Carl Oglesby was perhaps the finest orator of the anti-war movement in Sixties America, and one of its best thinkers. He was a settled family man when he became president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and led the protest against the Vietnam War, but his version of radical politics, always inclusive and rarely extreme, eventually put him at odds with others in SDS who grew frustrated with their inability to bring about change through the political process.
Oglesby came from working-class roots. His parents had migrated from the deep South to Akron, Ohio, where his father worked in a rubber mill, and where Carl was born in 1935. He grew up a true believer in the American way, even winning a high-school prize for an essay on the rightness of America's stance against communism.
But while at Kent State University he began to look in other directions, dropping out and moving to New York to pursue acting. He wrote three plays – which were produced off-Broadway – and an unpublished novel, before returning to the Midwest. There he married, had three children, and took a job in Ann Arbor, Michigan writing technical materials for the Bendix corporation, who were, among other things, a major defence contractor.
He studied part-time at the University of Michigan to finish his degree. After writing an essay critical of American policy in Southeast Asia for the college paper, three members of the newly formed SDS came to his house to recruit him; soon he was elected president of the organisation.
His writing and performing skills translated into dynamic leadership, and his maturity made him a valuable organiser, starting with teach-ins on the Michigan campus and culminating in the 27 November 1965 March on Washington for Peace, where he aligned SDS with a number of more mainstream groups opposed to the growing Vietnam war. His speech "Let us shape the future" drew the day's only standing ovation, and in print form became a landmark essay. He argued that American anti-communism moved in the service of corporate interests which were happy to profit from tyrannies with which they could do business. But he was most stirring when he recalled his own shattered idealism.
Confronting those who called him "anti-American", he said "Don't blame me for that! Blame those who mouthed my liberal values and broke my American heart."
Oglesby declined an invitation from the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver to be his running mate on the Peace and Freedom Party's 1968 presidential campaign; by then SDS had grown to over 100,000 members, but was already crumbling from within. Oglesby was at odds with the Weathermen faction, which advocated violent Marxist revolution, a stance Oglesby described as "road rage and comic-book Marxism".
The man who hoped argument could persuade leaders to change was expelled from SDS for being a hopeless bourgeois liberal. Ironically, as the new left disintegrated, he was editing the excellent New Left Reader (1969) for a mainstream publisher.
His illusions again shattered, Oglesby turned to music, releasing twofolk-rock records which were well-reviewed but didn't sell. In 1972 he helped found the Assassination Information Bureau. His lucid writing was directed toward conspiracies, and he was particularly interested in the murder of John F Kennedy. In 1976 he published Yankee and Cowboy War: conspiracies from Dallas to Watergate, which linked the JFK assassination and Watergate by identifying a conflict in the American power elite between the eastern establishment bankers and the growing western money in oil, aerospace, and military contracting. In the 1990s he published two further books analysing the various theories behind the JFK killing.
He taught at Antioch and Dartmouth Colleges and MIT, and also co-authored – with the eponymous house restorer – Bob Vila's Guide to buying your Dream Home. His memoir of the anti-war movement, Ravens in the Storm, appeared in 2008.
As he said "It isn't the rebels who cause the troubles of the world, it's the troubles that cause the rebels." He died of lung cancer. Married and divorced three times, he is survived by his partner, Barbara Webster, two sons and a daughter from his first marriage.
Carl Preston Oglesby Jr, writer and activist: born Akron, Ohio 30 July 1935: married Beth Rimanoczy (marriage dissolved; two sons, one daughter), second Anne Mueller; third Sally Waters (marriages dissolved); died Montclair, New Jersey 13 September 2011.