Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio
– “Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (June 1970)
A little over 50 years ago, on May 4, 1970, during an anti-war demonstration on campus, four college students at Kent State University were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard. The Vietnam War had been going on for several years, and while by 1970, Americans had become used to the nightly news reports of US casualties in Southeast Asia, the sight of American soldiers shooting American college students on American soil shook the nation.
Four students – Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, Sandra Scheuer, and William K. Schroeder – were killed, and nine were wounded. Miller and Krause had been participating in the demonstration, while Scheuer and Schroeder were walking to class. Three of the students – Miller, Krause, and Scheuer – were Jewish.
I was 10 years old in 1970, and I vividly recall the somber discussion in our fifth grade Current Events class on the following day. My parents were opposed to the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency, and I found it difficult to understand how United States soldiers could kill college students – their fellow citizens – simply because they were demonstrating. Reading the accounts of the survivors and watching the grainy footage online 50 years later does not make the event any more understandable.
The demonstration and the shootings were the culmination of four days of student protests in the United States after a nationwide address on Thursday, April 30, by US President Richard M. Nixon, when he informed the American public of a joint US-South Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Nixon, who had narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election and had promised that he would end the war in Vietnam, had reduced the US military presence in Southeast Asia. Opponents of the war were shocked by the announcement of the Cambodian invasion, which signalled an increase of hostilities.
On Friday, May 1, more than 500 students at Kent State University, a teacher’s college approximately 40 miles southeast of Cleveland, demonstrated against the expansion of the war into Cambodia. That night, there were disturbances in the town of Kent itself, and the mayor declared a state of emergency.
On Saturday, May 2, the mayor requested that the governor send in troops from the National Guard to maintain order. Another demonstration was held that night, and the ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) building on campus burned down. The troops arrived that night. On Sunday evening, another demonstration was held on campus, which Guardsmen dispersed with tear gas.
On Monday, May 4, a protest was scheduled for noon that day. Despite announcements from university officials banning the event, 2,000 students gathered on the Commons, located in the center of the campus. When National Guard members attempted to disperse the demonstrators, they were met with a volley of rocks thrown by the students. The tear gas they used had little effect, due to the strong winds. At 12:24, a group of Guardsmen fired at the students, shooting approximately 67 rounds of live ammunition over 13 seconds, from their M-1 rifles.
THE TRAGIC events of that May afternoon led to violent student protests throughout the United States, and the closing of hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the country. Reaction to the shootings epitomized the rift in American society surrounding the Vietnam war and about the shootings themselves. The results of a Gallup poll taken the following week, indicated that 58% of those asked blamed the students at Kent State, while only 11% held the National Guardsmen responsible, and close to 30% of those polled expressed no opinion. Four days later, in New York, on May 8, 200 construction workers attacked 1,000 high school and college students at an anti-war rally in New York, sending over 70 people to the hospital, including four policemen.
The massacre at Kent State even managed, if only for a moment, to unite the normally fractious Jewish community. Jewish organizations throughout the United States denounced the killings. In its May 11, 1970 bulletin, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that “Five national Jewish rabbinic and synagogal organizations, representing the Conservative, Orthodox and Reform branches of American Jewry, joined in a statement to denounce “the gulf that separates many of this nation’s youth from the institutions of government and its leaders.” Declaring that the nation cannot live in fear of its own youth, the presidents of the five groups asserted that “our entire society, as we know it, cannot survive in a repressive atmosphere in which non-violent dissenters are treated with disdain, contempt and worse.” They declared that “under no conceivable circumstances could the point-blank firing into a crowd of students at Kent State University be justified.”
The cover of Newsweek, then one of America’s top news weeklies, featured a photograph taken by John Filo, a Kent State photojournalism student, and part-time news photographer, of Mary Ann Vecchio crying out and kneeling over the body of the fatally wounded Jeffrey Miller. The picture went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, and became one of the iconic photos of the time. Speaking to my older brother this past week about the shootings, he mentioned the Newsweek cover, and the sense of revulsion that was felt about what had happened.
IN THE aftermath of the shootings, anti-war sentiment in the United States, and protests, both violent and non-violent, increased. Some felt that the killings at Kent State hastened the end of the Vietnam War. Others thought that it increased the resolve of Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” those Americans who supported the war, and Nixon himself, leading to his landslide reelection campaign in 1972.
Today, a half century since Kent State, the May 4 Memorial overlooks the university Commons, where the shootings took place. Built of granite, it is surrounded by 58,175 daffodils, symbolizing the number of US losses in the Vietnam War. The locations where each of the slain students fell was designated with markers and their names. There are other memorials to the event on campus, including, among others, a plaque donated by the B’nai B’rith Hillel Jewish Services Center bearing the names of the four students. In 2016, Kent State’s May 4 site was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
For the families of those who were at the Kent State Commons that day, the events were momentous, and in some cases, life-ending. College campuses were aflame, and discord was the word of the day. In June 1970, one month after the event, Richard Nixon established the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, which didn’t release its findings until September, concluding that the Ohio National Guard shootings on May 4, 1970, were unjustified. A federal judge dismissed a criminal case against eight members of the National Guard, and a civil case was settled out of court in 1979, with a financial settlement of $675,000 provided to the wounded students and families of those who had been killed.
Over the years, there has been speculation as to why the National Guardsmen shot at the students. Some said that they shot out of panic and fear. Others speculated that they were responding to a sniper who had shot at them. In 2007, an audio recording of the shootings that had been made on a reel-to-reel tape recorder at a nearby dormitory room window was analyzed, and some said that they were able to discern the commanders ordering the National Guard members to fire. This too remains in dispute.
The world of 1970 is far different than the world of today. There is less trust in leaders than there once was, and the power of social media and the Internet, neither of which existed at the time, cannot be underestimated. Political leaders are much more wary of their actions, which are scrutinized immediately in real-time, as they occur. For many, the Vietnam War has faded from memory, and the Kent State killings are a dusty footnote to history. Yet, for those who lived through those days, even for a 10-year-old fifth grader, they resonate as an important moment in American history.