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Carl Oglesby (July 30, 1935 – September 13, 2011) was an American writer, academic, and political activist. He was the President of the leftist student organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) from 1965 to 1966.
Carl Oglesby's father was from South Carolina, and his mother from Alabama. They met in Akron, Ohio, where Carl's father worked in the rubber mills. Carl progressed through the Akron Public School System, winning a prize in his final year for a speech in favor of America's Cold War stance. He went to Kent State University; but dropped out in his third year to try to make his way as an actor and playwright in Greenwich Village, a bohemian area of New York. After a year, he returned to Kent State and graduated, writing three plays (including "a well-received work on the Hatfield-McCoy feud") and an unfinished novel. He worked at odd jobs until, around 1960, he came to Michigan.
Contact with SDS
Oglesby first came into contact with members of SDS in Michigan in 1964. At the time he was thirty years old and had a young family (a wife, Beth, and three children, Aron, Caleb, and Shay). He was a technical writer for the Systems Division of Bendix (a defense contractor); at the same time he was trying to get a part-time degree from the University of Michigan.
He wrote a critical article on American foreign policy in the Far East in the campus magazine. SDSers read it, and went to meet Carl at his family home to see if he might become a supporter of the SDS. As Oglebsy put it, "We talked. I got to thinking about things. As a writer, I needed a mode of action [...] I saw that people were already moving, so I joined up." He became a full-time Research, Information, Publications (RIP) worker for SDS.
He became so impressed by the spirit and intellectual strength of the SDS that he rapidly became deeply involved in the organization, becoming its President within a year. His first project was to be a "grass-roots theatre", but that project was soon superseded by the opposition to escalating American activity in Vietnam; he helped organize a teach-in in Michigan, and to build for the large SDS peace march in Washington on April 17, 1965. The National Council meeting after was Oglesby's first national SDS meeting. On November 27, 1965, Oglesby gave a speech before tens of thousands of anti-war demonstrators in Washington, which became one of the most important documents to come out of the anti-war movement. According to Kirkpatrick Sale: "It was a devastating performance: skilled, moderate, learned, and compassionate, but uncompromising, angry, radical, and above all persuasive. It drew the only standing ovation of the afternoon... for years afterward it would continue to be one of the most popular items of SDS literature."
Oglesby's political outlook was more eclectic than that of many in SDS. He was heavily influenced by libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, and dismissed socialism as “a way to bury social problems under a federal bureaucracy." He once unsuccessfully proposed cooperation between SDS and the conservative group Young Americans for Freedom on some projects, and argued that "in a strong sense, the Old Right and the New Left are morally and politically coordinate":
|“||In his essay “Vietnamese Crucible,” published in the 1967 volume Containment and Change, Oglesby rejected the “socialist radical, the corporatist conservative, and the welfare-state liberal” and challenged the New Left to embrace “American democratic populism” and “the American libertarian right.”
Invoking Senator Taft, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Congressman Buffett, and Saturday Evening Post writer Garet Garrett, among other stalwarts of the Old Right, he asked, “Why have the traditional opponents of big, militarized, central authoritarian government now joined forces with such a government’s boldest advocates?” What in the name of Thomas Jefferson were conservatives doing holding the bag for Robert Strange McNamara?
In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. Also in 1968, he was asked by Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver to serve as his running mate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in that year's presidential election (he declined the offer).
Oglesby was forced out of SDS in 1969, after more left-wing members accused him of "being 'trapped in our early, bourgeois stage' and for not progressing into 'a Marxist-Leninist perspective.'" After the collapse of SDS in the summer of 1969, Oglesby became a writer, a musician and an academic. He wrote several books on the JFK assassination, and the various competing theories that attempt to explain it. He recorded two albums, roughly in the folk-rock genre. He taught Politics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College. He attended the April 2006 North-Eastern Regional Conference of the "new SDS", where he gave a speech, in which he said that activism is about "teaching yourself how to do what you don't know how to do".
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- "It isn't the rebels who cause the troubles of the world, it's the troubles that cause the rebels."
- "Tyranny was never a remedy for terror. Tyranny is terror. Tyranny and terror promote and multiply each other so well because each is the other's only possible 'legitimation'... The choice between terror and totalitarianism is a choice that can only be made - can only be identified as a choice - by terrorists and tyrants."
- "...a multitude of conspiracies contend in the night. Clandestinism is not the usage of a handful of rogues, it is a formalized practice of an entire class in which a thousand hands spontaneously join. Conspiracy is the normal continuation of normal politics by normal means.... The whole thrust of the Yankee/ Cowboy interpretation in fact is set dead against the omnipotent-cabal interpretation ... in the respect that it posits a divided social-historical American order, conflict-wracked and dialectical rather than serene and hierarchical, in which results constantly elude every faction's intentions because all conspire against each and each against all.... Conspiratorial play is a universal of power politics, and where there is no limit to power, there is no limit to conspiracy."
- "What we have to contemplate nevertheless is the possibility that the great American acid trip, no matter how distinctive of the rebellion of the 1960s it came to appear, was in fact the result of a despicable government conspiracy.... If U.S. intelligence bodies collaborated in an effort to drug an entire generation of Americans, then the reason they did so was to disorient it, sedate it and de-politicize it."
Books by Carl Oglesby
- Containment and Change, Macmillan (1969). ASIN B00005XDUA
- The Yankee and Cowboy War: Conspiracies from Dallas to Watergate, Sheed Andrews and McMeel (1976). ISBN 0-8362-0688-6.
- Who Killed JFK? (The Real Story Series), Odonian Press (1991). ISBN 1-878825-10-0.
- The JFK Assassination: The Facts and Theories, Signet (1992). ISBN 0-451-17476-3.
- Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Antiwar Movement (2008). ISBN 1-4165-4736-3.
- Kauffman, Bill (2008-05-19) When the Left Was Right, The American Conservative.
- Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS, pg. 244
- Bill Kauffman, “Writer on the Storm,” Reason, April 2008 (Sept. 10, 2008).
- McCarthy, Daniel (2010-02-24) Carl Oglesby Was Right, The American Conservative.
- “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” January 30, 1968 New York Post
- Paul Buhle, "SDS Northeast Conference Report, Apr.23, Brown University (Providence, RI)", Documents from the SDS Northeast Regional Conference, Brown University, Providence, RI - April 2006, Next Left Notes.
- "Author, ‘60s activist and anti-war leader Carl Oglesby dead at age 76". The Washington Post. September 13, 2011. Retrieved September 13, 2011.
- "Carl Oglesby, Antiwar Leader in 1960s, Dies at 76". The New York Times. September 14, 2011.
- Rebels with a Cause - A feature documentary about the hopes, rebellions, and repression of the 1960s as told by members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
- From The Yankee and Cowboy War, Ch. 2.
- From "The Acid Test and How It Failed", The National Reporter, Fall 1988, p. 10.
- Archive of SDS documents, including two speeches by Carl Oglesby:
- Bill Kauffman, “Writer on the Storm: Former New Left Leader Carl Oglesby on the '60s, His Old Friend Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the Dream of a Left-Libertarian Alliance,” Reason, April 2008.
- Kirkpatrick Sale. SDS: Ten Years Towards a Revolution. New York: Vintage 1974. ISBN 0-394-71965-4. See esp. 194-9.
- Short biography, with extracts from texts by and about Carl Oglesby. Site information is in the context of a debate about the JFK assassination.
- Carl Preston Oglesby at Find a Grave