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Kent State Shootings

The Kent State Shootings, also called the Kent State Massacre, occurred on May 4, 1970 on the campus of Kent State University in the city of Kent, Ohio. Members of the Ohio National Guard, called out to restore order, fired on university students protesting the American invasion of the Asian nation of Cambodia. Four students were killed and 9 were wounded. Arguably, not since the Boston Massacre, prior to the American Revolution, when British regulars fired into an unarmed crowd in Boston, Massachusetts, have Americans been witness to such official repression. During the period leading up to the attack the United States was undergoing protests over the Viet Nam War and young people were taking to the streets in defiance of the government. The protests were peaceful and marked by candlelight vigils and singing for the most part. However, at Kent State the student violence had accelerated. On the night of May 2, two days before the shootings, the university ROTC building was burned. At this the governor of Ohio called out the National Guard and they arrived with riot gear and tanks, according to Professor Walter Adams, an eyewitness to the on-campus events of the third and fourth (Adams 1990). Not only were the students unarmed, they were little threat to the armed Guard, arrayed in full military combat dress. The Guard fired not only at those protesting the war but also fired upon bystanders and students walking past the demonstration. It was noon. The Guard had no combat training and many, it was reported, did not know how to load their weapons. Individually they were little more than frightened boys, however, in a unit, armed and organized, trained to obey, they were a deadly instrument in the hand of Governor James Rhodes, who had summoned them to do his bidding. The Ohio National Gueardsmen cannot be blamed for their actions that day any more than the sabre can be blamed for the fencing wound

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The massacre galvanized the nation, and millions of students closed high schools, colleges and universities across the country in protests and walkouts. The actions of Governor James Rhodes, who came to the campus on the night of May 3 were called into question since, of course, it was his order which activated the Ohio National Guard. The nation demanded an explanation and the Nixon administration came under fire. Grand juries were demanded and they were convened but the findings pleased no one. The cry of cover-up rang out and more investigations were demanded. From the guard commanders to the governor and up to the president, officials went into survival mode. The actual events of those two days are subject to a variety of interpretations. No one in any position of authority was ever indicted and no one ever accepted the responsibility for the actions of the guard. What is known for certain is that their lives were not in danger and there was no legal basis for them to fire on unarmed American citizens exercising their right to assemble. This paper will examine the background against which this American tragedy played out. It will examine the facts of the case in an attempt to determine how the authorities came to the conclusions which they reached, and it will attempt to determine the long term effects of the shooting, and what it has come to mean to Americans. The findings of the Presidential Commission on the Kent State tragedy, which ruled that the ‘violent and criminal’ actions by students was the principal cause of the violence and that the blame for the students’ deathes lay at their doorstep were not totally correct. It it was, in fact, the over-reaction of politicians such as the Kent mayor Leroy Satrom and Ohio governor James Rhodes, coupled with student violence, which led directly to the death and the wounding of the Kent State students.

The Kent State Shootings occurred in a nation which has long prided itself on being the land of the free. America is perceived as a land of opportunity as well as a land of freedoms unique in the world.  For that reason middle America was stunned and did not know what to make of the protests which began in the halls of academia and quickly spread to the streets during the decade of the 60s, spreading over into the 1970s. Bob Dylan had rung in the decade with his wistful rhetorical, Blowin’ in the Wind, asking how many times the cannon balls had to fly before war was finally banned. Young people wanted to believe that they would see an end to war in their lifetime. Instead what they saw was the continuous escalation of a war they did not understand or believe in. They saw no danger to their home and they saw not reason to have their friends and brothers come home, as the poet Rod McKuen said, in boxes made of steel. How many times, Dylan asked, can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see? By decade’s end Buffalo Springfield was screaming, “Battle lines being drawn, nobody’s right, if everybody’s wrong.” And then, “ There’s a man with a gun over there, telling me I got to beware. It’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going round.” America heard Pete Seeger sing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy (And the Big Fool Says Push On). The naiveté of Youth, that they believed they could actually effect change. The older generation simply did not get it. Dylan, called the spokesman of his generation, told the parents, ‘your sons and your daughters are beyond your command…get out of the old road if you can’t lend a hand,” as he assured America’s youth that ‘the times, they are a’changin”. In 1969 Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda defined the youth version of the American dream in the landmark film, Easy Rider.  Dylan was right, the times were changing, and American youth bought into it as each generation tends to do, believing they can actually make a difference. They organized voter registration drives and opened free clinics. It was a time when youth believed that the world could be changed by the power of love and peace. Those high hopes, wistful dreams, and the season of love ran headlong into the realities of an uneasy government, led by a man perceived by his National Security Advisor as both paranoid and visionary (Greenberg 2003 291), willing to use force to prevent its policies from being questioned in a public forum.  It was in this climate of confrontation and vitriolic diatribes that Kent State began to witness activism on its Ohio campus. The Anti-War movement was reaching its zenith in 1969 when Nixon approved a counter attack of media blitz and speeches denouncing the movement participants, in a ploy still used today, calling them unpatriotic for daring to question American war policy. However, America was beginning to shed the rose-colored glasses and look at their government in a new light by 1970. They began to understand that they had been deceived and some of the information given them by the government was less than forthright. It had come to light that President Lyndon Johnson had not been totally honest concerning the very cause of the war, and the Gulf of Tonkin incident had not happened in the way that he had said ( 2008).

It was on November 3, 1969 that Nixon went on television to denounce the New Left as traitors, calling on the “great silent-majority” of Americans to support him (Greenberg 2003 291), Peace activist David Mixner called the speech “ugly, belligerent,” and a veiled threat to “crack down on dissent “ (Ibid).  Nixon, it was believed, was warning the New Left that his patience was not inexhaustible.  The situation remained relatively calm until April 30, 1970, when Nixon announced plans to enlarge the war, invading the apparently neutral nation of Cambodia. In a coordinated response, almost simultaneously students at five hundred universities struck the schools. After the May 4, 1970 shootings at Kent State, Nixon remarked, “This should remind us…that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy” (Ibid). He did not spell out exactly what violence the dissenters had committed. The Ohio National Guard perpetrated the only fatal violence that day. The fuse was lit. By the next weekend students were rallying across the nation. In Washington the crowds chanted, “Fuck Nixon” between speeches. Washington developed a bunker mentality. Thousands of soldiers were called out to protect the government from we the people. Middle America joined parents and educators across the nation and demanded an investigation into the attack, unparalleled in modern American history. Americans split in their perception of the attack. Joe Citizen believed that the hippies got what they had coming to them. Even citizens of the town of Kent, Ohio fled their homes, having heard that the militant unwashed hippy masses were going to counter-attack the town (Adams 1990). No one seemed to be in charge and no one wanted to assume any authority.

Students for a Democratic Society, a group considered radical even by other peace activists of the era, had been active on the Kent State campus in the weeks before the shooting but had been banned by the university for advocating and suborning violence. Though banned, they were still operating on campus, distributing posters and information. One poster they had distributed at Kent State showed a long haired student carrying a gun and bore the lyrics to a Doors song, saying, “The old get older and the young get stronger… they got the guns but we got the numbers, gonna win—yeah—we’re takin’ over.”  The university website states that, “Although suspended, many S.D.S. members continued activities on campus that may have contributed to the tragedy of May 4, 1970” ( n.d.). Immediately after the shootings the university was closed and students were sent home. University President Dr. Robert White then called for a federal commission to investigate the shooting. Ohio governor James Rhodes called for an investigation by the FBI and President Richard Nixon invited six Kent State University students to meet with him in Washington. Conspiracy buffs believe that the cover-up began immediately and reached all the way into the Nixon Administration’s Justice Department. Approximately 100 FBI agents descended on the town of Kent. It should be remembered that at this point in American history, Watergate had not occurred. Middle America was not used to seeing a president lie. They were not accustomed to anyone questioning the integrity of such American institutions as the FBI and the Department of Justice. The American Attorney General was respected. A Gallup Poll conducted for Newsweek Magazine a week after the Kent State Shootings showed that 58 % of the American public blamed the students who were killed, and only 11 % blamed the National Guardsmen who shot them down (Newsweek Poll 1970 30). Adult Americans of the 60s and 70s grew up respecting authority. They were torn between wanting their sons to come home from a bloody foreign war that was broadcast into their homes daily with their evening meal, and Nixon, their law and order president, who had sworn during his 1968 campaign that he had a secret plan to end the war. Not only had he not kept his promise of Peace with Honor, he had escalated the war and widened its boundaries. The younger generation, the ones called upon to serve in the jungles and rice paddies of a war torn Asian nation for a reasons that were only vague at best, had no illusions about their government. The body count was in the tens of thousands, with no end in sight.

The public, driven by student activists and educators, wanted someone to take the blame for Kent State. They wanted those in authority, those ultimately responsible for the senseless deaths of four young Americans on a college campus,  to step forward, to do the American thing and accept ultimate responsibility. This not only did not happen, the sound of authorities running to cover their backsides rose to a din.

Secretary Robert Finch of Health, Education and Welfare was the first Administration official to visit the campus, calling upon Dr. White. After the visit he “adds his voice to those calling for a presidential commission to study campus violence. After the meeting with White, Finch sends the following to Washington D.C.: ‘President Richard M. Nixon: Respectfully but urgently I renew plea for high level investigating commission to delve into KSU events to clarify evidence, furnish perspective and do so in a way fully credible publicly. In this I join with Congressman Stanton and Senators Mansfield and Scott ‘” ( 1970). The Ohio State Legislature rushed to enact laws to make it more difficult to legally demonstrate on college campuses. The bill was designed to take swift action against students and faculty causing disturbances on Ohio college campuses. Besides the FBI investigation there were Grand Jury proceedings and a presidential commission begun. In September 1970, The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest issued its general report, which found “the National Guard shootings “unwarranted. The report also found that the ‘violent and criminal’ actions by students contributed to the tragedy and caused them to bear responsibility for deaths and injuries of fellow students” ( ),

Though there had been demonstrations on the Kent State campus earlier than May 1, the night which began the countdown to the shootings, they were not violent. Kent State was not Berkeley. It was middle Amercan and conformist and not what could be considered a hot-bed of subversion and violence. Black students had been demanding that more African Americans be admitted the following year and the Viet Nam War was the cause of much angst. Still, on the night of May 1 the violence began not over war or race, but rather over time-honored traditions of American collegians, beer and basketball. The mayor of Kent, LeRoy Satrom, had called for a midnight curfew, which few citizens of Kent had even heard. At midnight police arrived at local bars, packed with students, some dancing and some waching the Knicks-Lakers game, and turned off power to the bars. The dancing spilled out into the streets. This began what was to become a bloody chapter in American history. A townie driving past the young people is said to have raced her car engine in what was thought to be an attempt to drive over or past the revelers. Students jumped on the roof of the car and spontaneously began a chant, ‘One, two, three, four, we don’t want your war’. Time Magazine reported that someone on a nearby balcony threw a bottle. The crowd erupted. The glass was broken out of the car and the crowd tried to overturn it. More police were summoned. Fires were ignited and rioting began. The mayor had tried to stifle dissent with ordinances which the students believed were unlawful and they responded with demonstrations. It would only take a tiny spark to cause those crowds to turn ugly. Police managed to herd the crowd of over 2,000 back to the campus with tear gas. The mood had darkened. Still, even with what had occurred, the university did not consider itself under siege. The faculty were not policians, but rather educators; they understood students and student needs far better then any elected officials. They considered the events of Friday night to be over. The black students received permission to demonstrate on campus. It seemed to be business as usual. The faculty did not think that the situation was out of hand. That evening, however, a group of militants reportedly took control the of  the 800 strong crowd and led them in a violent spree across the campus, culminating in the torching of the ROTC building, a symbol of the military presence on campus. Arriving firemen were attacked and their hoses were cut to prevent them from dousing the fire. The situation was beginning to spiral out of control, but it was still salvagable. Yet without bothering to consult the president of the university, the politician cum mayor of Kent took it upon himself to call for the National Guard.

Then came James Rhodes. The old style Ohio politico was in a hotly contested Republican primary race for the U.S. Senate. The mood of the nation was still pro-Viet Nam War and pro-Richard Nixon. His plumbers and the Watergate scandal were still on the horizon. The prevailing attitude was that the hippies were out to topple the government. Law and Order was the catch phrase used by the Repulicans in that era, much the same as their contemporary mantra of Family Values. Assuredly, if a citizen protested a just war he was not a patriot, ergo, he was against law and the ensuing order that law brings. American governors control the National Guard of their states. Rhodes wanted to appear tough on crime. He pulled a unit of the Ohio National Guard from duty at a tense Teamsters’ strike situation and brought them into the town of Kent. They were tired and sleepless. They were in full battle gear. They brought their tanks. Their M-1s and semi-automatic Colt pistols were fully loaded. The law is clear that Rhodes did not need permission from the president of Kent State University to call out the military. Unless they are federalized for a particular need they are under control of the governors of the individual states in which they serve. However, possibly had Rhodes consulted with Dr. White, and the Guard not been called out, the situation could have been resolved without loss of life. Yet instead of any attempt at negotiating with the student leaders, Rhodes summoned these weary Guardsmen to a situation in which their mission was unclear. They arrived within an hour of being called. The Guard was effective. Together with the police they restored order. Then began Rhodes’ posturing, politicizing the event. “[Governor Rhodes]  told newsmen that campus troublemakers were “worse than Brown Shirts and Communists and vigilantes — they’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America” (Time 1970). He seems to have plagiarized Vice President Agnew, who had earlier said, “Just imagine they are wearing brown shirts and white robes and act accordingly” (Caputo 2005 105). He was speaking, for the most part, of America’s sons and daughters, most of whom had done no more than exercise their right to peaceably assemble. Such was the attitude of the Nixon Administration and Rhodes was following the party line. He was quoted as saying, “I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America” (Rhodes 2005). He said this to the media, within earshot of the Guardsmen. If he truly believed what he said then he should have called for reenforcements, it has been argued. If it was simply campaign rhetoric designed to garner votes and support in a tight election, he perhaps should be charged with inciting riot, it is also argued.  Whichever is the truth, Rhodes lost the Republican primary election two days after the shootings.

One thousand students had assembled on the commons with perhaps two thousand ringing them to watch. Ironically, many of the Guardsmen at Kent State that day were young men who wanted no part of war, and had joined the Guard in an effort to keep from being drafted by the army and being sent to Viet Nam.

A fighting force must obey its commanders or it is little more than a mob. Eye witness accounts seem to agree on several points. The Guardsmen tried to retreat to a point, then lost cohesion. They appeared to be frightened and the crowd, by now a mob, was assaulting them with stones, though none of the Guardsmen had been severely injured. They finally stood their ground and faced the students from a vantage point on a hill and in one coordinated move they lowered their weapons and began to fire indiscriminately into the crowd. They killed four outright and wounded another nine, with one of those nine left paralyzed. They ignored the wounded and advanced to finish the job of clearing the common.  They did not negotiate, they did not compromise. They obeyed their orders. Eyewitnesses seem certain that it was not a random act but rather a coordinated and orderly command to fire that set them to shooting into the crowd, though the military commanders denied it. Kent State Journalism Professor Charles Brill, a veteran of Korea, who saw combat action, watched the proceedings and said later that the Guardsmen had been ordered to fire. It was not random. His statement was unequivocal, saying, “They were organized. It was not scattered. They all waited and they all pointed their rifles at the same time. It looked like a firing squad. The shooting stopped — as if on signal” (Time 1970).  This group of Guardsmen contained about 100 men from various units. They had run out of tear gas and seemed lost, according to eyewitness reports. Brigadier General Robert Canterbury, highest-ranking officer at Kent State was present, but not in uniform. He said, “I was there — but I was not in command of any unit” (ibid). He was, nonetheless, still the highest-ranking officer present and certainly had the authority to overrule any orders given by lower echelon commanders. Further, in the immediate aftermath, groups of students were willing to charge the Guardsmen. The negotiating skills of the faculty marshals, without doubt, prevented a further blood bath (Lewis & Hensley n.d.). There is ample blame to be spread but no one at the time was willing to accept any of it. To the contrary, anyone in a position of authority fled the onus of responsibility. Students who had been throwing rocks at men with guns for days or weeks with impugnity did not dream that they were in mortal danger. They assumed it was to be business as usual. They would throw rocks and the authoritites would chase them. It would prove to be a fatal error in judgment. The Presidential Commission exonerated the Guardsmen, as they likely should have. But rather than looking for responsibility among those in authority, those men who gave the orders and set the chain of events in motion, they found no one at fault.

There were three main fact finding commissions convened in the aftermath. The American people were virtually up in arms over the incident. No white students had ever been slain on campus by military personnel. These three, the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, called the Scranton Commission, The FBI investigation and the Ohio Highway Patrol investigation arrived at three different conclusions, making them all suspect. The Scranton Commission was succinct in its findings. It said in part that the killings were, “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable” (Hensley 1981  5). The FBI report differed and found that there was criminal fault and the Justice Department moved to indict up to six of the Guardsmen. The Ohio Highway Patrol report was diametrically opposed to the FBI’s findings and suggested a list of student protesters numbering into the hundreds should be indicted. None of the three suggested that the decision to bring in tanks and armed soldiers to quell a civil disturbance was not the best solution. None of the three found that the Governor might have been at fault for not exercising his options and sitting down for an open dialogue with the militant student leaders.

Finally, on October 16, 1970 the Portage County, Ohio grand jury handed down indictments against twenty-five people, most them being Kent State students. The jury also issued a report condemning the actions of the students, faculty and the administration of Kent State University for actions taken during the tragedy,  placing sole responsibility for the killings on them. The report was so incendiary that within a few months a federal district court judge ordered the report expunged on the grounds that it was prejudicial to the defendants’ rights. By September of 1971 the state’s case had broken down, and the cases against most of the defendants were dropped (ibid 6). In what was obviously a case of overreaching, the state, having backed down, unable to make its case, opened the door to the grieving families, allowing them to attack the murderers of their children in criminal and civil courts at a federal level. Criminal charges were brought against eight Ohio National Guardsmen in 1974. The charges against them were later dismissed by Federal District Court judge Frank Battisti. In 1975 the plaintiffs lost their bid for damages against the state of Ohio in Federal Civil Court and the matter seemed to be over. On appeal the plaintiffs received one more bite at the apple, and won a judgment of $675,000 against the state (ibid 7). The defendants in the case each signed a letter regretting their actions during the confrontation on May 4, 1970. James Rhodes never admitted regretting anything.

Me Generation music told boomers that the world would change to fit their needs. It told them that the world was in chaos and must be put right by them. Buffy Saint Marie sang of the universal soldier and the band, Coven, sang of the bloody morning after one tin soldier rides away. But gradually they realized that nothing came of their best efforts. No one was willing to give peace a chance. No one could imagine. They felt trapped on that “darkling plain, swept by confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night” (Arnold 1867 35-37). And as they changed tactics and become more militant their parents did not understand. They blamed drugs and rock and roll music. They expected their children’s angst in the form of Holden Caulfield but they got Johnny Rotten. In a very real way Kent State was a wakeup call to child and parent. Not everything was sunshine and lollypops. The government was capable of deception. From the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to the body counts on the evening news Americans slowly began to perceive they were being had. Kent State became a turning point. Gradually they began to see the war was wrong, and they saw just how bad a government could turn. From Agnew to the break-in at DNC, the cover-up, Daniel Ellsberg, etc. ad infinitum, they began to see that little was too bizarre to be true. Kent State allowed the scales to fall from their eyes. It had the effect of jarring the Me Generation with the realities of life. The Boomers had been tempted and they did eat.

Those who were at Kent State understood that the mistake was in ever allowing the military to come armed to a college demonstration. They began to believe that James Rhodes’ judgment was clouded by his attempt to survive politically. They understood that negotiation had not been an option and they watched Rhodes attempt to turn a tragedy to his political advantage.

It cannot be said that the world is a better place for having experienced Kent State. No one can say what would have become of those lives cut short by bullets in the Spring of 1970, or what the world may have lost. But Americans learned that it’s a dangerous world. There is nostalgia some times for what should have been. Mary Hopkin sang to the generation, wistfully saying, “Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end, we’d sing and dance forever and a day. We’d live the live we choose, we’d fight and never lose, for we were young and sure to have our way” (Hopkin 1968). Individually the Guardsmen were little more than frightened boys, in a unit, armed and organized, trained to obey, they were a deadly instrument in the hand of Governor James Rhodes, who had summoned them to do his bidding. The students did not understand the rules of engagement. In the real world there are penalties for throwing rocks at armed men. In hindsight it was a fatal mistake on their part. The honorable governor of Ohio missed his opportunity to stand up and account for his actions. By all accounts there was an order issued to fire,  but the Ohio National Guardsmen who obeyed that order cannot be blamed for their actions anymore than the sabre can be blamed for the fencing wound. The blame lies elsewhere, and there are ample amounts to go around.


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