Let Us Shape the Future
By Carl Oglesby
November 27, 1965, Carl Oglesby, SDS President, spoke at a March on Washington.
Seven months ago at the April March on Washington, Paul Potter,
then President of Students for a Democratic Society, stood in
approximately this spot and said that we must name the system that
creates and sustains the war in Vietnam - name it, describe it,
analyze it, understand it, and change it.
Today I will try to name it - to suggest an analysis which, to be
quite frank, may disturb some of you and to suggest what changing
it may require of us.
We are here again to protest a growing war. Since it is a very bad
war, we acquire the habit of thinking it must be caused by very bad
men. But we only conceal reality, I think, to denounce on such
grounds the menacing coalition of industrial and military power, or
the brutality of the blitzkrieg we are waging against Vietnam, or
the ominous signs around us that heresy may soon no longer be
permitted. We must simply observe, and quite plainly say, that this
coalition, this blitzkrieg, and this demand for acquiescence are
creatures, all of them, of a Government that since 1932 has
considered itself to be fundamentally liberal.
The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a
mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a
moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy,
a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war -- those
who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally
the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President
himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men.
They are all liberals.
But so, I'm sure, are many of us who are here today in protest. To
understand the war, then, it seems necessary to take a closer look
at this American liberalism. Maybe we are in for some surprises.
Maybe we have here two quite different liberalisms: one
authentically humanist; the other not so human at all.
Not long ago I considered myself a liberal and if, someone had
asked me what I meant by that, I'd perhaps have quoted Thomas
Jefferson or Thomas Paine, who first made plain our nation's
unprovisional commitment to human rights. But what do you think
would happen if these two heroes could sit down now for a chat with
President Johnson and McGeorge Bundy?
They would surely talk of the Vietnam war. Our dead revolutionaries
would soon wonder why their country was fighting against what
appeared to be a revolution. The living liberals would hotly deny
that it is one: there are troops coming in from outside, the rebels
get arms from other countries, most of the people are not on their
side, and they practice terror against their own. Therefore: not a
What would our dead revolutionaries answer? They might say: "What
fools and bandits, sirs, you make then of us. Outside help? Do you
remember Lafayette? Or the three thousand British freighters the
French navy sunk for our side? Or the arms and men, we got from
France and Spain? And what's this about terror? Did you never hear
what we did to our own Loyalists? Or about the thousands of rich
American Tories who fled for their lives to Canada? And as for
popular support, do you not know that we had less than one-third of
our people with us? That, in fact, the colony of New York recruited
more troops for the British than for the revolution? Should we give
it all back?"
Revolutions do not take place in velvet boxes. They never have. It
is only the poets who make them lovely. What the National
Liberation Front is fighting in Vietnam is a complex and vicious
war. This war is also a revolution, as honest a revolution as you
can find anywhere in history. And this is a fact which all our
intricate official denials will never change.
But it doesn't make any difference to our leaders anyway. Their aim
in Vietnam is really much simpler than this implies. It is to
safeguard what they take to be American interests around the world
against revolution or revolutionary change, which they always call
Communism - as if that were that. In the case of Vietnam, this
interest is, first, the principle that revolution shall not be
tolerated anywhere, and second, that South Vietnam shall never sell
its rice to China - or even to North Vietnam.
There is simply no such thing now, for us, as a just revolution -
never mind that for two-thirds of the world's people the Twentieth
Century might as well be the Stone Age; never mind the melting
poverty and hopelessness that are the basic facts of life for most
modern men; and never mind that for these millions there is now an
increasingly perceptible relationship between their sorrow and our
Can we understand why the Negroes of Watts rebelled? Then why do we
need a devil theory to explain the rebellion of the South
Vietnamese? Can we understand the oppression in Mississippi, or the
anguish that our Northern ghettoes makes epidemic? Then why can't
we see that our proper human struggle is not with Communism or
revolutionaries, but with the social desperation that drives good
men to violence, both here and abroad?
To be sure, we have been most generous with our aid, and in Western
Europe, a mature industrial society, that aid worked. But there are
always political and financial strings. And we have never shown
ourselves capable of allowing others to make those traumatic
institutional changes that are often the prerequisites of progress
in colonial societies. For all our official feeling for the
millions who are enslaved to what we so self-righteously call the
yoke of Communist tyranny, we make no real effort at all to crack
through the much more vicious right-wing tyrannies that our
businessmen traffic with and our nation profits from every day. And
for all our cries about the international Red conspiracy to take
over the world, we take only pride in the fact of our six thousand
military bases on foreign soil.
We gave Rhodesia a grave look just now - but we keep on buying her
chromium, which is cheap because black slave labor mines it.
We deplore the racism of Verwoert's fascist South Africa - but our
banks make big loans to that country and our private technology
makes it a nuclear power.
We are saddened and puzzled by random backpage stories of revolt in
this or that Latin American state - but are convinced by a few
pretty photos in the Sunday supplement that things are getting
better, that the world is coming our way, that change from disorder
can be orderly, that our benevolence will pacify the distressed,
that our might will intimidate the angry.
Optimists, may I suggest that these are quite unlikely fantasies?
They are fantasies because we have lost that mysterious social
desire for human equity that from time to time has given us genuine
moral drive. We have become a nation of young, bright-eyed,
hard-hearted, slim-waisted, bullet-headed make-out artists. A
nation - may I say it? - of beardless liberals.
You say I am being hard? Only think.
This country, with its thirty-some years of liberalism can send
200,000 young men to Vietnam to kill and die in the most dubious of
wars, but it cannot get 100 voter registrars to go into
What do you make of it?
The financial burden of the war obliges us to cut millions from an
already pathetic War on Poverty budget. But in almost the same
breath, Congress appropriates one hundred forty million dollars for
the Lockheed and Boeing companies to compete with each other on the
supersonic transport project-that Disneyland creation that will
cost us all about two billion dollars before it's done.
What do you make of it?
Many of us have been earnestly resisting for some years now the
idea of putting atomic weapons into West German hands, an action
that would perpetuate the division of Europe and thus the Cold War.
Now just this week we find out that, with the meagerest of security
systems, West Germany has had nuclear weapons in her hands for the
past six years.
What do you make of it?
Some will make of it that I overdraw the matter. Many will ask:
What about the other side? To be sure, there is the bitter ugliness
of Czechoslovakia, Poland, those infamous Russian tanks in the
streets of Budapest. But my anger only rises to hear some say that
sorrow cancels sorrow, or that this one's shame deposits in that
one's account the right to shamefulness.
And others will make of it that I sound mighty anti-American. To
these, I say: Don't blame me for that! Blame those who mouthed my
liberal values and broke my American heart.
Just who might they be, by the way? Let's take a brief factual
inventory of the latter-day Cold War.
In 1953 our Central Intelligence Agency managed to overthrow
Mossadegh in Iran, the complaint being his neutralism in the Cold
War and his plans to nationalize the country's oil resources to
improve his people's lives. Most evil aims, most evil man. In his
place we put in General Zahedi, a World War II Nazi collaborator.
New arrangements on Iran's oil gave twenty-five year leases on
forty per cent of it to three U.S. firms, one of which was Gulf
Oil. The C.I.A.'s leader for this coup was Kermit Roosevelt. In
1960, Kermit Roosevelt became a vice president of Gulf Oil.
In 1954, the democratically elected Arbenz of Guatemala wanted to
nationalize a portion of United Fruit Company's plantations in his
country, land he needed badly for a modest program of agrarian
reform. His government was overthrown in a C.I.A.-supported
rightwing coup. The following year, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith,
director of the C.I.A. when the Guatemala venture was being
planned, joined the board of directors of the United Fruit Company.
Comes 1960 and Castro cries we are about to invade Cuba. The
Administration sneers, "poppycock," and we Americans believe it.
Comes 1961 and the invasion. Comes with it the awful realization
that the United States Government had lied.
Comes 1962 and the missile crisis, and our Administration stands
prepared to fight global atomic war on the curious principle that
another state does not have the right to its own foreign policy.
Comes 1963 and British Guiana where Cheddi Jagan wants independence
from England and a labor law modeled on the Wagner Act. And Jay
Lovestone, the AFL-CIO foreign policy chief, acting, as always,
quite independently of labor's rank and file, arranges with our
Government to finance an eleven-week dock strike that brings Jagan
down, ensuring that the state will remain British Guiana, and that
any workingman who wants a wage better than fifty cents a day is a
dupe of Communism.
Comes 1964. Two weeks after Undersecretary Thomas Mann announces
that we have abandoned the Alianza's principle of no aid to
tyrants, Brazil's Goulart is overthrown by the vicious
right-winger, Ademar Barros, supported by a show of American
gunboats at Rio de Janeiro. Within twenty four hours, the new head
of state, Mazzilli, receives a congratulatory wire from our
Comes 1965. The Dominican Republic. Rebellion in the streets. We
scurry to the spot with twenty thousand neutral Marines and our
neutral peacemakers - like Ellsworth Bunker Jr., Ambassador to the
Organization of American States. Most of us know that our neutral
Marines fought openly on the side of the junta, a fact that the
Administration still denies. But how many also know that what was
at stake was our new Caribbean Sugar Bowl? That this same neutral
peacemaking Bunker is a board member and stock owner of the
National Sugar Refining Company, a firm his father founded in the
good old days, and one which has a major interest in maintaining
the status quo in the Dominican Republic? Or that the President's
close personal friend and advisor, our new Supreme Court Justice
Abe Fortas, has sat for the past 19 years on the board of the
Sucrest Company, which imports blackstrap molasses from the
Dominican Republic? Or that the rhetorician of corporate liberalism
and the late President Kennedy's close friend Adolf Berle, was
chairman of that same board? Or that our roving ambassador Averill
Harriman's brother Roland is on the board of National Sugar? Or
that our former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Joseph
Farland, is a board member of the South Puerto Rico Sugar Co.,
which owns two hundred and seventy-five thousand acres of rich land
in the Dominican Republic and is the largest employer on the island
- at about one dollar a day?
Neutralists! God save the hungry people of the world from such
We do not say these men are evil. We say, rather, that good men can
be divided from their compassion by the institutional system that
inherits us all. Generation in and out, we are put to use. People
become instruments. Generals do not hear the screams of the bombed;
sugar executives do not see the misery of the cane cutters: for to
do so is to be that much less the general, that much less the
The foregoing facts of recent history describe one main aspect of
the estate of Western liberalism. Where is our American humanism
here? What went wrong?
Let's stare our situation coldly in the face. All of us are born to
the colossus of history, our American corporate system - in many
ways an awesome organism. There is one fact that describes it: With
about five per cent of the world's people, we consume about half
the world's goods. We take a richness that is in good part not our
own, and we put it in our pockets, our garages, our split-levels,
our bellies, and our futures.
On the face of it, it is a crime that so few should have so much at
the expense of so many. Where is the moral imagination so abused as
to call this just? Perhaps many of us feel a bit uneasy in our
sleep. We are not, after all, a cruel people. And perhaps we don't
really need this super-dominance that deforms others. But what can
we do? The investments are made. The financial ties are
established. The plants abroad are built. Our system exists. One is
swept up into it. How intolerable - to be born moral, but addicted
to a stolen and maybe surplus luxury. Our goodness threatens to
become counterfeit before our eyes - unless we change. But change
threatens us with uncertainty - at least.
Our problem, then, is to justify this system and give its theft
another name - to make kind and moral what is neither, to perform
some alchemy with language that will make this injustice seem a
most magnanimous gift.
A hard problem. But the Western democracies, in the heyday of their
colonial expansionism, produced a hero worthy of the task.
Its name was free enterprise, and its partner was an illiberal
liberalism that said to the poor and the dispossessed: What we
acquire of your resources we repay in civilization: the white man's
burden. But this was too poetic. So a much more hardheaded theory
was produced. This theory said that colonial status is in fact a
boon to the colonized. We give them technology and bring them into
But this deceived no one but ourselves. We were delighted with this
new theory. The poor saw in it merely an admission that their
claims were irrefutable. They stood up to us, without gratitude. We
were shocked - but also confused, for the poor seemed again to be
right. How long is it going to be the case, we wondered, that the
poor will be right and the rich will be wrong?
Liberalism faced a crisis. In the face of the collapse of the
European empires, how could it continue, to hold together, our twin
need for richness and righteousness? How can we continue to sack
the ports of Asia and still dream of Jesus?
The challenge was met with a most ingenious solution: the ideology
of anti-Communism. This was the bind: we cannot call revolution
bad, because we started that way ourselves, and because it is all
too easy to see why the dispossessed should rebel. So we will call
revolution Communism. And we will reserve for ourselves the right
to say what Communism means. We take note of revolution's
enormities, wrenching them where necessary from their historical
context and often exaggerating them, and say: Behold, Communism is
a bloodbath. We take note of those reactionaries who stole the
revolution, and say: Behold, Communism is a betrayal of the people.
We take note of the revolution's need to consolidate itself, and
say: Behold, Communism is a tyranny.
It has been all these things, and it will be these things again,
and we will never be at a loss for those tales of atrocity that
comfort us so in our self-righteousness. Nuns will be raped and
bureaucrats will be disembowelled. Indeed, revolution is a fury.
For it is a letting loose of outrages pent up sometimes over
centuries. But the more brutal and longer-lasting the suppression
of this energy, all the more ferocious will be its explosive
Far from helping Americans deal with this truth, the anti-Communist
ideology merely tries to disguise it so that things may stay the
way they are. Thus, it depicts our presence in other lands not as a
coercion, but a protection. It allows us even to say that the
napalm in Vietnam is only another aspect of our humanitarian love -
like those exorcisms in the Middle Ages that so often killed the
patient. So we say to the Vietnamese peasant, the Cuban
intellectual, the Peruvian worker: "You are better dead than Red.
If it hurts or if you don't understand why - sorry about that."
This is the action of corporate liberalism. It performs for the
corporate state a function quite like what the Church once
performed for the feudal state. It seeks to justify its burdens and
protect it from change. As the Church exaggerated this office in
the Inquisition, so with liberalism in the McCarthy time - which,
if it was a reactionary phenomenon, was still made possible by our
anti-communist corporate liberalism.
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
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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