Stumbled across Carl Oglesby’s Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960’s Antiwar Movement at the library. Book was published in 2008 and made some splash in left circles but seems to have been mostly ignored by the book reviewing fraternity. I grabbed it almost by accident in a hurry–I’d never been that interested in the SDS (Oglesby was president of SDS 1965-66) but I figured that there might be something in it of use or interest to someone like me who is completely opposed to our two failed ongoing wars in the middle east. Turned out I figured right, and the book has some real gems in it that are of truly unsurpassed value to all of us.
Oglesby was from Southern Blue-collar stock via the Great Depression out-migration to the industrial midwest. He made a stab at college but came down with acting fever, and dropped out to try his luck in NYC, failed, and came back to marry his college sweetheart in 1956. Working at Goodyear he made the jump from blue-collar machine operator to white-collar technical writer and editor, and shortly thereafter jumped ship to do the same job for Bendix’ aerospace division in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was all a part of the white-collar career track of the day–new house in the suburbs, three kids, security clearance, two cars, management job in the offing, when he chucked it all and became a full-time political activist, a career he continues to this day. This first part of his story is one of the better accounts of life for the first generation of Americans from hardscrabble backgrounds to come to adulthood in the post-World War II years of affluence. Oglesby is good in both the internal and external details of his life in these times, and tells of them with a rare simple grace and skill. Few novelists have done as well, and none in as few pages.
Oglesby tells another good story in this first part of the book of his coming to radical political consciousness and activism. For Oglesby, his keen intelligence, combined with his great underlying human decency–honesty, too–and being in the right place–Ann Arbor, at the right time, when the campus was awakening from its post-McCarthy torpor, and having friends who had already made the leap from mainstream sociopolitical beliefs to activist/radical beliefs, all combined made his jump off the beaten path possible. Friends, place, time, and personality–it seems to me that Oglesby had the right mixture, at the right time, to step into a radical activist life and succeed at it. At least succeed insofar as such a term applies to choosing a life of economic disenfranchisement and much hard work, most of which is discussions and arguments with other people to no certain and little apparent result. A hard life, but Oglesby had the reward of living it during an exciting time, when a different future seemed possible, which has not been so much the case for us here since. Oglesby, then-president of SDS, on his life in 1965, from p. 82:
“Now that I had stopped trying to be an actor, I found myself on some of the world’s great stages, from New York to Paris to Saigon to Tokyo, speaking my own lines in behalf of a cause I believed in to enthusiastic crowds, connected to a movement of bright, passionate people, a movement that was now carrying me and my family along with it as part of an international phenomenon that no one, neither its defenders nor its attackers, knew how to explain or predict.”
Oglesby tells of his and the American student left’s struggles with the issues of the day, which inevitably turned into the struggles of the antiwar movement, which inevitably enough it seems led up to the movement’s splintering apart in the very early 1970’s, and his own expulsion from SDS, not long before SDS imploded. SDS started off as the youth branch of the League for Industrial Democracy, a left organization 50 years old by the time Oglesby came upon it, that had been founded by Jack London and Upton Sinclair. When Oglesby started with it in 1964 its focus was more on civil rights and increasing participatory democracy for economically disenfranchised Americans. Inevitably enough its focus shifted to the war in Vietnam, which led to its divorce from the LID and its spectacular growth in the following five years across the entire country. The war and the student left had a relationship like oxygen to fire. The oxygen of the war combined with the fuel of student activism to create the fire of the 60’s left activism. Sadly for us all, there was a lot more oxygen than fuel. Over time enough things just burned out, leaving nothing left except ashes.
The inability of the antiwar movement, despite their best hardest heart and soul efforts from 1965 to 1970, to stop the war was the leading cause of SDS’, and the 60’s left, burning out and splintering apart into various left factions that turned to revolutionary rhetoric and ideologies and violence (the Weathermen foremost). Once this happened, SDS and its factions were mortally hurt by government repression, both overt and covert. Various and numerous FBI/other intel agency/other law enforcement agent provocateur operations were prosecuted against it; most have yet to be adequately made public. (I’d say the Germans have done a better job releasing Stasi records than we have of FBI Cointelpro records, which should make all of us embarrassed.) If this repression wasn’t enough, the vicious internecine fights between the Weatherman revolutionary faction, the traditional SDS/radical democratic activist, and infantile Marxist/Trotskyite PLP (People’s Labor Party) factions might alone have been fatal enough. The rise of the revolutionary (probably a word that should be in quotation marks when applied to the PLP and Weather left) furthermore cost SDS and the associated student left whatever credibility it had in the political arena from their renunciation of the political arena for armed revolution, a guaranteed way to get yourself hated by most people. The revolutionary faction’s rhetorical extremism and infantile marxism further alienated them from most every other American. The youth left’s revolutionary turn presented a great opportunity (quickly taken of course) to the ruling elites to attack and marginalize them (quite successfully, of course), and SDS, and the left youth movement, died, leaving no left organizations or institutions behind.
I’ll close this part with a good lengthy quote from Oglesby. On pp314-5, Oglesby pronounces his epitaph for SDS, and his efforts therein:
“In a 1960’s world without the Vietnam War, the intellectual task of SDS would have been to reimagine the democratic left.
“Its political task would have been to redefine the interests of what traditional radical thought dismissed as the ‘middle class’ even as an increasingly high-tech economy was turning this class into a new proletariat and making its brainpower central to production. The original SDS had seen its natural constituency as its ‘new working class’ and had been far from thinking of itself as revolutionary. Following the lead of the black civil-rights movement, it had advocated direct action but had remained explicitly democratic, reformist, and nonviolent. As the House Committee on Internal Security put it in its surprisingly objective, almost admiring report on SDS in 1970, ‘As long as sit was self-disciplined and dedicated to the peaceful pursuit of sincere social concerns, as long as it encouraged orderly dissent, it held the potential for making a useful contribution to American life.’
“But Vietnam imposed its own imperative, and SDS became in effect a single-issue antiwar organization, finally to be driven by the Weathermen to a self-destructive espousal of violence, an adventurism born of an almost willful ignorance of history.
“I cannot say we had much freedom of choice. There was no way that SDS could have avoided the war. Like everyone else, we came upon the war as a terrible accident burning in the road, an event without logic but inescapably right there in front of us. We just had to jump in and do what we could.”
Oglesby, acknowledging the failure of SDS, and its premature and untimely death by galloping war consumption, goes on to say, fairly, what it accomplished in its short frenetic life. On p.316:
“At the same time, we were not a total loss. Life said of SDS: ‘Never in the history of this country has a small group, standing outside the pale of conventional power, made such an impact or created such havoc.’
“And truth to tell, there is comfort in knowing that we counted. As Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the JCS during the Nixon administration, told historian Tom Wells, ‘The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time. And it served to inhibit and restrain the decision-makers…[SDS] had a major impact…both in the executive and legislative branches of the government.’
Book is well worth a read. Check it out sometime.