The Time of Their Lives – Elsa Dixler, NY Times 2-10-08
Campaigning against a president who refused to respond to the growing opposition to a cruel, dishonest war, the charismatic young candidate insisted: “What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is … love and wisdom and compassion toward one another.” That wasn’t last week — it was April 1968, and two months later Robert Kennedy was dead. Opposition to the war continued and
broadened after the election of Richard Nixon that fall, but one of the engines of the antiwar movement, Students for
a Democratic Society, largely disbanded after a split in 1969; the next year its leaders, gripped by revolutionary fantasies, went underground.
Among the casualties of S.D.S.’s implosion was a former president, Carl Oglesby, who was pushed out of the organization in 1969, accused of being a “hopeless bourgeois liberal” and possibly a government agent. In “Ravens in the Storm,”
Oglesby not only tells his own amazing story, but also provides an interesting angle on the contested history of S.D.S.
When he became president of the organization in June 1965, Oglesby (whom I knew slightly some years after the period covered in his book) was neither a student nor especially young. Born in 1935, he was the first in his family to hold a white-collar job. His father and mother had fled to Akron, Ohio, from Southern rural poverty, and Oglesby left his parents’ life far behind. He dropped out of Kent State to try his luck as an actor in New York but returned to school determined to become a playwright. Oglesby’s theatrical training served him well; in his memoir he says several times that it prepared him to be a public speaker.
Oglesby hung out with Kent State’s beatniks and immersed himself in poetry and jazz. After he married and became a father, he needed more money than he could make working part time at a pizzeria. He became a technical editor in Akron and later was hired by the Bendix Corporation’s Systems Division. By 1963 he was the supervisor of a 90-person technical editing section, while the company allowed him time to finish his B.A. at the University of Michigan. Oglesby and his wife, Beth, who by then had three children, settled on Ann Arbor’s appropriately named Sunnyside Street.
But Oglesby did not keep on the Sunnyside. Invited to write a research paper about the expanding American commitment in Vietnam for a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1964, Oglesby concluded that immediate disengagement was the only solution; the candidate was horrified. The publication of the position paper in the university’s literary magazine alongside one of Oglesby’s plays led to a visit from a graduate student who thought Oglesby belonged in S.D.S.
The organization, which by 1965 had 2,000 members, seems to have made a major effort to recruit Oglesby; he met its current president, Paul Potter, and its past presidents Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin. Eventually he left Bendix and became S.D.S.’s director of research,information and publications. Then in June 1965, Oglesby was elected president. Pretty wild for a nearly 30-year-old father of three who only a few months earlier had worked for a defense contractor and held an F.B.I. secret clearance.
Oglesby presided over S.D.S. at a time of incredibly rapid expansion. He traveled around the country speaking against the war, and to South Vietnam. At an antiwar march on Washington in November 1965, he denounced what was coming to be known as corporate liberalism. Appealing to “humanist liberals,” he urged: “Help us build. Help us shape the future in the name of plain human hope.” Oglesby was an inspiring speaker, appealing to a broad audience in the name of “democracy and the vision that wise and brave men saw in the time of our own Revolution.”
But that was not the direction in which S.D.S., which by 1968 had approximately 100,000 members (and many more sympathetic nonmembers), was moving. More and more there was pressure not to end the war but to “bring the war home.” Oglesby’s belief that S.D.S. “could become a builder of the radical center” and “a serious force on the political scene” came into conflict with the organization’s increasingly confrontational style. Oglesby reproduces a series of conversations — based, he says, on his recollections and contemporary notes — with Bernardine Dohrn, who became an S.D.S. national secretary in 1968 and later a leader of the Weathermen. These dialogues are presumably meant to show the difference between Oglesby’s realism and decency and Dohrn’s melodramatic arrogance, but in them she often seems to get the better of Oglesby. Her main point is that she is a revolutionary and he is a mere liberal. Her politics were deluded and self-indulgent, but it is hard not to conclude that she had a point. As a “centrist libertarian,” Oglesby seemed determined to embark on causes — like a relationship with the director of an international consulting firm that may well have been a C.I.A.front — that seem odd and diversionary. His continual circling back to his arguments with Dohrn gives the book something of the stuck feel of a complaint from a still-bitter former spouse.
“Ravens in the Storm” is most interesting as the story of a life transformed. The author insists that it is memoir, not history, and he is right. The book ends in 1970 with Oglesby driven out of S.D.S. and demoralized, and he does not push beyond his point of view at that time to present his current thinking about S.D.S. (does he still see things the way he
did in 1969?) or the new student organization that has revived its name. Nor does he discuss current politics or let us know what he has been doing in the intervening decades.
It might be argued that the movements of the 1960s were far more successful culturally than they were politically… Shortly before he was forced out of S.D.S., Oglesby’s wife urged him to leave the organization. “You could go back to school, try to get another teaching job,” she suggests. “You could write another play … hang out with our kids.” But Oglesby continues to try to convince his comrades that it is possible to maintain a nonviolent opposition to the war and remain “a significant force in American education.” Unfortunately — for Carl Oglesby and for the American left — it wasn’t.
Another take on this period comes from “Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History” (Hill & Wang, $22). Written by Harvey Pekar, drawn by Gary Dumm and edited by Paul Buhle,who was the founding editor of the journal Radical America (and whom I also knew slightly), the book contains a history of S.D.S. by Pekar and illustrated recollections by a range of former S.D.S. members. I found the personal stories frustratingly brief and uneven, and wasn’t sure what the graphics added to most of them, but I’m not the target audience. The book should serve as an introduction to S.D.S. for curious students who aren’t committed enough for Kirkpatrick Sale’s 750-page version.
After leaving Pete Seeger’s Weavermen, singer/guitar player Carl Oglesby embarked on his own solo career, recording two albums for Vanguard (1969-1971), both works, here available on this single CD, are characterized by a psychedelic folk rock sound. Features some of the era’s most talented sidemen – Vinnie Bell, David Spinozza, Joe Meck, and John Frangipane. Both albums are considered lost jewels of the Vanguard collection. Cardboard gatefold sleeve. Universe. 2003.
(Note: Nat Hentoff suggested Carl Ogelsby to Vanguard!!! – SK)
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