Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Antiwar Movement, by Carl Oglesby (Scribner, 352 pp., $25)
“Don’t trust anyone over 30,” went the mantra of 1960s radicals. But in 1965, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) so trusted thirtysomething Carl Oglesby that the group made him its president—an all-too-American-sounding designation jettisoned a few years later for “national secretary.” Oglesby’s election represented a crucial stage in SDS’s journey from a student activist group at the decade’s outset to Weatherman, a group of violent radicals, at the decade’s end. Oglesby inadvertently initiated much of this shift by placing the Vietnam War atop SDS’s agenda and attacking the liberals who had waged it. “I was among those who most insistently pushed SDS into antiwar politics,” Oglesby admits in Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Antiwar Movement. “Up until my turn, every SDS president had encouraged community organizing focused on the urban poor.” But the radicals’ new obsession with violence abroad eventually engendered violence at home and turned everything SDS purported to stand for on its head.
Taught in the fifties that America meant freedom, equality, and justice, but confronted in the sixties with Jim Crow in the South, slaughter in the Far East, and the FBI everywhere prying into his affairs—“Apart from feeling screwed as a citizen by the fact of this surveillance, I also feel screwed as a taxpayer in that it was so sloppy”—Oglesby grew disillusioned. But eventually this activist, who believed in the New Left rhetoric of participatory democracy, non-violence, and doing your own thing, had to confront the reality of fellow activists’ worshipping foreign tyrants, bombing enemies, and silencing dissenting voices. Ravens in the Storm, then, is the story of an innocence twice lost.
Oglesby sees Noah’s raven—veering “to and fro” until the flood waters dried—rather than his more famous dove as a fitting symbol for the sixties’ peace movement. “We were for the most part not pacifists,” he writes. “Certainly I was not. Indeed, as late as the summer of 1965, when the war was still a ‘police action’ and just starting to become an issue for the American people, I was still proud to be a professional hawk with a solid job in the defense industry.” The soon-to-be antiwar leader was a family man who edited technical publications for a defense contractor. His awakening as an anti-warrior actually occurred a year earlier, when he was asked to work up a position paper on Vietnam for a liberal Democratic congressional candidate. At the time, involvement in Vietnam was popular, but Oglesby’s anti-interventionist conclusions were not.
Still, it seems strange that Oglesby ever became a member of SDS, let alone its president. The red-diaper babies who dominated the organization were a far cry from his family of rednecks and hillbillies. He was neither a student nor a socialist. So removed from first-generation SDS was Oglesby that even now he mistakenly identifies Tom Hayden—instead of his Ann Arbor comrade Al Haber—as the group’s founder, and cites the meeting at Port Huron in 1962 as the moment of SDS’s origin, rather than two and a half years earlier, when the Student League for Industrial Democracy rechristened itself Students for a Democratic Society. Despite living in SDS’s Ann Arbor epicenter, Oglesby first heard of the organization just a few months before becoming its president.
By the summer of 1965, activists outraged over Vietnam sought an organizational vehicle for the fledgling antiwar movement. SDS mutated from the mouthpiece of the student Left to an umbrella group for the entire New Left, from an organization obsessed with race and poverty to one obsessed with war. Non-student Oglesby mutated from a cog in the military-industrial complex to a chief organizer of student radicals. The convergence of mutual interests, then, resulted in the peculiar choice of Oglesby to lead SDS.
“The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal,” Oglesby famously told a gathering at a Thanksgiving weekend antiwar protest on the National Mall in 1965. “It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war—those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals.” The FBI was listening. So was the New Left, which fixed its guns not on the Right but on liberals. The internecine battle between liberals and the Left, and the resultant cynicism with the political process, became defining features of the sixties, and Oglesby fired some of the first shots.
The decade’s storms blew the ravens in strange directions, but few traveled a more unusual course than Oglesby. Amputated from his milquetoast life, he cut two folk albums, bedded the comeliest Weatherwoman, and during a visit to Cuba devised what became the sugar-cane-cutting Venceremos Brigade to aid Castro’s harvest. He sat on the international war crimes tribunal that Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre assembled to try the American government. He appeared, against the advice he gave others, at the staged riot in Chicago during 1968’s Democratic National Convention, and came to rue that decision: “I have yet to see what [Tom Hayden] thought our Chicago objectives really were beyond making a big scene. I never saw the reasons for SDS’s sudden, uncharacteristic interest in big-party politics, or why we should harass the Democrats instead of the Republicans.”
His contrarianism led him not only to criticize New Left untouchables, but also to extend olive branches to those operating outside the “movement” clique. “I made my centrist libertarianism as explicit as I could on regular occasions,” he writes, “and I did not think I was cheating on SDS in doing this.” He points out that SDS’s Port Huron Statement made an appeal to both Right and Left. “That was what I liked most about SDS when I first met it. Its direct appeal to the populist spirit was for all lovers of democracy: ‘People should be involved in making the decisions that affect their lives.’” Oglesby even reached out to members of Young Americans for Freedom and appealed to rightist arguments against Vietnam, such as the unconstitutionality of an undeclared war and the intrusiveness of the draft. In his 1969 book, Containment and Change, he praised anti-imperialist conservatives such as Murray Rothbard, Robert Taft, Frank Chodorov, Dean Russell, and Garet Garrett. “My argument that ‘the Old Right and the New Left are morally and politically coordinate’ had bothered SDS’s conventional leftists,” he observes, “but I had held to it and by 1968 had grown all the more convinced that SDS’s strongest path lay toward the center.”
But by 1968, SDS had rejected Middle America for Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, and Ho’s North Vietnam. The roots of the organization’s turn toward the extreme Left went back to the convention at which Oglesby had been elected president, when SDS passed a revocation of its ban on Communists. At the time, Oglesby saw this as more open-mindedness, proving that “SDS was libertarian about ideas and therefore opposed to Red-baiting.” But never having learned the hard lessons that popular-front liberals had absorbed in the 1930s, sincere New Leftists like Oglesby soon found themselves overrun by the very zealots whom they had politely allowed into their organization. Only three years after the group lifted the ban, its national officers were exclusively communist. The hierarchy soon purged Oglesby. “So SDS is Marxist-Leninist now?” he asked his prosecutor-judges. “No one in this room but Carl would have to ask such a question,” responded one of the star-chamber members. Indeed, few but honest Carl then believed that Students for a Democratic Society actually sought a democratic society.
After ending Oglesby’s association with SDS, Weatherman ended SDS itself. The group’s heavies at various times urged young people to kill their parents and abandon their children, extolled the Manson murders, and embarked on an infamous bombing campaign that resulted in the self-inflicted deaths of a babysitter to Oglesby’s kids (Diana Oughton), an enthusiast of his music (Terry Robbins), and a fellow participant in 1968’s Columbia student strike (Ted Gold). “The certainty of this revolution had been revealed to them through what they called, without irony, their ‘correct analysis,’ which they imagined was based on Marxism-Leninism jazzed up by some Mao, some Uncle Ho, a dollop of Che,” notes Oglesby of Weatherman. “They believed in the revolution with the same erotic fervor with which my South Carolina family believed in the Second Coming, and on basically the same standard of evidence.” That faith couldn’t be shaken by friends blowing themselves up, by life in the underground, or even by imprisonment. Still speaking Marxoid jargon and romanticizing their heady revolutionary days, many leading Weathermen today glory in the idiotic violence they perpetrated, which helped taint the antiwar movement as extremist.
Now as then, Carl Oglesby has no mythology to uphold or ideology to push. His honesty and independence make Ravens in the Storm a more compelling book than other offerings in the cottage industry of sixties-activist autobiographies. He made real the caricature version of a New Leftist whose belief in America’s professed ideals turned him vociferously against American policy. He was a lover scorned—first by America, then by the New Left.