When the teach-ins protesting the Vietnam War erupted on many campuses across the country in 1965, academic administrators complained that the professors were politicizing their universities. But it was the universities that had already politicized the professors. Large increases in federal funding throughout the Cold War, including projects sponsored by the CIA and the Department of Defense, led to a politically driven reorientation of teaching and research aimed at combating the “Communist threat”—as by purging professors suspected of affiliation with it. While the physical sciences were directly involved in military research, the social sciences were largely realigned in conformity with the global geopolitics of the conflict, developing an emphasis on geographies, languages, economies, anthropologies, and histories of strategic Third World regions that had previously been marginal to their concerns. Taken together with fashionable “modernization theories” that sought to remake underdeveloped peoples in the Western image, knowledge itself was fast becoming the servant of imperial politics.
A number of social scientists became Cold Warriors themselves by entering into contracts with the US Army to provide information about politically troubled areas of Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere. “Insurgency prophylaxis” is how it was called in the documents of the notorious Project Camelot operation of 1964–65. A multimillion-dollar enterprise in anthropological espionage, primarily focused on Latin America, Project Camelot blew up when it was accidentally and prematurely exposed in Chile. The severe political and academic censure from Latin America that followed was not lost on the dissident faction of North American social scientists who were already turned off by the perverse effects of Cold War on the academy. It would soon be all too easy for them to see the connections between the research-and-destroy projects of their colleagues in Latin America with the search-and-destroy missions of the American military in Vietnam.
In February of 1965, just a few months after successfully campaigning for the presidency against Barry Goldwater on a platform that declared “peace is our first concern,” Lyndon Johnson dramatically escalated the Vietnam War by ordering a sustained bombing of the North and dispatching the first American combat troops to the South. The effect of the bait and switch in dissident university circles was redoubled opposition to American imperial policies, ultimately culminating in a campus-specific mode of political resistance.
We were fewer than 30, the faculty who called a strike against the University of Michigan in mid-March of 1965. We were going to take our classes off-campus to profess against the Vietnam War. When Governor George Romney, the university administration, and other powers-that-be came down on our heads with threats and recriminations—some of our colleagues accused us of riot-envy, suggesting we were jealous of the contemporary Free Speech Movement at Berkeley—the strike metamorphosed into the original teach-in.
While several of us were meeting one night to respond to the criticism, the idea of “teaching in” instead of “teaching out” occurred to me—if that’s even the right word for a mental process that was more social than it was individual, and more instinctive than it was creative. The “in” rather than “out” form of protest involving a contrarian takeover of the premises was already in the zeitgeist, not only because of the recent anti-segregation sit-ins in the South, but also by virtue of the enduring memory of the great “sit-down strike” at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, almost 30 years earlier. The “Occupy” tactic was not born in 2011. Nor was the frame of mind that spontaneously came up with the notion of a teach-in. Linguists tell us that that words subconsciously convey the oppositions by which they are positively defined. Virtually without deliberation, I blurted out something like, “I’ve got it. They say we’re shirking our responsibilities. Let’s teach in instead of teaching out. We’ll take over the buildings after classes and talk about Vietnam all night. A teach-in.”