’60s Antiwar Leader Carl Oglesby, RIP

Eric Garris, September 14, 2011

I was sad to read this morning of the death of Carl Oglesby, one of the great leaders of the early Vietnam antiwar movement.

Oglesby was a leader and one-time president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS was the leading antiwar students group in the 1960s until factional politics caused the implosion of the group in 1969. Another SDS leader once described the makeup of SDS: “We have within our ranks Communists of both varieties, socialists of all sorts, 3 or 4 different kinds of anarchists, anarchosyndicalists, syndicalists, social democrats, humanist liberals, a growing number of ex-YAF libertarian laissez-faire capitalists, and, of course, the articulate vanguard of the psychedelic liberation front.”

I joined my high school’s SDS in late 1968 and was quite active until shortly after the split in the national organization (and subsequently, the local Los Angeles high school group). My attraction to the organization was its mass-based approach under the leadership of Oglesby.

Oglesby was a proponent of working with libertarians and conservative antiwar activists in such groups as Young Americans for Freedom on war and other issues. He argued that “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.”

Oglesby was expelled from 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.'”

Oglesby later became a writer, a musician, and an academic. He wrote several books on the JFK assassination and American class analysis. He also recorded two albums, roughly in the folk-rock genre. He taught politics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College.

Oglesby was friends with Murray Rothbard and other libertarian leaders. Rothbard wrote approvingly of Oglesby’s writings, particularly his books The Yankee and Cowboy War: Conspiracies from Dallas to Watergate and Containment and Change.

In a later work, Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Anti-War Movement, Oglesby said that two historians “rang his bell”: “One was the liberal William Appleman Williams, and the other was the conservative Murray Rothbard. They were both libertarians, and that is what I had begun calling myself. I still do. Libertarianism is a stance that allows one to speak to the right as well as to the left, which is what I was always trying to do.”

Oglesby’s fight to broaden and open the antiwar movement is still being waged today. We can hope that people will remember the lessons of SDS’s demise and advance beyond sectarianism.

Additional reading:

Jesse Walker’s obituary of Oglesby at Reason.com

Bill Kauffman interviews Oglesby (2008)

Murray Rothbard on The New Left

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