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Reason: Did the Weathermen and SDS contain many federal agents provocateur?
Oglesby: Many? Who knows. Some, certainly. If there were no agents among us, then as taxpayers we would be well within our rights to demand to know why not!
I don’t think anybody ever objected to surveillance. People assumed that surveillance would exist; you just had to live with it. People were also willing to assume that surveillance would be honest, and that the government would not create, out of whole cloth, a pattern of abuses that it could attribute to us and use against us in the courts of public opinion and of law to destroy us. That was playing dirty.
I was not one of the first to see that the government played dirty. It took me a while to come to terms with that—if I ever did. My thought was, let the informers inform. If they’re honest, what they’ll inform is that we were an open, democratic organization with no hook-up to any foreign groups, no hook-up to the Communist Party. If you establish that, everything else is inconsequential.
But I was naive. The government had its own reasons for wanting to destroy SDS. We were messing up their plans, and they didn’t like us. So they did what they thought they needed to do to tear us up. That’s one of the reasons the Weathermen formed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the government had something to do with the Weathermen. [Johnson adviser] McGeorge Bundy said that the best thing they had going for them was the “violent doves.” It was to the government’s advantage if SDS undertook violent tactics: It turned the public against us, and it opened up the gates on police action.
Reason: In Ravens in the Storm, you recount a series of fascinating exchanges with Dohrn. “I’m not sure I know where you’re coming from,” says Dohrn. To which you reply, “Ann Arbor, Kent, Akron, Kalamazoo.” Not to frame the question too tendentiously, but did you represent a kind of hopefulness about America, while Dohrn and the Weathermen had given up on the place?
Oglesby: I had more faith in the country’s system, its decision-making apparatus. I had more faith in democracy. The Weathermen lost faith in democracy, if they ever had it. They decided that in America, democracy was a kind of ruse. I never agreed with them about that. They were convinced that no good decision was ever going to be made by appeals to American democracy, and so they tried to step into that moral gap with a set of decisions that they’d already reached. From then on, that was that. The decision to take up weapons, to become violent—that was not a democratically reached decision. Nobody ever put that to a vote. Obviously there would be special difficulties in debating something like that in a open organization. But there was never any particular constituency that was formed or sought out on the question of political violence.
Reason: There is a tension in your book in your exchanges with Bernardine Dohrn. Were the two of you ever an item?
Oglesby: We were very close.
Reason: Romantically linked?
Oglesby: What can I say? We were very close. But those were days in which a lot of people were serially linked. It was a period of open if not blatant sexuality. I was never her only squeeze. She was never mine. My marriage had broken up, so I was kind of a loose cannon.
Reason: You’ve said that the SDS “had the best parties, the prettiest girls.” When did the Left lose its sense of fun?
Oglesby: A good benchmark would be the explosion that killed Terry and Diana and Teddy. There was, as you can imagine, an enormous sense of loss and shock when they killed themselves. The Weathermen didn’t give up on violence after that. They just tried to be more careful in how they used their dynamite.
Reason: A young Hillary Rodham is said to have
read with avidity an essay of yours in a magazine for Methodist
youth. As a result, some of the dimmer bulbs on the anti-Hillary
right assert that she was “deeply influenced” by the
“Marxist/Maoist theoretician Carl Oglesby.” First, are you now, or
have you ever been, a Marxist/Maoist theoretician?
Oglesby: I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me! No, that’s just slinging mud.
Reason: Tell us about your relationship, as it
were, with Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Oglesby: It was a friendship, a comradeship, within the context of the movement. She and I, for a while, were warm with each other. She and I were semi-close. I always liked her. I thought she was bright and had a lot to say. A friend of mine mentioned me to her not long ago, and according to him she got a case of the shakes. I think it was because she could imagine if any of her considerable enemies on the right wanted to do her in they would be happy to discover a relationship between her and me. Especially given this lie that I was a “Maoist.” I mean, no way! I was the last thing from a Maoist!