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Carol Brightman on the 1960s
Posted on Jan 3, 2008
Carl Oglesby, who went from being a copywriter for Bendix, a Michigan-based defense contractor, to president of SDS in a month, is a more complicated piece of work. Married, with three kids, and already 30 when he joined SDS in 1965, he was also a budding playwright. He quickly emerged as a brilliant speechmaker and co-author (with Richard Schaull) of the valuable “Containment and Change,” published in 1967, which, ironically, gave Wilkerson her first doubts that massive social movements would be enough to successfully fight imperialism. In “Ravens in the Storm,” Oglesby revisits, without apology, his stump speech. “I am a republican democrat and at the same time, yes, a democratic republican. Or in brief ... a radical centrist. This is not an oxymoron,” Oglesby insists. “Democracy without the rule of law is anarchy, just as republicanism without democracy is tyranny.” Go figure. America was fighting a war without a declaration of war, which was (and is) its wont. This was his favorite point.
His coverage of the protest years is dilatory, with the exception of two interesting trips he took abroad: one to Saigon in late 1965 and another to the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm in 1967. He went to South Vietnam with a small teach-in delegation and met with a group Oglesby calls “The Bourgeois Gentlemen of Saigon,” who were probably close to the Viet Cong. Their peace plan was nearly the same as the one adopted in 1975—3 million lives later. The delegates later watched B-52s attack VC positions around Tan Son Nhut airport from a hotel roof about a mile away. They met with a “subaltern” of Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky who regaled them with anti-war anecdotes. In Hue, Joe O’Neal, the chief of the American consulate, told them (and everyone else) that a Communist victory had already occurred. Half the Saigon government was Viet Cong, he said, and half of American aid ended up in Hanoi, and most of the rest in Swiss banks. “Screw it!” he exclaimed. “We tried our best. Let’s pack up and go home.” German members of the University of Hue’s medical faculty told Oglesby that O’Neal was suspected by locals to be the CIA’s chief of station.
Oglesby’s account of the Stockholm trip gives a vivid portrait of Ralph Schoenman, the American expatriate and Russell’s representative to the war crimes tribunal. Oglesby was a great admirer of Jean-Paul Sartre, who, together with Simone de Beauvoir and Vlado Dedijer, a World War II adjutant of Tito’s and a hero of the Yugoslav anti-Nazi resistance, presided over the tribunal. Schoenman represented Lord Russell, who remained a ghostly figure in Wales. Each day Schoenman announced: “Lord Russell says he expects the tribunal to find the United States guilty of genocide,” the subtext being that Russell was paying for the damn thing and didn’t want to be unhappy with the findings. Sartre, who disagreed, saw American attacks on population centers (in South Vietnam) as resulting from the fact that Viet Cong and North Vietnamese combat units often stationed themselves there. Besides, to call it genocide evoked memories of Hitler’s effort to exterminate the Jews, which was not what was happening in Vietnam, ugly as the war was. He wanted the evidence to speak for itself, and he let it be known that he thought Russell was pushing North Vietnam’s propaganda line.
“Lord Russell was unhappy to hear of the recent attacks upon him by certain tribunal members,” Schoenman said. “He is all the more distressed by these attacks in that they are occasioned by large differences within the tribunal on the issue of genocide.”
“No one has attacked Russell,” said David Dellinger, who was the tribunal’s American secretary and sometime peacemaker. “We simply disagree with him. ... Why does he consider disagreement a personal attack?”
“That is for Lord Russell to say,” said Schoenman. “I would not presume to speak for him. I am here only to say that Lord Russell believes the United States guilty of genocide in Vietnam, and that he would be disappointed if the tribunal continues to attack him for this view—.”
“Premiere!” thundered Sartre. “Our findings will be significant only if they are supported by facts! Deuxieme! It is you who are under attack, Schoenman, not Lord Russell! Troisieme! You cannot both stand behind Lord Russell and put him in your pocket!”
Schoenman bowed his head slightly but kept his composure. “I will see that Lord Russell receives a faithful account of your statement.” It was not a “knockout,” as Oglesby puts it.
Sartre glared at Schoenman, then turned to de Beauvoir. She lowered her eyes and nodded briefly, and Sartre turned back to Schoenman. “Merci,” he said quietly, and the battle was over. Schoenman had upheld Russell’s line, which was some weird variation of Trotskyism and had reflected North Vietnam’s thinking not at all.
Early in 1967, I had gone on the second of the tribunal’s two fact-finding teams to North Vietnam, the only American and only woman. One night at the end of the month-long trip we were seated behind a screen at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, drinking and swapping stories. The North’s “Four Point Peace Proposal” had just been issued, and Schoenman, it was said, had stood up at a dinner with North Vietnamese leaders and rebuked them for thinking of peace. He raised his glass in a victory salute; no one responded.
“Ravens in the Storm” is good on confrontations, especially when they concern Oglesby. His feel for dialogue, which is re-created, rings mostly true. For example, there are a few run-ins with Bernardine Dohrn (“BD”), including an endless back-and-forth, rather convincing really, between the two of them over Dohrn’s reasons for excluding him from Weatherman’s sponsorship of the first Venceremos Brigade—even though the original idea, proposed when he was in Havana in 1969, was his. She never let him forget his early willingness to speak to corporate types or his liberalism. And while Oglesby insists he was no “pacifist,” he was increasingly troubled by the rise of Weatherman. Soon he would find himself on the outside looking in, no longer regarded as a trusted member of the leadership of the organization he’d worked so hard to build in its early years. It left him baffled and distraught.
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