Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Carl Oglesby Papers
An activist, writer, lecturer and teacher, Carl Oglesby has participated in, written about, and analyzed some of the most important events in the recent history of the United States. His experiences before, during and after the Vietnam War as a political activist changed the trajectory of his own life and contributed significantly to the American political discourse on many subjects such as Vietnam War, Watergate, World War II, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. In his long career as writer and activist he has addressed many issues, spoken at hundreds of universities and protests as well as traveled the United States debating various political issues.
Oglesby was born in 1935, an only child living first in Kalamazoo, Michigan and later in Akron, Ohio. He was raised in a deep-South Christian Fundamentalist environment, one he both revered and resented, later in life referring to himself as a "silent Christian." He attended Kent State University for almost four years in the mid-fifties during which time he married Beth Rimanoczy in Kent, Ohio. In 1957, he left the university without receiving a degree. During this time, Oglesby began writing plays. His first play Season of the Beast, produced in Dallas, Texas in 1958, was promptly shut down for being a "Communistic Yankee atheist's attack on down-home religion." Although Oglesby didn't know it at the time, this was not the last time he would be accused of being a Communist or an atheist.
Despite his interest in playwriting, Oglesby sought out steady work. He became a copy editor for Goodyear Aircraft Corporation for a year before moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1958. There, he headed the Technical Writing Division at Bendix Systems, a defense contractor, until 1965. Although he befriended many people in Ann Arbor who were politically active, Oglesby shied away from engaging in much activism. He felt proud of his middle class home on Sunnyside Road, his family and secure job, and was reluctant to challenge the establishment that employed him. Even though Oglesby knew that Bendix was designing systems to distribute chemicals and poisons over the Vietnamese jungle, he "was not above" his work at Bendix. He and Beth were fully prepared to raise their children in the American, middle-class tradition, even if it meant not being as politically active as they would have liked.
In 1964, Oglesby began working as a writer for the Wes Vivian Congressional campaign. At a meeting, he was asked to produce a position paper on the Vietnam War in the event the issue came up during the course of the campaign. The paper Oglesby crafted not only provided him a crash course in Vietnamese history, but it also found its way into the University's literary magazine, Generation, along with his new play The Peacemaker. The play depicted the classic feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, and the inclusion of Oglesby's position paper in the same magazine gave his play about an age-old family feud a modern, political twist. More importantly, the unexpected publication of his position paper led him to his first introduction to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), an introduction that would change the course of his life and force him to choose what role activism would play in it.
Oglesby's first real ideological struggle with his middle-class lifestyle and career, however, came the previous year when President Kennedy was assassinated. Despite the fact that he and his colleagues faced a looming deadline, Oglesby was concerned that the flag had not been lowered as a sign of respect to the fallen president. When he tried to urge management at Bendix to lower the flag to half mast, he encountered a strange scene in which the executives seemed actually to be celebrating Kennedy's death. Although Oglesby continued working at Bendix for several more years, he became more and more aware that his political sensibilities might be in conflict with his safe, middle-class lifestyle. In particular, as the Vietnam War was becoming more an issue of public debate, Oglesby was forced to acknowledge that his nice, secure job in the defense industry might actually be contributing to it. Indeed, his friends in Ann Arbor began to challenge him, asking how he could reconcile his job at Bendix with his own sense of values. As it turns out, he couldn't.
In 1965, Oglesby went with a friend to a meeting of the local SDS chapter. At the time, SDS was in desperate need of literature to distribute in response to the many requests they received for information about Vietnam, and Oglesby's position paper soon became their official response. Later that same year he traveled to Kewadin, Michigan to attend a national meeting of SDS. At this meeting, members hotly debated whether to eliminate the offices of president and vice president on the grounds that such roles were elitist. Oglesby spoke out against the measure claiming that an elected national leader speaking on behalf of the group would be held accountable by its members, ensuring that the SDS message would not become diluted or confused. Oglesby further argued that SDS needed a unified, national identity in order to ensure that all SDS chapters were working towards the same goals and the public was hearing the same consistent message.
After voting to keep the national officers, the members moved to elect a new president for SDS. According to Oglesby, he was nominated along with about a dozen other people. After many of the nominees declined their nominations and two rounds of balloting, Oglesby was finally elected. Although he had only attended a few meetings, he was now the national president of SDS. Having no idea of the drastic turn his life was about to take, Oglesby returned home and began his year-long tenure as the president of the most radical student organization in America.
This unexpected turn of events caused great upheaval for the Oglesby family. As president of SDS, Oglesby traveled constantly giving speeches, attending meetings, and organizing political protests. He even traveled to Cuba and North Vietnam with SDS. Within months of his appointment as president, the F.B.I. began following him and building an extensive file on him, his family, friends and fellow SDS members. SDS was often accused of being a communist organization because of their political beliefs and the way they chose to organize themselves. It was a huge transition for Oglesby to go from having a secure, white collar job in the defense industry to being the spokesman for a radical student organization. The stress only intensified as Oglesby was away from home more and having a hard time balancing his lifestyle as the president of SDS with his family's needs. He and Beth moved from Ann Arbor to San Francisco hoping to alleviate some of their stress, but the pressure was too much and they ultimately divorced in the late-sixties.
In addition to his family problems, Oglesby had a hard time understanding the accusations leveled against SDS, later observing, "I was never a radical, I just believed in democracy." For Oglesby, the government's refusal to even debate the issues that SDS and other organizations were raising demonstrated sheer hypocrisy. How could the U.S. be so aggressive in trying to spread "democracy" in Vietnam while actively silencing their own citizens? He was appalled that the government spied on him and other members of SDS, while also attempting to infiltrate the organization. Oglesby recalls that many members grew distrustful of one another as it became more apparent that some SDS "members" were actually FBI agents. In many cases these agents were the ones who advocated for a violent response or protest, and over time this became the tell-tale sign that someone was working for the government.
Although Oglesby only served as president of SDS for fifteen months, he remained active in the organization for several years. He grew very close to fellow SDS member Bernadine Dohrn and was unhappy in 1969 when she, along with other key members of the group, decided that SDS's principle of engaging only in non-violent protest was no longer an effective way to achieve their goals. Dohrn thought that the antiwar movement had embraced nonviolence long enough, and that "symbolic violence" was the only way to make the government pay attention. She and others, including her future husband Bill Ayers, seized control of the SDS national office and formed the Weather Underground Organization. The Weathermen, as they were known, began to bomb post offices and other government properties. Despite their adamance that their use of violence was meant to bring attention to their cause by harming buildings and not people, their plan backfired in 1971 when three of their own members died in an explosion in a Greenwich Village safe house.
For Oglesby, the Weatherman's actions were synonymous with the death of SDS. Although, the individual chapters of SDS continued to grow, the national office, now under the control of the Weathermen, ceased to exist. Oglesby vehemently disagreed that SDS had lost its power, but with the core organizers leaving, there was little he could do to save SDS on a national level. Over the years, Oglesby wrote several articles about the decline of SDS in which he defended the group not only for leading the way on important issues of the day, but for promoting debate and discussion as a means of educating people about the United States government, the Vietnam War, and the political ideology of the New Left.
As Oglesby moved away from SDS, he was not interested in resuming his secure, middle-class lifestyle. In 1972, he co-founded the Assassination Information Bureau (AIB), which led a successful public campaign urging Congress to revisit the investigations into the assignations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was also involved in AIB efforts in Washington, D.C. to force the release of government documents relating to the assassinations. During this period, Oglesby continued to write, working for the Boston Phoenix and Boston Magazine as a regular contributor and editor. Indeed, Oglesby was a prolific writer throughout the 1970s, publishing The Yankee and Cowboy War: Conspiracies from Dallas to Watergate in 1976, and writing numerous other articles that appeared in magazines such as Playboy, The Washington Post, The Nation, Life, the Saturday Review, Dissent and the Boston Globe. In addition to his political and social commentary he also served as the annual report writer at Massachusetts General Hospital from 1981-1988.
By the late 1980s, Oglesby was fully immersed in research relating to the end of World War II, research he first conducted while writing The Yankee and Cowboy War. In 1988, he formed the Institute for Continuing De-Nazification aimed at organizing efforts to bring full public disclosure to top-secret government documents containing information about the relationship between the Gehlen Organization, formerly the intelligence network of West Germany, and the U.S. government. Oglesby filed suit against various agencies in the federal government claiming the intelligence documents should be publicly available under the Freedom of Information Act. With the help of attorney James Lesar, this lawsuit has been moving through the federal court system for over two decades, resulting in the release of thousands of pages of classified, top-secret government documents. These documents form the backbone of Oglesby's research on the Gehlen Organization and the post-Worl War II settlement between Germany and the United States. Although, Oglesby has yet to publish a full-length book on this topic, he has lectured and written several extensive articles in this subject.
Oglesby continues to write and speak about political issues, often drawing parallels between the currant political controversies and those that SDS faced more than three decades ago. His experiences have proved invaluable to a new generation of political activists who are asking many of the same questions that Oglesby faced when he joined SDS in 1965. After many years of silence, new SDS chapters are popping up across the country drawing the old ideals of "New Left" to push their political agenda forward.