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Remembering Vietnam War Foe Carl Oglesby

By Bob KatzEditor’s note: Author and journalist Bob Katz was a friend and colleague of Carl Oglesby and sent this remembrance, which has been edited for style.

Carl Oglesby, one of the most influential figures of the 1960s counterculture, died Tuesday at his home in Montclair, N.J., after a short illness.

An acclaimed political theorist, orator, playwright, musician and writer, Oglesby served as president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) from 1965 to 1966 and played a leading role in the opposition to the Vietnam War. A self-defined “radical centrist” and defense industry technical writer living in suburban Michigan with his wife and children when the war began, he soon became one of its most eloquent foes.

On Nov. 27, 1965, Oglesby gave a speech before tens of thousands of anti-war demonstrators in Washington, D.C., that became one of the most important documents to come out of the anti-war movement. According to historian Kirkpatrick Sale: “It was a devastating performance: skilled, moderate, learned and compassionate, but uncompromising, angry, radical and above all persuasive. It drew the only standing ovation of the afternoon.”

After the demise of SDS, Oglesby taught politics at Antioch, Dartmouth College and MIT, and wrote a column for the Boston Phoenix that merged geopolitical theory with his keen interest in the hidden dimensions of the Watergate scandal, the John F. Kennedy assassination and the CIA.

He was the author of several books, including “Containment and Change,” “The Yankee and Cowboy War: Conspiracies from Dallas to Watergate” and most recently the memoir, “Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Antiwar Movement.”

Oglesby is survived by his children, Aron DiBacco, Shay Oglesby-Smith and Caleb, and his partner, Barbara Webster.

Below is an excerpt from the end of his most famous D.C. speech:

Let me then speak directly to humanist liberals. If my facts are wrong, I will soon be corrected. But if they are right, then you may face a crisis of conscience. Corporatism or humanism: which? For it has come to that. Will you let your dreams be used? Will you be a grudging apologist for the corporate state? Or will you help try to change it — not in the name of this or that blueprint or ism, but in the name of simple human decency and democracy and the vision that wise and brave men saw in the time of our own revolution?

And if your commitment to human values is unconditional, then disabuse yourselves of the notion that statements will bring change, if only the right statements can be written, or that interviews with the mighty will bring change if only the mighty can be reached, or that marches will bring change if only we can make them massive enough, or that policy proposals will bring change if only we can make them responsible enough.

We are dealing now with a colossus that does not want to be changed. It will not change itself. It will not cooperate with those who want to change it. Those allies of ours in the government — are they really our allies? If they are, then they don’t need advice, they need constituencies; they don’t need study groups, they need a movement. And it they are not, then all the more reason for building that movement with the most relentless conviction.

There are people in this country today who are trying to build that movement, who aim at nothing less than a humanist reformation. And the humanist liberals must understand that it is this movement with which their own best hopes are most in tune. We radicals know the same history that you liberals know, and we can understand your occasional cynicism, exasperation, and even distrust. But we ask you to put these aside and help us risk a leap. Help us find enough time for the enormous work that needs doing here. Help us build. Help us shape the future in the name of plain human hope.

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