The first Teach-In

Rolling Thunder

Navy warplanes

American fighter jets launch from the USS Coral Sea in March 1965 as part of Operation Rolling Thunder. (Image: U.S. Navy.)

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. 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.

“We’ve got to do something!”

The Gamsons

Professors Zelda and William Gamson opened their home to colleagues interested in protesting American involvement in Vietnam.
(Image: Contexts magazine.)

One of them was Jack Rothman, a young professor of sociology. 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 PhD 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!”

The Gamsons decided to invite like-minded colleagues to their home (1417 Granger, in the Burns Park neighborhood) for a meeting on the evening of March 11, nine days after the start of Rolling Thunder.

They 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.

“Aggressively pacifist”

It would be highly provocative. By the age-old conventions of academe, professors were not supposed to mix 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.”

“One-Way Ticket to Hanoi”

Daily headline re Faculty Strike 1965

Political criticism did not faze faculty planning a classroom strike to protest the war. (Image: Michigan Daily Digital Archive.)

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.

“In a pickle”

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?'”

Continue reading at (Scroll to Chapter 4.)


  1. Kevin Morgan - 80

    So U of M takes pride in starting the hate against Vietnam vets?


    • Diane Morse - 1970

      You are repeating an all too frequent false equivalency between opposition to the war and opposition to soldiers, most often draftees. Stopping the escalation of the war in Vietnam would have resulted in the best possible outcomes for Vietnam vets.


    • J Opacki - 1964

      I agree with you. UM is disgusting. Vets were spit on. Jane Fonda facilitated beatings against US servicemen.


  2. Douglas Cooper - 1966

    Thanks to James Tobin for providing the background information concerning the first Teach-in and thanks to the professors, students and administrators who had the courage to make it possible. As an English major, I had attended many lectures and classes in Angel Hall, but the education that I experienced that night has lasted a lifetime. The editorial piece in The Michigan Daily on March 24,1965 proved prophetic: “All students and faculty should attend as many portions of tonight’s Vietnam Teach-in as they can…they owe it to themselves and their country to go, to listen, to question, to evaluate—and, if they become inclined, to act. No one can ask more, but then no one should do less.” Today, the challenge to seek the Truth is more urgent than ever!


  3. Andrew Paterson - 1966

    I attended the teach in and would describe it as objective discussions/lectures about U.S. foreign policy, military objectives in SE Asia and the cold war more generally. We learned about the high nineties illiteracy rate of the Viet Nam people; the ally status and help Ho Chi Min was in World War II and his strong nationalism; the value of the deep water harbors of Viet Nam to our Navy in protecting the vital shipping lanes in SE Asia; and many aspects of the war that presumably (yeah) our government had considered. The flaming rhetoric wasn’t really what the discussions/lectures were about – it really was a teaching moment. The publicity – the negative publicity in particular – left me with the distinct impression that the teach in had really struck a nerve and the American people were finally having to think about the war. It was sad that the war went on for years after that. I admit to recently being angered again seeing Ken Burns reveal the lying to the American people by LBJ.


  4. Stephen Spitz - 1968

    Thanks for the full story! I had only known bits and pieces of it. I was a freshman living in South Quad at the time I attended the first teach in ever – at the University of Michigan in March of 1965. I remember the passionate and flowing interchange of information. I remember meeting students from Berkeley who had been part of the free speech moment there. It was exciting and mind blowing to say the least.

    I do not remember exactly when I bought and read Marcus Raskin and Bernard Falls book The Vietnam Reader, but it was in 1965. In 2015, there was an incredible event in Washington DC that I attended commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam antiwar movement. Jamie Raskin came to the event with his father Marcus. I had Marcus and Jamie sign my copy of the Vietnam Reader. Jamie emailed me and said he did not have a copy of the book and did not know it was dedicated to him. He asked me to send him a photo of the cover of the book and the dedication. Instead, I gave him a copy of the book and inscribed it: To Jamie, no longer the two year old this book is dedicated to …” I presented the book to him, at his request, in front of his father at a campaign fundraiser during Jamie’s first campaign for Congress.


  5. Bart Johnson - 1972

    It’s amazing that after all these decades some people still foment the false narrative that those in the antiwar movement disrespected Vietnam vets. As an active participant and organizer of later events I, along with many others, have been strong and active supporters of Vietnam vets, many of whom were effectively abandoned by their government upon return, denied medical treatment by the veterans health administration for lasting physical and emotional traumas, even now. I wonder if those shouting the loudest have taken traumatized vets into their homes and given them shelter, and physical and emotional support. I have. Have you? If not, start now and you’ll learn something about those lasting effects, and what it means to support our troops even when you may oppose the war.


  6. Kathy Modigliani - 1993

    I was there. It was transformational for thousands of students who learned more that day than any other day at the U.


  7. helga orbach - master of Ed. (year unknown)

    This is an excellent article, and as I participated in the event, I would like remind everyone that, although they are not mentioned in the article, there were many members of the faculty actively involved in the planning and carrying out of the teach-in without whose participation it could not have been as successful.


  8. James Manley - 1963, 1964

    I was struck with this. I was a philosophy student. I knew Bergman and Kaufman very well. Bergman later served on my Ph.D. defense. I knew Bob Ross who turner to SDS before leading a great academic life. But I didn’t know Tom Hayden who was just before me. It strikes me that especially with the Ukraine situation we had better be good at what we do!


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