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?
Oglesby: Not in any active sense. There were very few connections between SDS and right-wing organizations. I can’t say that ever panned out. On the other hand, SDS was never a socialist organization. That doesn’t deny the fact that most people in SDS, if they had to make a choice between socialism, liberalism, and capitalism, would have called themselves socialist.
Reason: But not you.
Oglesby: No. I was always suspicious of government-operated systems.
Reason: Were there particular libertarians who helped open your eyes to the Old Right/New Left congruence?
Oglesby: Murray Rothbard, with whom I had several very delightful conversations, was one of my favorites.
Reason: You proposed that SDS cooperate with the right-wing student group Young Americans for Freedom [YAF] on some projects. Did anything ever come of that?
Oglesby: I got denounced within SDS for that. In Southern California, some YAF guys did respond to the call and took part in our demonstrations against the war.
Reason: SDS finally collapsed, and out crawled the Weathermen. What was your experience with the Weathermen?
Oglesby: A good many of them were close friends. The ones who got killed in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion were especially close. Diana Oughten had been a babysitter of my kids. Terry Robbins had been the one guy in the world who listened to the lyrics of my songs and helped me figure out what I was trying to say. I remember talking about existentialism with Teddy Gold, spending a whole afternoon talking about Sartre and Heidegger and De Beauvoir.
I was close for a while to Bernardine Dohrn. I used to stay with her when I visited New York. Thought the world of her. Still like her, by the way. Jeff Jones was another Weatherman I was close to. I never thought they were right; I thought they were pushing the envelope in very destructive ways and were probably going to wind up hurting themselves and hurting SDS, which they now would acknowledge. Bernardine, early last year at a conference at Brown University, apologized for the role that she played. Very simply she stood up and said, “I’m sorry.” She didn’t have to explain what she was sorry for or why. She just said “I’m sorry” and sat down.
I had it pretty tough from the Weathermen for a while. I was seen as a despicable liberal. But I never felt impeded by the Weathermen. I was sorry that they destroyed SDS. Their view was that SDS had done what SDS could do and that now the struggle needed to be escalated. It was time to pick up the gun. And the Weatherkids thought they could get somewhere by doing that.
Reason: You quote Emma Goldman to great effect in the book.
Oglesby: “When you pick up the saber, you hand it to your enemies.”
Reason: The general view of the Weathermen today would be that they were nihilistic brats playing at violence. Is that unfair?
Oglesby: They weren’t nihilists. They were true believers. They had a passion for ridding the world, or the United States anyway, of a peculiarly odious form of cryptofascism, or militarism at least. They always were clear that they were fighting the militarizing of the United States and American foreign policy. They weren’t just into violence for violence’s sake. They were doing the best they could in their limited imagining of the situation to fight the people who were making things bad for Americans and Vietnamese and others around the world.
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!
Reason: Did you see her when she was first
Oglesby: I wouldn’t begin to be in touch with her now. I know what her enemies would do with a piece of information like that. They would defame me and defame her. There’s no point in it.
Reason: Is there today within her a trace of New Left anti-imperialism?
Oglesby: You got me. I don’t know much about her positions. What I think I know about Hillary Clinton is that she is honest and she’s good-hearted. She’s smart and she has lots of energy and she’s tough. I’m all for her. It’s too bad she and Barack Obama are having a faceoff. Both are good people. But she’s my guy.
Reason: Your own odyssey into American radicalism seems to have begun on November 22, 1963. Had Kennedy not been shot, do the ’60s and the New Left happen?
Oglesby: I don’t think so. If Kennedy is not shot, I think there’s not a Vietnam War and there is more energy put into civil rights. So to the extent that the movement of the ’60s was about the Vietnam War and civil rights more than any two issues, I would have to say that it was the assassination of JFK that swung that door open—or closed.
Reason: In The Yankee and Cowboy War, you theorized that “JFK was killed by a rightist conspiracy formed out of anti-Castro Cuban exiles, the Syndicate, and a Cowboy oligarchy, supported by renegade CIA and FBI agents.” Thirty years later, is that still your view?
Oglesby: These days I wouldn’t be so detailed. I still believe in the basic split between the Yankees and the Cowboys. The South, as it continually promised, is rising again. That’s a lot of what Bush is about.
Reason: But Bush is descended from Yankees.
Oglesby: He’s tried to adopt the Cowboy look.
He is a Yankee, went to all the Yankee schools, had Yankee money in
his blood. He goes to Texas, buys himself a pair of cowboy boots
and a Stetson hat, and tries to speak with a bit of a drawl. He’s a
phony. He’s a bad actor. He’s no more a cowboy than you or
I—probably a good deal less. But his handlers grasped that there is
a basic collision between the neo-Union and the neo-Confederacy.
The Civil War is not over; its issues continue to echo. Bush II
emerges from that process. He is a Cowboy, as I use that term, and
represents the movement of the Confederacy from the East to the
Reason: Do you buy the Oliver Stone thesis that JFK was a late-blooming peacenik who was planning to extricate us from Vietnam, and that LBJ was somehow implicated in the assassination?
Oglesby: I think all those things are possible. Least likely is that LBJ was involved in any positive role. He wouldn’t have had to be. His people would have been able to make a decision to promote him to the presidency without any special advice from him. The Yankee and Cowboy war continues, and the JFK assassination was part of it. The JFK side—the neo-Union side—achieved a great deal in the way of a holding action in stamping out the original desire to depict Lee Harvey Oswald as a Soviet agent. If that doesn’t work, Oswald becomes the cause of World War III. If Oswald is tied to the Soviet Union, there is a cause of war. The assassination of a head of state by another state is a classical casus belli. Whoever was managing things around the Warren Commission did a good job in keeping that theory out.
The price of it was that Oswald had to be depicted as a loner—and that’s where so many lies and half-truths got drawn into the story. But better put up with a few lies and half-truths as to Oswald’s identity than to have him linked to the Soviet Union as an agent, which would drag the world into a nuclear war.
Reason: Just to clarify: You don’t believe that Oswald was a Soviet agent?
Oglesby: No, not at all.
Reason: You released two albums, Carl Oglesby (1969) and Going to Damascus (1971). Tell me about that period.
Oglesby: I started writing songs because I was no longer able to write plays. I had been a playwright before the movement came along. I’d written four plays that had been produced, the last being The Peacemaker, about the Hatfield-McCoy feud as a mirror onto the Civil War. It was about a historical character named William Dyke Garrett who tried to broker a peace between the Hatfield clan and the McCoy clan in the period after the Civil War. His wife, Sally, thought that he was doomed to fail and that the wisest thing to do was get out of that country and head west. He goes through a big crisis of conscience and decides that he can’t leave these people to the small war that they’re about to have with each other in the Appalachians. The Hatfield-McCoy feud did take place. Probably 50 to 60 people were killed over a handful of years. When I wrote that play there was a silly song: “The Hatfields and McCoys/Those feudin’ mountain boys.” Nobody took it seriously. You had to stop and reimagine it. These were real people who were shooting real bullets at each other. Was William Dyke Garrett right or just foolish to stay in the country and try to keep the shooting from starting?
Reason: Did this presage your role in SDS?
Oglesby: Like my hero Dyke Garrett, I was trying to do impossible things that I thought were right. Despite the sense of inevitable failure, I felt there was no way around the obligation to try to keep the damned thing from happening.
Reason: So why, four or five years later, couldn’t you write plays anymore?
Oglesby: There was always too much else to do. It’s not as if I broke all of my pencils. I just started writing books. And songs. Songs were fun. You could knock off a song in an afternoon if you were lucky. It was part of the movement’s culture: People had guitars and sang folk songs. So when the guitar got passed around at the party after the demonstration I would sing a few folk songs and then segue into one of my own. Word that I had written songs reached Maynard Solomon, who was president of Vanguard Records. He asked me if I would do an audition tape, so I did. He said that he wanted to do an album.
Reason: These two albums have been rereleased
on CD. Perhaps there’s going to be an Oglesby music revival.
Oglesby: Don’t hold your breath.
Reason: Forty years ago, yours was the hopeful
voice of American renewal in SDS. Do you remain hopeful?
Oglesby: It’s hard to imagine how the American citizenry could have put Bush back in for a second term. That goes a long way toward deflating one’s faith in democracy. Democracy only works if people pay attention and share some kind of essential commitment to values of honesty, truthfulness, concern for other people, and I just don’t see that anybody can make a decision about Bush without coming to terms with his failures in these respects. I can’t say I’m a pessimist; I’m just sitting back and watching it.