Reaction to former SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) president Carl Oglesby’s new memoir Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Antiwar Movement will likely fall into two camps: those who agree with Oglesby’s politics and the passions that fueled them, and those who didn’t and still don’t.
However, Oglesby—an able, published dramatist and author—is ahead of the memoir game because this book has drama, supersmart writing, and a flair for the linear rise and fall of a great multi-act play, replete with modern-day Furies and Greek chorus. (Who could think of better Furies and Greek chorus than the Weathermen, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Stokley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bernardine Dohrn?)
It is, after all, that strange period of U.S. history, from 1963 to 1970, when activity was so intense that months felt like entire years. Oglesby climbs into radical politics from an all-security clearance, working as a copywriter at an Ann Arbor defense contractor in the early 1960s and quickly falls Alice-like into the tunnel of “the youth crisis,” soon becoming SDS’s president between 1965 and 1966.
It’s all here: his famed 1965 March on Washington speech; the arrival of the Vietnam teach-ins; his role on the 1967 International War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm and Copenhagen alongside icons Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Lord Bertrand Russell.
There’s Oglesby’s trip to Cuba, when he hatched the idea to have SDS members help Castro’s revolution reach its hoped-for goal of cutting 10 million tons of sugar cane, the “Days of Rage” at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and many close-up portraits of the internal, intense debates within SDS (most between Oglesby and soon-to-be-Weathergirl Bernardine Dohrn, today a law professor at Northwestern University) about whether SDS’s tactics should remain nonviolent. (Oglesby was adamant that they should, a position that ultimately got him booted out of SDS at a Mao-like interrogation at Texas’s University of Austin in 1969.)
Oglesby’s memory is aided by some “rather unique aide-memories”: more than four thousand pages of FBI, army intelligence, State Department, and CIA files released to him many decades later as a result of suits he filed under the Freedom of Information and Privacy acts.
And this, ultimately, is what makes this tale so extraordinary. It’s an insider’s exceptional memoir of the SDS organization and how it evolved into the more radical Weathermen, which ultimately imploded in a poof from tensions and confusions within.
But this is what shocks most: the fact that this merry band of students had the entire U.S. government so paranoid that the Nixon-era power brokers spent roughly $250 million and experienced unbridled angst to see these rather unorganized youngsters crippled and fall. It’s a reason enough to read this book.
Olgesby likens the soar and tumble of the student antiwar movement to that of Noah's raven—-who heads out quickly to scout for danger and whose sacrifice and ultimate destruction is part of the unending political cycle.
He quotes Life magazine on SDS’s impact: “Never in the history of this country has a small group, standing outside the pale of conventional power, made such an impact or created such havoc.” Agrees Olgesby: “Ours was a movement of ravens…a great flocking and soaring to and fro in the big storm of the American sixties. Sometimes we could really fly. When we crashed, it was from an enormous height.”
Janet Kinosian, a Los Angeles-based journalist, writes for The Los Angeles Times, Reader's Digest, and dozens of other publications.
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