In the late 1960s and early 1970s, student protests against the Vietnam War were fairly common, and often violent. The May 4, 1970 protest at Kent State— just one of hundreds of campus protests scheduled for that day in reaction to President Nixon’s announced military push into Cambodia—was considered relatively peaceful by historical standards. Many questions arose after the National Guard opened fire on a crowd of protesting students— the most haunting of them being: “Why did they shoot at unarmed student protesters?” And while the National Guard steadfastly claims the shooting was justified, victims are equally adamant that there was no justification present—and the known facts can support both claims.
At the time of the Kent State shootings, the war in Vietnam had been in progress for just over five years, casualties resulting in death that topped out at over 54,000 (National Archives, 2008), and tension was certainly high, especially among draft-aged males. On April 30, 1970, Nixon announced the military push into Cambodia. Most saw this as an escalation of the Vietnam War—a direct contradiction of promises Nixon made during his campaign for president.
That night, the ROTC building at Kent State University was attacked and burned in an act of vandalism (The Gazette, 1990). On May 1, 1970, there were several clashes between civilians and the Kent City police force in the downtown Kent, OH area. Exacerbating the matter were intense rumors that “radical revolutionaries were in Kent to destroy the city and the university” (Lewis, 9-21). This history of violent altercations and rumor of outside “radical” influence resulted in the National Guard being called in to assist in dispersing any future student protesters.
Students took the Guard being called in as an abridgement of their right to assemble. Subsequently, the Guard’s presence at the university turned what began as a protest against the advance into Cambodia and, ultimately, transformed it into an anti-National Guard movement (Lewis, 9-21). In a speech given by Ohio Governor James Rhodes on May 3, 1970, students and faculty of Kent State University were warned that Rhodes would seek a “State of Emergency” declaration from the court (Lewis, 9-21).
It would come out later that Governor Rhodes had never sought, nor received, the State of Emergency declaration from the courts. College and city authorities, however, were operating on the general consensus that he had, and that the Guard was now in charge. On the morning of May 4th, students began to assemble for the planned rally on the college commons.
College officials notified students that while under Guard control, the rallies would be banned. Students attending the rally refused to leave. General Canterbury of the National Guard gave the order that the gathering was to be disbursed. After several requests, and no student dispersal, the Guard moved in to physically disperse the crowd. What happens next is where details and memories get dodgy based on political affiliations.
Official reports indicated that the Guard fired because they felt threatened by the size, and anti-Guard climate, of the crowd of protesters. Strengthening that argument is the fact that a Grand Jury indicted eight of the Guardsmen in 1973, only to acquit them a year later of any wrongdoing or responsibility. Victims and their families, however, stand by their insistence that there was never any threat to the Guard.
In fact, many eye-witness accounts claim that, while there were some instances of “rock throwing,” the majority of resistance from the group of protesters was in the form of “cursing,” and neither of those actions justified the shootings that occurred. In addition, it has been noted as fact that, after mistakenly boxing themselves in on a practice field, the Guards were retreating up the hill, with considerable distance between themselves and the protesters, when 28 of them suddenly turned and fired into the crowd. Victims insist that the Guards fired on orders, but without provocation (Lewis, 9-21).
The entire demonstration and its eventual fall-out were highly politically charged. It takes very little to see the political line that’s drawn down the middle of the largely democratic student body and the largely conservative authority of the US National Guard. The political element surrounding the justification of the shootings is evident in a 1970 Gallup poll. This poll indicated that 58% of the conservative majority public felt that the protesters bore fault while only 11% felt that the National Guard shouldered the blame (The Gazette, 1990).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were two generations butting up against each other: the younger generation who were angry with the war, the loss of their friends, and the unfulfilled promises of their administration, and the older generation that witnessed, and fought in, World War II. The political climate of the late sixties and early seventies was very reminiscent of our current climate—old school ideals and morals were in direct conflict to the desired change from the younger generation, much as it is today.
Today, those 1960s – 1970s “radical revolutionaries” would be called members of the “Occupy” movement: both generations were looking for drastic change in their country’s policies. The Kent State University shootings remain a pivotal point in American History. Immediately preceding the event the country saw a sharp downturn in public approval of the Vietnam War.
The disapproval was so evident that, coupled with the large number of casualties resulting from the war, Jerry Lewis, an emeritus professor of sociology at Kent State has even gone as far as saying that there will never be another draft because of what transpired at Kent State (Weinreb, 2000). There are many different accounts of why the National Guard fired on May 4, 1970: on orders, out of fear, provoked, unprovoked.
And the end result of the protest is inarguable: 28, out of more than 70, guardsmen fired into a crowd of 3000 people—composed of 1500 student protesters, and 1500 students, visitors, and faculty members of Kent State University. Four students lost their lives, and 9 more were injured (Lewis, 9-21). So while memories and recollections of the lead-up to this confrontation may change over time, the known facts will always remain a vivid reminder of how a volatile mix of military presence, political ideals, and civil rights movements can result in a tragic loss of life.
“Kent State Remembers Shootings.” The Gazette May 5, 1990. Print. Lewis, J., and T. Hensley. “The May 4th Shootings at Kent State University: A Search for Historical Accuracy.” The Ohio Council for the Social Studies Review 34 (1998): 9-21. Print. Statistical Information about Fatal Casualties of the Vietnam War. National Archive: U.S. Department of Defense, 2008. Print. Weinreb, M., “Keeping Kent State Shootings from Fading.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 0. Apr 30 2000. OxResearch; ProQuest Central. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.