Kent State: The Day the War Died

The National Guard fire tear gas to disperse the crowd of students gathered on the commons, May 4, 1970.

There are several days which have a place in my memory; personal, professional, ceremonial, and historical kinds of days to name a few.  One of the days seared into my consciousness is May 4, 1970.  On that day college students across the United States became aware that their campuses were no haven. They provided no protection from society’s violence.

BACKGROUND

The National Guard fire tear gas to disperse the crowd of students gathered on the commons, May 4, 1970.
The National Guard fire tear gas to disperse the crowd of students gathered on the commons, May 4, 1970.

A Wikipedia article giving background can be found with the search phrase “Kent State Massacre.”  What follows is a background going a little further back and more personally and socially oriented.

During the 60s, confrontations between demonstrators and armed authorities occurred on several occasions.  Human rights and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators were attacked by police dogs and shot and beaten.  Demonstrators on college campuses such as Berkeley were dragged off to jail, and demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention were beaten.

The United States had been a principle participant in a United Nations effort to thwart a North Korean effort to unite the Koreas by conquoring South Korea.  It took about four years to blunt that attack.  Then there was a skirmish in Laos.  The term “brush fire war” was coined to describe small scale wars designed to protect allies from communist insurgents or neighbors.  The justification of the need for such wars was the “domino theory.”  This stated that any country which was lost to communism would be a threat to turning its neighbors to communism.

Vietnam was a divided country like Korea, and insurgents in the south and volunteers in the north had made efforts to unite the two Vietnams.  President Kennedy had increased the number of US “advisors” there.  (It was an open secret that these “advisors” were actually in combat.)  Still the conflict intensified.  A national debate began to develop regarding what role the US should ultimately take in the worsening situation.

The debate was muddied by Vietnam’s history.  The French had that part of Indo-China as part of its colonial empire, but had recently been thrown out by a Vietnamese revolt.  The United States was recognized by all parties, including the United Nations, as the peacemaker.  But the US failed to arrange for elections in South Vietnam because they said the poisonous political climate there was not conducive to a fair election process.  Many people felt that the United States was acknowledging that the vote would be against the western powers.

vietnam famous-photoKennedy’s choices seemed clear:  abandon South Vietnam to its own devices or escalate substantially the American military contingent.  This was apparently not an easy choice for the White House, and there is some indication that Kennedy was seeking advice directly from the American people.  A couple of actions taken by the White House might seem to suggest that the US was considering not getting further involved as one option.

What action JFK would have taken is unknown.  Before he took action on this, his own life was ended by an assassin.  Lyndon Johnson became president and chose escalation, trying to tell the nation that it could have “both guns and butter.”  But as the body count rose, the war became more unpopular with Americans.  Robert McNamara was Secretary of Defense and the growing involvement of the US in Vietnam became known as “McNamara’s War.”

And the unpopularity was strongest on college campuses, where many students were on the front line of those to join the body count.  The “silent generation” of college students in the 50s had now become the activist college students of the 60s.  From activism for the Peace Corps, Free Speech, Human Rights, or even just unspoiled food in the campus cafeteria, the students of the 60s made their presence felt.

As US involvement in Vietnam increased, student protests against the war, against US government policy, and against the military increased.  The military was present on many campuses in two forms:  Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and military recruiting in the career advising office.  Campuses across the country had to contend with student demonstrations targeting these.  Some colleges overreacted, resulting in previously nonactivist students to take part.  Many colleges and universities called in local police or local military if they felt the situation was beyond their control.  Tensions between “town and gown” were heated, and getting hotter by the minute.

It was in this context that Kent State University in eastern Ohio had a contingent of the Ohio National Guard on campus.  In addition to the ongoing issues, President Nixon had announced a US “incursion” into Cambodia to “interdict” North Vietnam personnel and weapons trying to come to the south.  This increased the tensions manyfold, especially as President Nixon was seen as “cold” about understanding the depth of feeling of the protestors.  He did denounce the student protestors as “bums.”

MAY 4, 1970

kent state

The Ohio National Guard forces were arrayed on a field at Kent State University called “Blanket Hill.”  The main university buildings were at the top of the hill and a prearranged student protest was meandering down the hill toward the ONG.  The Guard apparently did retreat a few steps (although this is unclear), but had no room to retreat much further.  Some say that the advancing protestors threw pebbles at the guardsmen, but this can be neither refuted nor confirmed.

At the time when classes were changing and students were walking from building to building at the top of the hill, something happened at the bottom of the hill where the protestors and Guard were located.  Reports are vague and contradictory about what it was.  Some reports state a revolver shot came from the crowd of protestors. Some reports have no record or any such shot or adamantly deny the pistol shot exists.  One student has a tape recording made by sticking a microphone out his dorm window, but it is hard to discern shots from other noises (such as doors banging), and it is difficult to make out what people are saying.

There is no question that a volley of shots were unleashed by guardsmen.  Apparently none of these shots killed any of the protestors at the bottom of the hill (although some protestors were wounded), but four students walking between buildings at the top of the hill were killed and others wounded.  Many of these students at the top of the hill were unaware that there was a confrontation going on at the bottom of the hill which was almost the length of a football field away.  It has been suggested that the “high” shots may have been poor aiming due to adrenaline rush which can cause a shot to go higher than intended.  It is also possible that some guardsmen were aiming high on purpose, to fire over the advancing protestors as a threat and a warning.  But firing high over a crowd can put others in jeopardy.

Another problem is that it is not clear whether there was an order given to the guardsmen to fire.  The audio recording mentioned above contains a suggestion that their might have been such an order, but that is a very subjective interpretation of the audio evidence.  Yet the fact that the volley of shots was nearly simultaneous might suggest that it was not a case of a few guardsmen firing on their own.

AFTERWORD

kent state massacre

After this “incident,” (and a similar one a few days later at the primarily black college of Jackson State), the days of US involvement in Vietnam were numbered.  Many colleges and universities across the nation closed for a day or two in memorium (and to calm fears and anger).  Those that remained open frequently offered faculty and students the opportunity for a “teach-in,” (a learning experience tied to a specific current event).  Many students who weren’t protesting became concerned that they were at the mercy of a government which had left the rails.  It brought an end to an era of volatile protests and of violent retribution by authorities.

As a result of the Kent State massacre, President Nixon retreated further into his state of paranoia.  This would result in all the activities collectively known as “Watergate,” which cost him most of his next term as president.  In his last major public appearance, while being interviewed by David Frost, he still showed how deeply that paranoia had affected him.

As a result of the Kent State “massacre,” colleges and universities managed to work their way back to non-violent free expression.  They worked to ensure that all members of their communities had the opportunity to express their ideas and opinions, and to be accepted as an equal member of the community.

As a result of the Kent State “massacre,” the national culture was more open to acknowledging “pariah” opinions and began addressing the serious implications of how an enlightened society was to deal with individuals and groups that disturbed the status quo.  That is a lesson we are still trying to learn.

As a result of Kent State “massacre,” the Vietnam war was over although it would take a few years to die.  The “Cambodia incursion” never had a chance, but it failed sooner rather than later due to the “massacre.”  After that, it was simply a matter of time until President Nixon found a way out.  He eventually declared “victory,” and withdrew.

And so I call May 4, 1970, the day of the Kent State massacre, the day the war died.

kent state photo

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