By ELSA DIXLER
Published: February 10, 2008
Campaigning against a president who refused to respond to the growing
opposition to a cruel, dishonest war, the charismatic young candidate
insisted: "What we need in the United States is not division. What we
need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United
States is ... love and wisdom and compassion toward one another."
That wasn't last week it was April 1968, and two months later
Robert Kennedy was dead. Opposition to the war continued and
broadened after the election of Richard Nixon that fall, but one of
the engines of the antiwar movement, Students for a Democratic
Society, largely disbanded after a split in 1969; the next year its
leaders, gripped by revolutionary fantasies, went underground.
Among the casualties of S.D.S.'s implosion was a former president,
Carl Oglesby, who was pushed out of the organization in 1969, accused
of being a "hopeless bourgeois liberal" and possibly a government
agent. In "Ravens in the Storm," Oglesby not only tells his own
amazing story, but also provides an interesting angle on the
contested history of S.D.S.
When he became president of the organization in June 1965, Oglesby
(whom I knew slightly some years after the period covered in his
book) was neither a student nor especially young. Born in 1935, he
was the first in his family to hold a white-collar job. His father
and mother had fled to Akron, Ohio, from Southern rural poverty, and
Oglesby left his parents' life far behind. He dropped out of Kent
State to try his luck as an actor in New York but returned to school
determined to become a playwright. Oglesby's theatrical training
served him well; in his memoir he says several times that it prepared
him to be a public speaker.
Oglesby hung out with Kent State's beatniks and immersed himself in
poetry and jazz. After he married and became a father, he needed more
money than he could make working part time at a pizzeria. He became a
technical editor in Akron and later was hired by the Bendix
Corporation's Systems Division. By 1963 he was the supervisor of a
90-person technical editing section, while the company allowed him
time to finish his B.A. at the University of Michigan. Oglesby and
his wife, Beth, who by then had three children, settled on Ann
Arbor's appropriately named Sunnyside Street.
But Oglesby did not keep on the Sunnyside. Invited to write a
research paper about the expanding American commitment in Vietnam for
a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1964, Oglesby concluded that
immediate disengagement was the only solution; the candidate was
horrified. The publication of the position paper in the university's
literary magazine alongside one of Oglesby's plays led to a visit
from a graduate student who thought Oglesby belonged in S.D.S.
The organization, which by 1965 had 2,000 members, seems to have made
a major effort to recruit Oglesby; he met its current president, Paul
Potter, and its past presidents Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin.
Eventually he left Bendix and became S.D.S.'s director of research,
information and publications. Then in June 1965, Oglesby was elected
president. Pretty wild for a nearly 30-year-old father of three who
only a few months earlier had worked for a defense contractor and
held an F.B.I. secret clearance.
Oglesby presided over S.D.S. at a time of incredibly rapid expansion.
He traveled around the country speaking against the war, and to South
Vietnam. At an antiwar march on Washington in November 1965, he
denounced what was coming to be known as corporate liberalism.
Appealing to "humanist liberals," he urged: "Help us build. Help us
shape the future in the name of plain human hope." Oglesby was an
inspiring speaker, appealing to a broad audience in the name of
"democracy and the vision that wise and brave men saw in the time of
our own Revolution."
But that was not the direction in which S.D.S., which by 1968 had
approximately 100,000 members (and many more sympathetic nonmembers),
was moving. More and more there was pressure not to end the war but
to "bring the war home." Oglesby's belief that S.D.S. "could become a
builder of the radical center" and "a serious force on the political
scene" came into conflict with the organization's increasingly
confrontational style. Oglesby reproduces a series of conversations
based, he says, on his recollections and contemporary notes with
Bernardine Dohrn, who became an S.D.S. national secretary in 1968 and
later a leader of the Weathermen. These dialogues are presumably
meant to show the difference between Oglesby's realism and decency
and Dohrn's melodramatic arrogance, but in them she often seems to
get the better of Oglesby. Her main point is that she is a
revolutionary and he is a mere liberal. Her politics were deluded and
self-indulgent, but it is hard not to conclude that she had a point.
As a "centrist libertarian," Oglesby seemed determined to embark on
causes like a relationship with the director of an international
consulting firm that may well have been a C.I.A. front that seem
odd and diversionary. His continual circling back to his arguments
with Dohrn gives the book something of the stuck feel of a complaint
from a still-bitter former spouse.
"Ravens in the Storm" is most interesting as the story of a life
transformed. The author insists that it is memoir, not history, and
he is right. The book ends in 1970 with Oglesby driven out of S.D.S.
and demoralized, and he does not push beyond his point of view at
that time to present his current thinking about S.D.S. (does he still
see things the way he did in 1969?) or the new student organization
that has revived its name. Nor does he discuss current politics or
let us know what he has been doing in the intervening decades.
Susan Sherman's memoir, "America's Child: A Woman's Journey Through
the Radical Sixties," has much in common with "Ravens in the Storm."
Like Oglesby, Sherman a poet, playwright and co-founder of Ikon
magazine is not a baby boomer, having been born in 1939. Like him,
she was self-invented, having rejected her parents' life. Like him,
she was deeply rooted in the oppositional culture of the 1950s and
loved the theater. And like Oglesby, she traveled to Cuba and was
deeply affected by what she saw. (In fact, during her first trip
there in 1968 she met a delegation of S.D.S.-ers, although Oglesby
was probably not among them.)
But Sherman tells a much more personal story. Her writing is
evocative (describing Berkeley in the late '50s, she talks about "the
smell of eucalyptus after dark ... cheap wine and hamburgers ... old
movies ... first sex and first love"). Sherman's subject is finding
herself discovering and accepting her love of women and learning
her art. Her '60s will be more recognizable to many readers than
Oglesby's. It is set in coffeehouses and at poetry readings in the
East Village and is populated by writers like Robert Nichols, Grace
Paley, Allen Katzman and Allen Ginsberg. She attends light shows and
tries psychedelics (although one night when Timothy Leary asks his
audience to "pretend for 60 seconds I am the wisest man on earth,"
she says, "I don't have that good an imagination," and heads for the
door). She earns a master's degree in philosophy, paying $15 a credit
at Hunter College. Instead of working for a defense contractor, she
supported herself by typing classified ads for The Village Voice
(where she was poetry editor on the side).
Also like Oglesby, Sherman wrestles with government surveillance,
which affected her magazine and teaching careers. She observes the
insidious attacks and "psychological warfare" within leftist
organizations and, in a fascinating account of her experience at the
Fifth Street Women's Building, remarks on the self-defeating
proclivities of some feminist enterprises the theoretical posturing
and the impossibility of making timely decisions by consensus.
Sherman's account, like Oglesby's, ends in 1970, but for her the
experience of the women's and gay liberation movements still lies
ahead. Looking back, she argues for a long '60s, beginning with the
civil rights movement in the 1950s and lasting until the end of the
Vietnam War. For Sherman it was the "hundreds of thousands of people
who were active, in whatever capacity they struggled, who really
constituted The Movement, not the dozen or so names thrown up into
It might be argued that the movements of the 1960s were far more
successful culturally than they were politically, and that helps
explain why Sherman is more hopeful than Oglesby. Shortly before he
was forced out of S.D.S., Oglesby's wife urged him to leave the
organization. "You could go back to school, try to get another
teaching job," she suggests. "You could write another play ... hang
out with our kids." But Oglesby continues to try to convince his
comrades that it is possible to maintain a nonviolent opposition to
the war and remain "a significant force in American education."
Unfortunately for Carl Oglesby and for the American left it wasn't.
Another take on this period comes from "Students for a Democratic
Society: A Graphic History" (Hill & Wang, $22). Written by Harvey
Pekar, drawn by Gary Dumm and edited by Paul Buhle, who was the
founding editor of the journal Radical America (and whom I also knew
slightly), the book contains a history of S.D.S. by Pekar and
illustrated recollections by a range of former S.D.S. members. I
found the personal stories frustratingly brief and uneven, and wasn't
sure what the graphics added to most of them, but I'm not the target
audience. The book should serve as an introduction to S.D.S. for
curious students who aren't committed enough for Kirkpatrick Sale's
Elsa Dixler is an editor at the Book Review.