled On Target.
Not only did the Minutemen preach an even more rabid, wildly conspiracy theory-fueled style of anti-Communist paranoia than the Birch Society, but their activities also manifested, for the first time, the violent undercurrent of these beliefs.
DePugh, like Welch, believed that government had been infiltrated at its highest levels by Communists, but that moreover a takeover was virtually inevitable, and the most important thing for a “patriot” to do would be to prepare for the counterattack. So the Minutemen told their members to arm themselves with anything at hand that could be used strike back when the “Communist takeover” finally happened.
DePugh also was fond of attention from the press. At one gathering of reporters he donned a “germ warfare protector”—essentially just a large clear-vinyl bag—that would-be survivalists might need in 1961.
His “Minute Men” operations—paramilitary training operations in the woods (DePugh in fact had washed out of the U.S. Army for “nervousness and depression”)—were the clear progenitors of today’s Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, playing soldiers. Most of these operations were held in the woods near BioLabs’ Norborne, Missouri, headquarters.
Walt Kelley’s satirical daily “Pogo” comic strip hilariously lampooned DePugh as the free-shooting Wiley Cat, whose “Minute-Men” were the scourge of the Okeefenokee Swamp.
DePugh also told his followers to harass "the enemy," and compiled at his headquarters a list of 1,500 people he identified as members of the "Communist hidden government," with the intent to assassinate them in the event of the Communist coup. In his newsletter, DePugh listed the names of 20 congressmen who had criticized the then-active House Committee on Un-American Activities.
The newsletter also contained a warning (which later became a flyer circulated by the Minutemen), featuring the image of a crosshair, and text reading:
See the old man at the corner where you buy your papers? He may have a silencer-equipped pistol under his coat. That extra fountain pen in the pocket of the insurance salesman who calls on you might be a cyanide gas gun. What about your milk man? Arsenic works slow but sure. Your auto mechanic may stay up nights studying booby traps. These patriots are not going to let you take their freedom away from them. They have learned the silent knife, the strangler’s cord, the target rifle that hits sparrows at 200 yards. Traitors beware. Even now the cross hairs are on the back of your necks.
Now outside even the realm of the Birchers, the Minutemen soon became associated with neo-Nazi groups like Wesley Swift's Church of Jesus Christ Christian, a Christian Identity church located in Hollywood. Swift preached the "two-seed" brand of Identity, holding that not only are white people the true Israelites, but that blacks, Asians, and other non-whites thus are "pre-Adamic" people without souls, and Jews are either descendants of Satan or practitioners of a Satanic religion.
Among Swift's more notable adherents: retired Col. William Potter Gale, a former MacArthur aide who eventually became a key figure in Posse Comitatus; and a quiet-spoken Lockheed engineer named Richard Girnt Butler. The latter would later take over and move the church to the Idaho Panhandle, renaming it the Church of Jesus Christ-Christian at the Aryan Nations. It became its own wellspring of criminality, violence, and ugly hatred.
Also attending Swift's services was Keith Gilbert, a Minutemen member and gun shop owner convicted in 1965 of stealing 1,400 pounds of TNT that he later claimed was intended as a bomb under the Hollywood Palladium stage during a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Released from prison in the 1970s, Gilbert migrated north to Idaho, where he became a prominent part of the Aryan Nations scene.
Other Minutemen were getting into trouble around the nation. Some 19 members were arrested in October 1966 by the FBI in New York for plotting to bomb three summer camps operated by liberal East Coast organizations. Charges were later dropped because of warrant violations.
By this point, though, DePugh had decided to move into the political arena. Using the Minutemen's agenda as a platform, he formed the Patriotic Party, whose platform insisted that “all known or suspected communists now holding jobs in government” should be fired and put on trial.
DePugh made public speeches around the country touting the Patriotic Party as a “conservative alternative” in the wake of Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential election defeat. Two of those appearances were in Seattle in 1966.
A mailroom employee of Seattle City Light named Duane I. Carlson put up $500 of his own money to sponsor the Northwest convention of the Patriotic Party at the Hyatt House. A few months later, DePugh made a stump speech for a November Patriotic Party gathering. Some 600 people, paying $1 apiece, were in attendance. DePugh, however, only spoke to the crowd by a telephone hookup. The Minutemen's fearless leader was temporarily indisposed: He and an associate had been recently convicted on a variety of felony firearms violations and sentenced just the week before to four years in prison.
Over the next year, DePugh fought that conviction, and managed to stay out of jail through a string of appeals. But the legal troubles started taking their toll on the organization's finances, and pressure mounted to find alternative sources of revenue. This is apparently when his most ardent supporters, such as Duane Carlson, moved into transforming their paramilitary training into acts of terrorism—with a steady eye on profits, as with all far-right terror groups. Because public meetings became an afterthought.
Carlson gathered a group of six other Seattle-area men—a longshoreman, a church sexton, a grocery clerk, a civilian driver at the Fort Lewis Army Base, a self-employed draftsman, and an unemployed ship's oiler—and began plotting ways to finance the Minutemen's arms operations. Of course, it was all couched in language about striking a blow against the "Communist controlled" government at the same time. But the centerpiece of the whole plot was plain old bank robbery.
Their plan: set off a bomb at the city hall of a small Seattle suburb, Redmond, while simultaneously detonating another at the local power station, thereby creating a major distraction while taking out police communications at the same time. This would enable the gang to strike three Redmond banks they had targeted for a series of successive robberies.
Their downfall, however, came when a federal informant infiltrated the group. On the day the Minutemen planned to strike—January 26, 1967—the FBI swooped down on them in two parking lots, one in Bellevue and another in Lake City, and arrested all seven.
DePugh denied they were part of his organization, claiming Carlson had been dropped from his rolls for "non-payment of dues." Federal prosecutors, who found evidence that DePugh actually was party to the plan from its early stages, put out a warrant for his arrest. DePugh went into hiding but was caught a few months later hiding out in Spokane, where he was charged in the Redmond plot. He then went on the lam for two years, and was finally captured in 1969 in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Five of the seven plotters were charged, and all five were convicted. DePugh, convicted in September 1970, wound up serving four years out of a 10-year sentence on the original firearms charges, but by then, his career in politics was in the ash heap.
He later tried to resuscitate his ambitions by heading up an ultra-conservative organization called the Committee of 10 Million, but those numbers remained a fantasy. DePugh was imprisoned again in 1992 for sexual exploitation of a minor, but later beat the rap. When he died in 2009 at age 86, he had been living alone in an apartment beneath a storefront church in Richmond, Missouri.
The Minutemen, however, created a lasting blueprint for far-right terrorism organizations that has been followed ever since—by everyone from The Order (the 1984 gang, organized out of the Aryan Nations, that murdered a radio talk-show host and robbed multiple banks and armored cars) to the Phineas Priesthood (another inland-Northwest gang that bombed a newspaper, a Planned Parenthood clinic, and robbed several banks in 1996) to AWD and The Base. It works in steps:
- A) Begin with a core of rabid anti-communism which reduces opponents to inhuman vermin. Defense of the “white race” and overt anti-Semitism often is included in this core.
- B) Expand the fear of communism into a culture of extreme paranoia dominated by conspiracy theories, and encourage the belief that it controls all levels of government.
- C) Whip the paranoia into an enclosing circle of cultism by accusing every person outside the circle of being not just dupes, but active communist conspirators—including your own former political allies.
- D) Begin organizing paramilitary operations and other forms of survivalism, ostensibly to prepare for the collapse of American society and the “communist takeover.”
- E) Redefine “self-defense” against communism to include aggressive acts of violence against “socialist” targets, including banks and government facilities. Prepare for these acts with more paramilitary exercises.
- F) Carry out these offensive measures, or attempt them. Get caught. Go to prison.
Robert DePugh created a blueprint that is still being followed to this day.