On this date, May 4, 1070, four unarmed students were shot dead by National Guardsmen using live ammunition at (then) Kent State College, Kent, Ohio. Some of the students killed were protesting against then President Nixon’s hostile excursion from Vietnam into Cambodia. Other students who were curious bystanders and had nothing to do with the protest.
Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States in 1968, possibly on his promise to end the Vietnam War quickly. However, the war continued unabated and reports of atrocities (the My Lai Massacre in November, 1969) prompted increasing protest movements, especially among students.
At Kent State College, about 500 students protested publically on May 1, 1970. That evening, skirmishes occurred at several local bars involving property damage and frustrated Kent students, resulting in the local police force responding. Beer bottles were thrown at the police, prompting the Mayor to declare a “State of Emergency”.
Rumors abounded that there were committed terrorists on the Kent campus and lives were at risk as well as property, prompting Ohio Governor to call out a contingent of the Ohio National Guard. By May 3, the protest had escalated to over a thousand persons, not all students, throwing rocks and bottles at police and Guardsmen. Then Governor Rhodes vocally called protesters: “revolutionaries set on destroying higher education in Ohio”.
On Monday, May 4, college officials tried to ban further protest gathering, a gesture that was ignored. 2,000 people gathered on the university’s Commons chanting and singing protest songs. Soldiers from the Ohio National Guard Armored Division then attempted to disperse the students by intimidation. The protesters responded by throwing rocks. The soldiers then dispersed tear gas into the increasingly angry crowd, continuing to throw rocks and gas canisters back at the Guardsmen.
Guardsmen then “fixed bayonets”, and advanced on the crowd which split up into several groups as they retreated. Now, let me at this point step out of context and tell you what “fix bayonets” means. In a combat scenario, it means you’re out of ammunition and facing a relentlessly advancing, numerically superior enemy and you’re reduced to eye-to-eye fighting to the end, probably your end. One of the most terribly frightening things a human can face. In this situation, it means the Guardsmen intended to use bayonets at close range against unarmed students.
The Guardsmen pursued the protesters but became confused as to the landscape and ultimately became more or less sequestered in a tight area allowing some of the students to surround them continuing to throw rocks and gas canisters.
At 12:24 pm, according to witnesses, Guardsmen open fired with military issue .45 pistols an M1 Garand rifles at random students. In 13 seconds, a total of 67 rounds were fired. Four students were killed nine others seriously wounded.
Immediately after the shootings, a full-on riot nearly erupted that might well have incited well-armed Guardsmen to take more lives. Faculty members at the scene plead with all involved to stand down before that eventuality occurred. After about 20 minutes, the students left the Commons followed by the Guardsmen.
Photos of the dead at Kent State found their way into the International media and amplified the frustration against the war in general and Nixon in particular. Kent State photojournalism student John Filo captured a photo of a fourteen-year old runaway, Mary Ann Vecchio, screaming over the body of a dead student that won a Pulitzer Prize. On viewing the photo of the dead student in a newspaper, musician Neil Young purportedly wrote “(Four dead in) Ohio” on a café napkin in one sitting, performing it with Crosby, Stills, Nash &Young several weeks later.
A week after the Kent State shootings, 100,000 protesters in Washington, D.C demonstrated against the war and the killing of unarmed students. Nixon’s life was thought to be threatened and he was quickly moved to Camp David. The Urban Institute conducted a national survey concluding that the Kent State shooting was the precipitating factor for over 4 million students protesting in 900 American colleges and universities. President Nixon’s reaction to all of it was perceived as “callous and insensitive”.
A Gallup Poll taken after the shootings showed that 58 percent of respondents blamed the students, 11 percent blamed the National Guard and 31 percent expressed no opinion.
We were a country at war with itself. It was arguably the first and last time in history that a major youth uprising against a political regime occurred with such singularly and coordinated organization.
The Vietnam War did not end until five years later.