In the 1960s there emerged a New Left. Until it was infected with the viruses of violence and Leninism, it was contemptuous of the Old Left’s embrace of bureaucratic centralism and committed to “participatory democracy,” civil rights for blacks, and, above all, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam.
Carl Oglesby was the Middle American—and emphatically libertarian—voice of this New Left. The Akron, Ohio, native and son of a rubber-factory worker was a 30-year-old playwright laboring for a defense contractor in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when a series of events thrust him into the presidency of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest and most influential bloc of the student protest movement. Through marches and teach-ins and protests, SDS kicked up a ruckus in what Oglesby called “the assembly-line universities of this Pepsi Generation.”
In his influential 1967 essay “Vietnamese Crucible,” Oglesby praised “the libertarian tradition” and insisted that the New Left draw nourishment from the heritage of “humanistic individualism and voluntaristic associational action.” He disdained socialism, for as he explains in his most recent book, “In the eyes of a generation raised on George Orwell, big government seemed too much the suspect of choice in contemporary crime to be trusted as the manager of social progress.”
Oglesby parleyed and parried and partied with everyone from the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard to a young Wellesley activist named Hillary Rodham. He had the time of his life. But by 1968, SDS had splintered into rival factions. Oglesby represented what he called “SDS’s freewheeling participatory democracy” against the violent Weathermen, whose public face was the cheerleader turned bomb-cheerer Bernardine Dohrn. The Weathermen won the competition by losing: SDS was destroyed, in Oglesby’s words, by “the toxic blend of road rage and comic book Marxism…of the Weathermen.” The blast that shattered the student left was detonated on March 6, 1970, when three Weathermen died in a Greenwich Village townhouse after their homemade nail bomb accidentally went off.
The movement splintered; Oglesby burned out. He went on to record two folk albums, suffused with a kind of Beat Americana and elegiac—and nonpolitical—lyricism. Always haunted by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he analyzed elite politics in The Yankee and Cowboy War (1976), in which he viewed American history from the JFK assassination to Watergate as a struggle between Eastern (Yankee) and Southwestern (Cowboy) interests. Oglesby would write two more books about the Kennedy killing.
Oglesby has recounted his experiences as the libertarian soul of SDS in a new memoir, Ravens in the Storm (Scribner’s), which he wrote with the research assistance of his 4,000-page FBI and CIA files. A septuagenarian now living in Amherst, Massachusetts, Carl Oglesby spoke with author Bill Kauffman in January.
Reason: How does a young aerospace supervisor at Bendix go from toiling for the military-industrial complex to president of SDS in the space of a year?
Carl Oglesby: Easy. The steps were simple, logical, nothing strange about what happened. I went to work for a congressional candidate [Wes Vivian, in 1964], and he wanted a position statement on Vietnam. I drew the short straw, so I started researching the war and wrote a paper for him, which said, “Wrong war. Wrong place. Don’t do it.” He said, “I’m not going to say anything like that: It sounds like appeasement.” So I withdrew from his campaign. About that time, New York SDS fought a big battle to get a subway poster that showed a picture of a burned Vietnamese kid and asked the question, “Why are we burning, torturing, killing the people of South Vietnam? Get the facts. Write SDS.” People had to fight to get the poster up because the city didn’t want to do it. That created a stir, the poster did go up, a few people wrote to SDS for the “facts,” and SDS didn’t have anything to send out. I had come across SDS people at the University of Michigan teach-in, and my paper became the document that got sent around when people wrote to SDS responding to that poster.
Reason: You go from supplying a position paper to president. That’s a meteoric rise.
Oglesby: You’ve got to remember that SDS was a very new organization, and the fact that I had just come in the door was not unique; a lot of people were in the same position. There had been a movement to get rid of the national officers on the grounds that to have a president, a vice president, a national secretary, was inherently elitist. I spoke against that, saying that SDS was going to be a part of the world and needed to have spokespeople it could hold to account. That position won out, somebody nominated me for president, and the winner turned out to be me.
Reason: You called yourself a libertarian while active in SDS. How significant was the libertarian presence within SDS and the New Left?
Oglesby: There was a strong presence but not dominant or majoritarian. Remember that SDS was founded to be a democratic organization, not to be socialist. Its most basic slogan was “People Should Be Involved in Making the Decisions that Affect Their Lives.” That was what SDS was about. Whatever decision gets made, it should be democratic. It was on that basis that SDS cut through the whole argument about socialism vs. capitalism. We simply said that whatever economic formation we adopted should be adopted democratically and openly.
Reason: In your 1967 essay “Vietnamese Crucible,” you quoted libertarian sorts like Frank Chodorov and Garet Garrett and asserted that “the Old Right and the New Left are morally and politically coordinate.” How did you come to that conclusion?
Oglesby: Just by looking at the things that those right-wing guys said. I can’t say that mine was the majority view within SDS in terms of that question, but I always thought that principled conservatives had as solid a reason to oppose the Vietnam War and to oppose racism as anyone within the conventional left.
Reason: Assessing the New Left from 40 years later, was it “morally and politically coordinate” with the Old Right?