No forget, no surrender: 40 years ago today, the
peace-and-love era came to a violent end. We’re still learning the lessons.
KEITH A. GORDON
“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on
summer I hear the drumming; four dead in Ohio….”
by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Let’s be brutally honest, shall we? On Monday,
May 4, 1970 at approximately 12:24 PM, members of the Ohio Army National Guard
opened fire on protesting students at Kent State
University. With a
volley of better than 60 rounds of bone-splitting .30 caliber bullets, weekend
soldiers in an untenable situation killed four young men and women in the first
massacre to take place on an American college campus.
State killings signaled the end of the
peace-and-love decade of the 1960s and further widened the generational schism
that had already been fractured by years of anti-war protests and the Nixon
administration’s escalation of the conflict in Southeast
Asia. On the 40th anniversary of this tragic event, with the
United States embroiled in wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s not only
time to reflect on the past but time to take a cold, hard look at the future.
First, a little back
story: on April 30, 1970 President Richard Nixon announced to the nation that he had
ordered U.S. combat troops
then stationed in South Vietnam
to invade neighboring Cambodia,
a move called the “Cambodian Incursion” by the administration. The goal was to
root out People’s Army of Vietnam soldiers and National Front for the
Liberation of South Vietnam (also known as the Viet Cong) guerillas that were
using the border region to launch attacks on U.S. forces, and to disrupt their
ability to retreat to secure bases in what was then a neutral country. A
military coup had deposed the Cambodian ruler, Prince Sihanouk, and replaced
him with the pro-American General Lon Nol.
Although President Nixon had announced the
withdrawal of 150,000 American soldiers earlier in April, some in the administration
saw the Cambodian coup as a golden opportunity to destroy the Communist
presence on the border. Against the advice of Secretary of Defense Melvin
Laird, Nixon would instead be seduced by the Rasputinesque charms of Henry
Kissinger, and he worked directly with the Pentagon to plan the joint operation
troops and the Southern forces of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., kids on
college campuses across the country looked upon the Cambodian invasion with
dread. Many were already worried about being drafted to fight in Vietnam, a war that few students supported, and
the escalation of the conflict into Cambodia spread an uneasy fear
across the land. The war had even cast its long shadow on Kent,
Ohio – a small university town of fewer than
25,000 residents located near Cleveland
in the northeastern corner of the state. In response to Nixon’s announcement, some
500 students at Kent
gathered in the school’s common area around noon on Friday, May 1st to protest
the Cambodian expansion. The crowd dispersed peacefully with plans for a larger
rally on Monday.
Friday night, however, a bunch of drunken yahoos
in downtown Kent
got out of control, trashed some storefronts, and lit a bonfire on the street.
It took over an hour for the police to get the crowd – students, townies,
bikers – under control. The next day, Kent’s Mayor panicked, declared a
state of emergency in the town, and formally requested the presence of the Ohio
National Guard. By the time the soldiers arrived in town Saturday night, there
was already a major league protest under way at the University, and persons
unknown (agitators?) had set the campus ROTC building on fire. Students impeded
the fire department’s attempts at fighting the flames, and several protesters
were arrested, a few of them treated for bayonet wounds.
“Gotta get down to it,
soldiers are cutting us down; should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her and
found her dead on the ground? How can you run when you know?”
– “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Sunday morning brought
Gov. James Rhodes in the fray as he termed the student protesters
“un-American,” and said, with great hyperbole, “they’re worse than the brown
shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes.”
Rhodes went on to declare “they’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I
think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant,
revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.” This incredibly ignorant
mindset – portraying middle class college students as revolutionary militants –
would result in tragic circumstances.
Sunday night, another protest on campus was met
with tear gas and bayonets, and Kent’s
mayor declared a curfew. With everybody’s nerves on edge, the stage was set for
Monday’s conflagration. The university administration attempted to call off
Monday’s scheduled protest, going so far as to distribute thousands of flyers
on campus saying that the event had been cancelled. An estimated two thousand
students showed up at the Commons anyway and, fearing further violence, the
National Guard immediately moved in to disperse the crowd. Some students began
throwing rocks, and the soldiers laid down tear gas which, because of high
winds, would prove ineffective in deterring the protesters.
What happened at this point may forever be
debated. When the crowd refused to disperse, guardsmen fixed bayonets to their
rifles and began advancing on the protesters. Their wedge action served to
break up the crowd into separate groups of students, and the soldiers pursued
one group over a hill, ending up in an enclosed athletic training field.
Confused and, perhaps, afraid to retreat, witnesses report seeing the guardsmen
talking among themselves. A few students were throwing rocks and tossing tear
gas canisters back at the soldiers. The guardsmen went back the way they came
and, upon reaching the top of the hill, a group of them kneeled and began
firing their weapons.
Later investigation showed that 29 of the 77
soldiers fired their rifles, many of them shooting into the ground. Those that
shot in the direction of a nearby parking lot fired 67 rounds, not towards the
closest students that could conceivably be considered a threat, but at
seemingly random targets. The end result was four dead students, nine wounded,
and a lot of questions. Of the students wounded, none of them were closer to
the soldiers than 24 yards and of those killed, the closest was 88 yards away… and
none of the victims posed an immediate threat to the guardsmen. Although the
Ohio National Guard Adjutant General would later claim that a sniper had fired
upon the soldiers, no evidence of this was every found, and the President’s
Commission on Campus Unrest, blaming the tragedy on protesters and guardsmen
alike, nevertheless concluded that “the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a
crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted,
the guard were students Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, who were among those
attending the protest, and William Schroeder and Sandra Lee Scheuer, who were
on their way to class. Schroeder was actually a ROTC member. The impact of the
shootings was immediate, and would have a profound effect. Photographs of the
shootings would be published in newspapers and magazines worldwide, eroding
support for the war among U.S.
allies. Kent State photojournalism student Jeff Filo
would win a Pulitzer Prize for his photo of grieving teenage runaway Mary Ann
Vecchio kneeling over the prostrate body of Jeffrey Morgan.
immediate impact of the Kent State shootings would be the first nationwide student
strike in U.S.
history. Spread across 900 campuses, an estimated four million students
protested, and to nobody’s surprise, several hundred campuses would be closed
due to student violence. Five days after the shootings, over 100,000 demonstrators
poured into Washington, D.C.
in protest of the war and the student murders, and ten days after Kent State,
two African-American students at Jackson
in Jackson, Mississippi were killed under similar
circumstances in a case that was tragically overlooked by the media.
“Find the cost of
freedom, buried in the ground;
Mother Earth will
swallow you, lay your body down.”
– “Find the Cost of Freedom” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Artistic response to the killings would be forthcoming in the form of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song “Ohio.” Written by Neil Young about the tragedy, the song was recorded shortly after
the Kent State shootings and released a couple of
weeks later. “Ohio,”
backed by Stephen Stills’ anti-war
song “Find The Cost of Freedom,” would become a hit in spite of being banned on
many AM radio stations, hitting #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The song would later be recorded by artists as diverse
as Paul Weller, the Isley Brothers,
The Kent State
killings would have a profound effect on 1970s pop culture. Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders was a
sophomore at Kent State at the time, and was one of the campus
protesters; DEVO’s Mark Mothersbaugh and
Gerald Casale were also students at Kent State,
and Casale was standing close to Krause when she was shot. For the future
founders of DEVO, “the shootings were the transformative moment for the band,
which became less of a pure joke and more a vehicle for social critique,” said
Casale in a 2006 interview.
tragedy would also inspire a number of songs and other creative works. Steve Miller wrote “Jackson-Kent Blues”
for his 1970 album, Number 5, and
jazz legend Dave Brubeck wrote his
song “Truth Is Fallen,” dedicated to the students of Kent
State and Jackson State,
which would be released on a 1972 album. Folk singer Holly Near, Jon Anderson of Yes, the Beach Boys, Joe Walsh, Skinny Puppy,
Genesis, Jandek, and GWAR all
wrote songs about, or referencing, the Kent State
shootings. Bruce Springsteen reportedly
wrote the unreleased “Where Was Jesus In Ohio” in 1970.
event’s impact was felt far beyond the music world. Kent State
music professor Halim El-Dabh wrote Opera Flies, a full-length opera, about
the shootings, the work first performed on campus in May 1971, and again in
1995 for the 25th commemoration of the tragedy. Poet Allen Ginsberg‘s “Hadda be Playin’ on a Jukebox” references Kent State,
as do works from poets Gary Geddes,
Peter Makuck, and Yevgeny
Yevtushenko. Writer Harlan Ellison dedicated his 1971 short story collection Alone
Against Tomorrow to the Kent
State shooting victims,
and the tragedy resulted in a number of documentary films, books, and even
recent references in such contemporary films as Thank You For Smoking and Watchmen.
years after the shootings at Kent
the event is still being debated. Were the Ohio National Guard members actually
in any danger? The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, tasked by Nixon to
uncover the truth, concluded in September 1970 that the shootings were
unjustified, stating “the Kent State
tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are
issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.” Eight guardsmen would
be indicted for their role in the shootings, with charges against all eight later
dismissed for lack of evidence of wrongdoing.
Twenty-four young people would be charged with the arson of the ROTC
building and the May 4th demonstration; three non-students would be convicted,
or pled guilty to varying charges, begging the question of outside agitators.
At least one (armed) FBI informant was identified as taking part in the May 4th
demonstration, photographing students for the campus police while wearing a gas
mask. Charges against all of the students would later be dismissed.
Strangely, the long
and bloody wars the United States has fought in Afghanistan and Iraq for the better part of the decade of the 2000s have failed to result in
anywhere near the level of dissent as the Vietnam War did four decades ago.
Maybe it’s because these wars don’t have Walter Cronkite bringing us the bad
news and body count live on the nightly news. Maybe it’s because of a volunteer
army, and without the draft threatening a generation of young people, there’s
no impetus for students to march in protest. Regardless, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are having just as profound
effect on the soldiers coming home physically wounded and psychically damaged,
and for the families of those killed in these foreign lands.
True to form, however, America’s
current wars have inspired some good music, the most notable being Neil Young’s 2006 album Living with
War. Punk stalwarts Bad Religion, the
Bouncing Souls, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Pearl
Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, Tom Waits, and R.E.M., among others, have all written songs about the wars. The
most brutal and stark portrayal of the conflict in Iraq, however, comes from the
soldiers themselves. The 2006 album Live From Iraq,
credited to 4th25 (the 1st Cavalry unit stationed Baghdad) was the brainchild of producer Big
Neal Saunders. Using a crude recording studio assembled by mail order, and
recruiting talent from his fellow soldiers, Saunders’ hip-hop rhymes attack
political leaders, stay-at-home military masterminds, and self-serving
celebrities in what is the first album recorded in a war zone.
The lesson to be learned from both the many tragedies that surrounded
the war in Vietnam, and those
from Iraq and Afghanistan: as
Dylan sung, “don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.”
And don’t forget the four dead in Ohio, who died for your right to rebel.
The photo above of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling
over the body of Jeffrey Miller was taken by student John Filo. It subsequently
won a Pulitzer Prize.