The First Teach-In
By James Tobin
The American people were silently, disinterestedly accepting this eerie atrocity.– Jack Rothman, professor of social work
Chapter 1 Rolling Thunder
Operation Rolling Thunder began on March 2, 1965. That night, one hundred U.S. and South Vietnamese heavy bombers crossed into North Vietnamese air space to pound supply routes between Hanoi and the south. It was the first time U.S. forces had taken the offensive in the war between South and North Vietnam.
On March 8, at the orders of President Lyndon Johnson, 3,500 U.S. Marines waded ashore at Da Nang. They were the first U.S. combat troops to enter the conflict.
Johnson had promised to draw down the American commitment. That had been a centerpiece of his campaign the previous fall against the hawkish Barry Goldwater. Voters chose Johnson in a landslide. Now he was escalating the war.
On March 9, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., marching at the head of hundreds demanding civil rights, set out from Selma, Alabama, toward the statehouse in Montgomery. State troopers and vigilantes turned them back.
At the University of California at Berkeley, students and faculty were barely recovering from days of disorder and mass arrests set off by the student-led Free Speech Movement, which had rebelled against the administration’s crackdown on political protests.
In Ann Arbor, all this news broke in thunderous waves. In 1965, only a handful of students were radical in their politics. But the faculty included a scattering of progressives involved in the early stirrings of dissent against the war. The attack on North Vietnam rang in their ears like a shrieking alarm.
Chapter 2 “We’ve Got to Do Something!”
One of them was Jack Rothman, a young professor of social work. He had marched for civil rights and campaigned for Johnson in 1964. Now he felt betrayed.
Reading news of the escalating war, Rothman remembered later, “I was left with a sense of unbelief… Our ‘Great Society’s’ mechanized monsters were casually annihilating a tiny, underdeveloped country thousands of miles away, and nobody was aroused: the American people were silently, disinterestedly accepting this eerie atrocity.”
Two others appalled by the news were Zelda Gamson, a sociologist at U-M’s Survey Research Center (later a professor in the Residential College) and her husband, William Gamson, a professor of sociology. Her Ph.D. was from Harvard, his from Michigan. They’d been active in the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and a peace group called Tocsin. She turned to him and said: “We’ve got to do something!”
They decided to invite like-minded colleagues to their Burns Park home for a meeting on the evening of March 11, nine days after the start of Rolling Thunder.
The Gamsons had an idea — a faculty strike to protest U.S. policy in Vietnam. Sympathizing professors would cancel their classes for one day. Instead, they would hold a conference where students could learn about U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.
It would be highly provocative. By the age-old conventions of academe, professors were not supposed to mix personal politics with their professional obligations. So even among the 15 or 20 who showed up, there were reservations.
“Though I was not yet certain what to think,” recalled Arnold Kaufman, a professor of philosophy, “my wife was in an aggressively pacifist mood. Prudence is the better part of sloth, so I went.”
A rough division was obvious right away. Militants like the Gamsons strongly favored a strike. Moderates like Kaufman spoke of less aggressive tactics, maybe a petition and a polite advertisement in the newspapers.
That night, the militants held the initiative. The decision was for a strike, though they chose a softer term — “work moratorium.”
A core of organizers quickly drafted a letter pitching their plan to the faculty. Thirty-two professors signed it, most in the social sciences and humanities, most without the security of tenure.
The letter announced the date — Wednesday, March 24 — and defined what was at stake. The escalation in Vietnam “not only makes a peaceful solution more difficult,” the letter said, “but also risks catapulting the United States into a major conflict with China and perhaps the entire Soviet bloc —a conflict which might well lead to nuclear war.”
It was not enough to sign petitions and write letters to Congress, the planners said. Their mission as teachers demanded bolder action. “By holding a conference instead of classes, we hope to demonstrate that a critical analysis of government policy is essential… As scholars and teachers, we believe that this action is a necessary responsibility to our students and to the larger community.”
The letter made the news. In East Lansing, sympathetic faculty at Michigan State announced their own plan for a strike. And then, as one of the organizers said later, “all hell broke loose.”
As scholars and teachers, we believe that this action is a necessary responsibility to our students and to the larger community.– U-M faculty on a work moratorium
Chapter 3 “A One-Way Ticket to Hanoi”
The backlash was instantaneous.
In Ann Arbor, Harlan Hatcher, president of the University, said: “There is a time and place for making protests, but canceling classes is certainly not an acceptable one.”
The influential U-M regent Frederick C. Matthaei said: “They get their living from the taxpayer. They have no license to abrogate their duties. They are robbing the payroll!”
On the floor of the Michigan Senate, which called on Hatcher to discipline the organizers, Senator Terry L. Troutt, a Democrat from Romulus, declared: “They should be given a one-way ticket to the University of Hanoi in Vietnam.”
Governor George Romney, a likely candidate for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, said: “This is about the worst type of example professors could give to their students.”
Bill Gamson stood his ground. “We respect the governor’s feelings and the state legislature’s,” he said. “But in the end, we have to answer to our consciences and meet our responsibilities to students, University and country.”
Still, the heat was intense. There was opposition on the faculty, too. Even professors who shared the planners’ outrage about Vietnam were uneasy about a strike. Some asked: Why strike against the University when the target was the Johnson administration? Why deprive students of their education because of professors’ private political views?
The planners were especially dismayed when Kenneth Boulding, a revered senior economist and lifelong pacifist, refused to sign the strike pledge. “I am in complete sympathy with their objectives,” he told the Michigan Daily, “but I have great reservations about the means.” He said everyone would be talking about whether it was right for professors to strike, and no one would be talking about U.S. bombs falling on the North Vietnamese.
Even as the strikers were firming up their plans, Boulding’s prediction was coming true, and colleagues were not speaking to each other in the halls.
Hearing the outcry from conservatives off campus, Jack Rothman noted a double standard. “Had each [signer of the strike letter] canceled a day’s classes to consult with a private corporation for a fat fee,” he said later, “no official eyebrow would have been raised. But to announce a suspension of classes because of one’s concern about issues of war and peace, that was unacceptably frivolous and irresponsible.”
Still, Rothman had thought from the first that a strike would attract only a handful of supporters. He was right. Even the moderates at the Gamsons’ meeting had signed the strike pledge out of a sense of solidarity, not because they thought it the best tactic. Now, with the date of the “work moratorium” fast approaching, only a dozen more professors had pledged to cancel classes.
“We were in a pickle,” recalled Frithjof Bergmann, a charismatic young professor of philosophy. “We had announced a strike, but the strike was fizzling. So the question was: ‘Now what?'”
This is about the worst type of example professors could give to their students.– Gov. George Romney
Chapter 4 “We’ll Teach In”
Arnold Kaufman, Bergmann’s colleague in the philosophy department, was searching for a way out of the pickle.
Though still in his 30s, Kaufman had a long resume on the left. He’d been active in the Congress on Racial Equality in the 1940s. He had worked with the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society. As a political philosopher, he was trying to craft a middle path between the revolutionary left and traditional Democratic Party liberalism. (His arguments would be published in an influential book, The Radical Liberal, in 1968.)
At 8:30 a.m. on March 17, with seven days to go before the “work moratorium,” Kaufman called Jack Rothman. How about a meeting of the moderates — tonight? Rothman agreed. They split up a list and called Bergmann, Marshall Sahlins and Eric Wolf from Anthropology, and Roger Lind from the School of Social Work. Eight in all met at Kaufman’s spacious contemporary home.
Rothman remembered it as “a strained and tortuous affair. Everyone wanted to avoid the strike, viewing it as a muddy, uncertain tactic, with a low level of support and a high level of active disapproval. But how to get out and what to substitute was unclear. We had all pledged ourselves to the strike; we could not pull out now and leave our colleagues to bear the brunt of an action to which we had given approval. We kept searching for a forthright alternative, one which would not be seen as retreat or capitulation by those who had promoted the strike.”
Hour after hour they talked, tempers flaring. Finally four of them – Kaufman, Bergman, Sahlins and Wolf – retreated for a smaller parlay.
Then an idea “occurred” in Marshall Sahlins’s mind — “if that’s even the right word for a process that was more social than it was individual, and more instinctive than it was creative,” as he put it later.
Sahlins had grown up in a family of Russian Jewish immigrants in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. His quick wit was sharpened at the dinner table every night; Sahlins’s brother Bernard later founded the Second City comedy troupe that would spawn “Saturday Night Live.” Arriving in Ann Arbor as an undergraduate in the late 1940s, Marshall Sahlins brought an endless stream of jokes and puns and a determination to become an anthropologist. He got his Ph.D. at Columbia, did fieldwork in Fiji, then joined the Michigan faculty. Radical in his politics, he was already developing what would become deeply influential ideas about how culture shapes social and political change.
All the organizers had been inspired by the campaign of “sit-ins” by young African Americans to protest the injustice of racial segregation. Now, according to Sahlins and others who were there, he said something like this: “I’ve got it. They say we’re neglecting our responsibilities as teachers. Let’s show them how responsible we feel. Instead of teaching out, we’ll teach in — all night.”
It was very late. But Arnold Rothman called Bill Gamson right then to ask for another meeting the next night, moderates and militants, to talk about Sahlins’s idea.
Chapter 5 Four in the Morning
This time they met at William Livant’s house in Burns Park. About 40 were there. If the meeting at Kaufman’s place had been tense, this one was “nerve-frazzling, soul-scraping,” according to Anatol Rapoport, a mathematician and pioneer of game theory. Reporters were let in, then tossed out. Same with representatives of the faculty’s top governing body, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs.
Eric Wolf put the case for a teach-in to the militants. And what was a teach-in, exactly? The term was brand new. Instead of canceling their classes, he explained, participating faculty would invite students for an all-night conference of lectures, rallies and seminars. It would signal their objections to U.S. policy, yes, but with an educational purpose. And it would sidestep the fury over a strike because it would not disrupt the teaching calendar.
At first the militants were dead set against it. Kaufman remembered being called a coward. He all but conceded the point: “I, for one, was frightened.”
The moderates were just as acerbic. With images of the unrest at Berkeley very much in the air, they accused the militants of “riot envy.”
Decades later, the sociologist Tom Mayer, a close friend of the meeting’s radical host, Bill Livant, wrote: “I can still hear Bill passionately arguing for more radical action.”
Long after midnight, Rafe Ezekiel, a social psychologist and Peace Corps veteran, polled the room. One by one, each professor gave his position, often in “the slow-paced, sometimes convoluted fashion of academics,” Rothman wrote.
Until now Arnold Kaufman had been mostly quiet. Now he summed up the case for a teach-in with quick, deft strokes and without “the need…to engage in expressive speech-making or to offer proof of his radical purity.”
By now it was 4 a.m. The last to speak was Tom Mayer, who had been the fieriest of the militants. He said just a few soft words. He had come around to the teach-in idea, he said, if only because it had won a majority.
Finally the tension broke. There were smiles and handshakes.
Many years later, Bill Gamson would say the teach-in idea “was a brilliant switch. It just turned things around.”
The moderates made a key concession. The teach-in would not be a forum for a diverse range of views on the Vietnam question. It would be an explicit protest against U.S. policy. That won over wavering militants. But it sowed seeds of further controversy.
An all-night conference of lectures, rallies and seminars would signal objections to U.S. policy, but with an educational purpose.
Chapter 6 Phone Calls and Fast Plans
Now 200 instructors signed in favor of a teach-in, a significant fraction of the whole faculty.
U-M administrators came on board, too, in no small part because the powerful dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, the economist William Haber (father of Al Haber, a founder of SDS), liked the new plan. (The elder Haber made a point of telling Frithjof Bergmann he supported both the teach-in and the organizers’ position on Vietnam.)
When Arnold Kaufman talked to Haber’s staff on the phone the next day, he was quickly assured that the four big Angell Hall auditoriums, plus rooms in Mason Hall, plus public-address and movie equipment would be at the organizers’ disposal.
In these early days of what was not yet called the anti-war movement, there were few big names to call upon for major public addresses, especially on short notice. So the organizers invited three credentialed but little-known academics — Arthur Waskow, a historian at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies; John Donahue, an MSU anthropologist who had done fieldwork in Vietnam; and Robert Browne, an economist who been a State Department advisor in Vietnam.
Immediately, critics roasted the planners for failing to invite anyone to speak in favor of the Johnson administration’s escalation of the war. Arthur Eastman, a professor of English, argued that any teach-in — a term he considered “unfitting” — without a range of views was nothing but propaganda, “public noise,” a pressure tactic that violated “the sanity of democratic institutions to move slowly and carefully.”
The “radical liberal” Arnold Kaufman summarized the planners’ defense. “We were unimpressed by the argument that in order genuinely to teach, every conceivable, or even every influential, point of view must be formally represented,” he would write soon. “It is not as if the government of the United States is unable to find a way to place their position before the people…. The democratic political process requires that all points of view be effectively represented over time and on various occasions — not that they all be represented on every occasion.” (Later, Kaufman would conclude that since many “unthinking” people believed every teach-in should include all points of view, “it was an error of strategy, not of principle, to fail to invite pro-administration speakers.”)
Ads were hurried into the Daily and the Ann Arbor News. Professors fanned out to dorms, churches, fraternities and sororities to spread the invitation to students. In a key concession, University housing officials agreed to “late hours” for women who typically faced a curfew. The planners were hoping a thousand students would show up.
Chapter 7 The Teach-In
The event was set to begin at 8 p.m. on March 24. The first bomb threat was phoned in at 7:35 at East Quad, where a documentary film about Vietnam was being shown in the lounge of Greene House. It was quickly ruled a hoax.
Crowds of students began to cram the Fish Bowl on their way to the Angell Hall auditoriums. Bill Gamson conceded to a Detroit reporter that many were there out of sheer curiosity, but “this is fine for our purposes, because curiosity about the course of our policy in Vietnam is what we hope to satisfy.”
Counter-protesting students circulated with posters: “Better Dead Than Red,” “Peace Through Strength” and “Drop the Bomb.” “This isn’t fair at all,” one of them told the Daily‘s reporter. “They aren’t presenting the other side. These people want another Munich.”
The second bomb threat came in just at 8 as students were filling the seats. Police cleared them out, checked the rooms, then waved them back in.
By now it was clear the organizers had underestimated student interest. More than 2,000 students — some said 3,000 — were now settling into seats or listening from the lobbies. Serious analyses from the speakers drew studious, rapt attention throughout the long evening in spite of a third bomb threat, quickly dispelled, at 10 p.m.
At midnight, with the main speakers done, the crowd went outdoors for an out-and-out protest rally. Here the talk became less academic, taking on the sound of more radical protests to come. “We should get on the side of the people, not their oppressors,” Frithjof Bergmann told the students, “even if it means linking arms with Red China in Southeast Asia. I am in favor of getting out even if we cannot get a negotiated settlement… We debauch the words liberty and freedom when we claim that is what we fight for. Let no one say that we are losing Vietnam, because it never belonged to us.”
Then it was back inside for seminars and movies, most of them led by students. At 3 a.m. there was a break for coffee, and an exodus to the dorms ensued. But several hundred die-hards stayed for another round of seminars, then a plenary session at 6 and a final rally on the Diag at 7 a.m.
Near the end, a student told the Daily’s reporter: “I’m just a lowly freshman, but this teach-in shows me what a university has to be.” Another sat on his Honda at the back of the crowd. “I’d never really thought very much about this,” he said, “but after tonight I think we should get out of Vietnam.”
Curiosity about the course of our policy in Vietnam is what we hope to satisfy.– William Gamson, professor of sociology
Chapter 8 Reflections
The next day, Bill Gamson remarked on how students opposed to the teach-in had come into one of the late-late seminars, and a genuine debate ensued.
“This was our purpose — to promote serious examination of United States policy,” Gamson said. “I learned something I should have known — how bright and serious our students are. The closeness between faculty and students was most moving…. I think the approach last night was clearly superior to our original plan.”
Even before the teach-in, organizers had been calling friends and colleagues in their disciplines at other campuses. Two days after the Michigan event, faculty held a teach-in at Columbia University. Two weeks later came the teach-in at Michigan State and many more all that spring — Chicago, Wisconsin, Western Reserve, MIT, Harvard, the University of Washington, Johns Hopkins, San Francisco State, Penn State, Texas, Illinois, Oregon. A new thing had been born, and an antiwar movement had begun in earnest.
Jack Rothman saw the teach-in as proof of his friend Arnold Kaufman’s “radical liberal” strategy — a middle way in progressive politics between the moderation of petition-gatherers and the rejectionist strike tactics of radicals.
Marshall Sahlins, to whom the teach-in idea had “occurred” in the midst of a tense meeting of minds, thought the tactic caught on in part because, like SDS, it started at Michigan. “It may have been a cultural hinterland,” he wrote later, “but being ‘out there’ afforded Michigan ‘the privilege of historical backwardness’ (as Trotsky put it). Relatively uncommitted to the existing forms of dissent, the anti-war activists at Michigan were free to surpass them.”
When Sahlins died in 2021 after a long and influential career at Michigan and the University of Chicago, the New York Times‘s obituary read in part: “The teach-in created an intellectual bridge between older leftists like Professor Sahlins and the budding activists of the baby boom generation. And as one of the earliest high-profile protests against America’s intervention in Vietnam, it set a template for future antiwar activism.”
Sources include author interview with Zelda Gamson; the papers of Arnold Kaufman at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan; Jack Rothman, “The Radical-Liberal Strategy in Action: Arnold Kaufman and the First Teach-In” (draft in the Kaufman papers); interviews conducted by U-M students with teach-in participants on the teach-in’s 50th anniversary in 2015, available at “Resistance and Revolution: The Antiwar Movement at the University of Michigan, 1965-1972“; Matthew Newman, “Vietnam: U-M faculty’s historic teach-in of 30 years ago,” Michigan Today, October 1995; Marshall Sahlins, “The Teach-Ins: Anti-War Protest in the Old Stoned Age,” Anthropology Today, February 2009; Michigan Daily; Detroit News; Detroit Free Press.
Relatively uncommitted to the existing forms of dissent, the anti-war activists at Michigan were free to surpass them.– Marshall Sahlins, professor of anthropology