Carl Oglesby, 1935-2011

Although I was active in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the days when Carl Oglesby was its eloquent leader and spokesperson, my memories of him revolve around something not even mentioned in most of his biographies and obituaries: the fact that he was the first to articulate the idea of the Venceremos Brigade—now the oldest Cuba solidarity group in the world.


We were both among a handful of radical guests associated with SDS who’d been invited to the celebration of the Tenth Anniversary of the Cuban Revolution (January 1, 1969) at the Havana Libre Hotel. In the speech Fidel Castro gave on the eve of that anniversary, he urged Cubans to take part in a massive attempt to plant, harvest, and mill ten million tons of sugar cane.


The next morning, as we gathered for breakfast at the hotel, Carl spelled out his plan. We (presumably, SDS) should propose to the Cubans that we bring a “brigade” of perhaps 50 people to help with what was already being called “The Ten Million Ton Harvest.” No one would take us seriously, he went on, if we suggested we could cut sugar cane. So our proposal would be to take over the urban jobs of Cubans—bus drivers, factory workers, etc.—who could then go out and cut cane. The amount of sugar cane produced as a result of our participation, he admitted, would be purely symbolic. But it would show that there were Americans who opposed our government’s hostile practices towards the Cuban Revolution.


After a few months, word came that we could bring a brigade of up to 150 people and, despite our original doubts, we would cut sugar cane. Carl Oglesby did not remain intimately linked to the brigades, but it was Oglesby’s organizational mind that gave life to them.


The Anti-War Years


As an undergraduate at Kent State University, Oglesby was years older than other 1960s student radicals he befriended and was living a more conventional life at the time. He was married, had three children, and was working for a defense contractor. But while studying part time at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, he was so disgusted by the Vietnam War and so taken with the then-emerging SDS—and the Society with him—that he soon became its president and most memorable orator.


SDS had been founded in 1960 at the University of Michigan, and its early declaration, the “Port Huron Statement,” helped embody the idealism of the early 1960s. SDS supported civil rights, opposed the nuclear arms race, was critical of the U.S. government, and called for greater efforts to fight poverty and big business.


Oglesby’s stature peaked in November 1965 at a massive anti-war rally in Washington, DC. In an address titled “Let Us Shape the Future,” Oglesby spoke as a disillusioned patriot and liberal who rejected not just the war, which liberals had escalated, but much of American foreign policy since the end of World War II—he believed the free enterprise system demanded endless conflict. He was equally critical of Republican and Democratic presidents as victims and enablers of the corporate state.




Activist and fellow SDS leader Tom Hayden called Oglesby a “radical individualist” in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau. He remembers Oglesby as a “brainy,” self-taught man whose research into the Cold War and national security convinced him that communism was not the enemy and that change in the United States would have to reach far beyond getting out of Vietnam.


“He used to think you could argue with Pentagon intellectuals like (Secretary of Defense) Robert McNamara and get them to change their minds,” Hayden said, “But he later decided there would have to be a fundamental power shift.”


Born in 1935, Oglesby grew up working class in Akron, Ohio and had far more experience than his fellow activists. He had given up a safe, comfortable life, much to his father’s anger, to change the world. But the 1960s proved an unfulfilled dream from which he never recovered. By the end of the decade, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been killed, the Vietnam War was still going on, and Oglesby was thrown out of the organization he helped grow. “He suffered greatly from that, maybe more than anyone else of the older crowd, from being targeted by the Weathermen as a bad guy,” Gitlin said. 


Recent Years


In recent years, Oglesby became obsessed with assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He wrote the books Who Killed JFK? and The JFK Assassination and contributed an afterword to Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins. In 2008, he published his memoir Ravens in the Storm. He was also featured in the 1991 television documentary Making Sense of the Sixties where he said:  “We had an experience, which I suppose is unique in American history and which nobody who ever went through it will ever forget, an experience filled with treasured moments and nightmares alike. The 1960s will never level out. It’s a corkscrew. It’s a tailspin. It’s a joy ride on a roller coaster. It’s a never-ending mystery.”


Karen Lee Wald is a writer, activist, educator, and author of Children of Che: Child Care and Education in Cuba.