*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
During one of the most contentious periods in American history, a singular event crystallized the resistance to the Vietnam War: members of the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed students at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. The images of terrified and heartbroken protesters crouching over the dead forever defined the era with an unmistakable sense of division within the United States. To some, it is the tipping point for a new attitude among the public towards American involvement in Southeast Asia.
In the last half of the 1960s, public discourse on the role of government became increasingly heated. With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and the Kennedy brothers — President John and Senator Robert — the counterculture movement gained steam. Fueled by liberal ideas emanating from universities and “hippie” communities driven by drugs as much as peace and love, distrust of authority exploded among the Baby Boom generation. Those born in the wake of World War II were very much in the opposite mindset to that of their parents, who served in or supported the effort to conquer the Axis Powers and generally accepted that the intentions of those in Washington, DC were sound.
With each successive year, the number of dissenting voices grew, particularly after an estimated 100,000 protesters gathered near the Lincoln Memorial in mid-October 1967 to protest the Vietnam War. American combat operations had steadily expanded, meaning the number of young men killed in a far-off land — one seen as very disconnected from the US by many college-aged students — grew from one month to the next.
As Congressional representatives mulled further conscription efforts, anti-war sentiment became more vocal. By the spring of 1968, as more candidates campaigned for the upcoming election on the promise of pulling the U.S. out of Vietnam — including Robert Kennedy — public opinion moved closer to being evenly divided. In late August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned ugly when members of the Chicago Police and Illinois National Guard clashed with demonstrators outside, leading to hundreds of arrests and wide coverage of excessive force by officers and soldiers.
President-elect Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee who backed a platform including continued action in Vietnam, would take office in January 1969. By the following fall, large demonstrations against the policy were occurring across America, including a Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam on October 15th. Though many average workers got involved in the effort — which was sometimes violent — most of the mobilization happened on university campuses.
Adherence to this anti-war ideology became more accepted in the wake of the My Lai Massacre in November 1969 — the killing of 500 Vietnamese villagers by the US Army and a botched cover-up — and the institution of a World War II-style draft lottery that December. By the end of the year, almost 7 out of every 10 students found themselves firmly in favor of peace. Outcry from all corners of the globe appeared to force Richard Nixon’s hand, but he remained defiant.
In 1970, the President opted to listen to what he termed the “great silent majority,” choosing to expand operations into neighboring Cambodia. To some observers, the Vietnam War appeared to be nearing a conclusion until Nixon took to the airwaves to announce the operation on April 30th, as well as the need to draft 150,000 new recruits into the military. Almost immediately, protests erupted at colleges all over the country — TIME magazine referred to it as “a nation-wide student strike.”
Kent State University, located in the small city of Kent in northeastern Ohio, had an estimated 500 students gathered in the Commons between classes the next day, May 1st. Before separating to attend lectures, members of the group agreed on a larger protest the following Monday, May 4, 1970. Over the weekend, tension mounted by the hour. By early Saturday morning, Mayor LeRoy Satrom declared a state of emergency after calling the entire local police force in to disperse a drunken, bottle-throwing crowd damaging businesses.
Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes, sensitive to the needs expressed by the mayor, ordered the Ohio National Guard to support those already attempting to keep peace in Kent. Rumors of an attempt to set fire to the university swept through town just hours before the campus offices of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) burst into flames. As firemen arrived on the scene, demonstrators grabbed the firehose and slashed a large hole in it. By Sunday morning, Rhodes was on the scene, expressing outrage at “the most vicious form of campus-oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups” to the media.
Sunday evening, as students assembled in the Commons as they had the night before, Guardsmen were once again forced to use tear gas to break up the crowd. With a curfew and ban on public demonstrations now in place, officials hoped the situation would calm down and those who arrived from other towns to join the protest would return home.
It was not to be. With the rally scheduled for midday, administrators from Kent State worked diligently to keep the demonstration from coming together. An effort to pass out thousands of flyers claiming cancellation could not prevent as many as 2,000 people from milling around the Commons during the late morning. Campus police and Guardsmen on the scene to break up the crowd were greeted with barrages of thrown rocks and strings of obscenities.
As the noon hour neared, 77 soldiers marched toward the crowd with rifles drawn. Over the next half-hour, the Guardsmen slowly pursued the retreating students, believing the show of force the only available option to prevent a riot. Circling back near Taylor Hall, a handful of people moved toward the soldiers and Sergeant Myron Pryor, wielding his pistol, opened fire at 12:24pm. Over the course of just 13 seconds, more than a third of the Guardsmen squeezed the trigger of their rifles, firing 67 bullets. As the smoke cleared, four were dead and 9 wounded.
News of the incident spread quickly, inciting outrage amongst the American public. On May 5th, as harrowing photos of the scene reached outlets worldwide, over 450 campuses were forced to close due to violent and non-violent protests. More than 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington, DC on May 9th, forcing Nixon to move temporarily to Camp David in Maryland. When all was said and done, more than 4 million students joined a rally in support of those killed and wounded at Kent State, with more than 900 colleges and universities shut down.
For Nixon, the incident created a perception he was out of touch with the public sentiment, particularly after he issued a statement that the events in Kent “should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.” On May 14th, two students were killed and a dozen injured by police at Jackson State University, an historically black university in Mississippi. Charles Colson, a member of the White House legal team at the time, later remembered thinking, “[t]his is a nation at war with itself.”
Questions of why the Guardsmen fired continue to this day, with many rejecting the dubious report by the Adjutant General of the Ohio National Guard of a sniper firing first. Further, those killed or wounded were, on average, more than a hundred yards away, diminishing the credibility of a claimed physical threat from the students. In the months and years that followed, the court of public opinion called the Vietnam War unjust and unnecessary. Pulling the last Americans out of the country, however, would take almost five years.
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