On March 17th, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon authorized the clandestine bombing of North Vietnamese supply sanctuaries located in east Cambodia. This secret operation was known only to a handful of individuals within the government by the code name, “Operation Menu”.
It is this decision that, in little over a year, would lead to the tragic events that occurred on the Kent State University campus on May 4th, 1970. 1The United States and South Vietnam had been engaged in a land war against the North Vietnamese and National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, commonly called the VC, for nearly ten years and Americans were already shouldering a heavy burden and weary of conflict. Over 45,000 Americans had already been killed 2, yet in late April of 1969, Nixon increased American forces to the highest numbers seen in the Vietnamese war effort to date.3 After a campaign that focused on “an honorable end to the war”, with slogans like, “Peace with Dignity”, Nixon entered the White House as the fifth American President to handle the Vietnam War.
4 Nixon’s exit strategy, which he called “vietnamization” was a method of fostering the independence of a strong, well led national army of South Vietnamese soldiers, allowing for the gradual withdrawal of American forces.5 This tactic is currently being implemented by the United States military in Iraq.With a soaring American body count and a government frustrated by VC “guerilla warfare” tactics, as well as poor domestic opinion of the war itself and a severely polarized public, a conflict on American soil seemed imminent, and with widespread implications. On Saturday, May 2nd, two days before the fatal shootings, Ohio National Guardsmen arrived in Kent in response to the burning of the University’s ROTC building.
A speech given by Governor James A. Rhodes at the Kent Fire House on May 3rd, 1970 provides further example of the politically unstable climate of the time. In his speech, Governor Rhodes asserts, “We’re seeing at, uh, the city of Kent, especially, probably the most vicious form of campus oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups and their allies in the state of Ohio.”6 He was addressing Kent State’s relatively short history of political activism prior to the incidents on May 4th, which was comprised mostly of walk-outs, rallies and minor skirmishes between Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panther Party and Black United Students (BUS) against the Kent State University administration.
By nightfall on May 2nd, officials determined that a curfew would go into effect, a move that would prove to antagonize a student population already harboring a growing resentment against the blatantly invasive military presence. 7The events that took place on May 4th in Kent should not have happened. Although accounts of the ensuing events vary greatly, an official FBI investigation support the scenario that no more than 200 students were congregated on the University commons area initially, protesting against Nixon’s “official” April 30th announcement that the United States would expand the war effort to Cambodia, obviously withholding information concerning the covert, year-long operation in progress.8 When the class periods changed, a large amount of students, estimated at 1000, poured into the common area, many of them not participating in the protest.
The National Guardsmen, under General Canterbury, ordered the crowd to disburse, hurling teargas canisters toward the groups of students, most of which was ineffective due to the wind. General Canterbury then ordered ninety-six guardsmen to disburse the crowd, which had already vacated the common area in several groups amid rock-throwing and obscenity shouting.9 The Guardsmen then followed a group of students to the parking lot, some kneeling to the ground and aiming their M-1 rifles at the unarmed students. General Canterbury then concluded that the crowd had been disbursed and ordered the Guardsmen to reconvene at the common ground.
The squad began walking back, then turned around as twenty eight Guardsmen opened fire for thirteen seconds on the group. A number of professors were then able to intervene and stop the shooting. Allison Krause, William Shroeder, Jeffrey Miller and Sandra Schauer were murdered by the Ohio National Guard at 12:21 p.m.
10 Nine others were wounded in one of the worst cases of police brutality in the history of campus activism. Some National Guardsmen attest that they fired upon the crowd after a sniper had taken, and missed, a shot. As the Akron Beacon Journal’s Pulitzer Prize winning investigation concluded,The four victims did nothing that justified their death. They threw no rocks nor were they politically radical.
No sniper fired at the National Guard. No investigative agency has yet found any evidence sufficient to support such a theory. The guardsmen fired without orders to do so. Some aimed deliberately at students; others fired in panic or in follow-the-leader style.
It was not necessary to kill or wound any students. The Guardsmen had several other options which they did not exercise, including firing warning shots or marching safely away. (Stone, 1970, pp104) A debate on the details of the shooting continues today, yet there are identifiable factors that contributed to the divisive, volatile atmosphere that fostered such horrific results. The days preceding May 4th had been turbulent for many colleges throughout the country as rallies were being held at major colleges also protesting Nixon’s decision to expand the war.
11 There were existing tensions between the generally liberal students of Kent University and the conservative residents of the community.12 University administrators were already aware of the possibility of a student coup de tat, as was witnessed when about three hundred anti-war protestors seized the Harvard University Administration Building in Boston, Massachusetts, ejecting eight Deans before locking themselves in.13 Kent University administrators were aware of the thin ice upon which the academic world rested. School administrators would also have been aware of the student riots at Jackson State College in Mississippi that occurred only hours before the afternoon shootings at Kent.
14Shortly after the incidents, news of the shootings at Kent, as well as the separate clashes at Jackson State, quickly spread across the country. A major effect of the shootings at Kent was a further polarization of the American population. Many citizens were outraged by the abuse of authority and the excess in force exhibited by the Guardsmen. Still a great many argue, contrarily, that what happened at Kent State University was an example of social order being upheld and defended, lauding the Guardsmen who participated and the General in charge of them.
15 It was amidst this fractured state that in May, 1970, Presidential news aide Herbert Klein announced the, “impending appointment of a high level commission to get to the bottom of the facts.”16“The Kent State Massacre” as it came to be called, had a resounding impact on many facets of American society, let alone the future of the Vietnam War itself. In a May, 1970 study published by the Urban Institute, the Kent State incident was “the single factor which triggered the only national student strike in United States history. Over four million students protested and over 900 US colleges and universities shut down during the effective strike.
”17 To many in the United States, the Kent State shootings served to “bring the Vietnam War home” and directly contributed to the swelling resentment Americans had against the war. The events cast Nixon in an unflattering light and he was all but forced to recall American military forces from Cambodian soil within two months, ending his half covert campaign of nearly a year and a half. Kent was a clarion call for congressional action, prompting the drafting and approval of the “War Powers Act” which prevented the President from ordering the invasion of a sovereign country without congressional approval.18 For the first time in the United States the voting age requirement of 21 was lowered to 18 in little over a year from the day of the shootings.
19 Ties have also been drawn between Kent State and Nixon’s eventually political demise via Watergate. The most immediate, and bittersweet result of the murders that took place was the signaling to an end of a 10 year old war that had cost America nearly 40,000 soldiers and an un-definable number of deaths related to protest brutality by the police and national guard as well as riots, especially among the minority community in the U.S.The Vietnam War catalyzed the largest resurgence of civil rights activism since the Civil War and served as a pivotal era in American politics, mainstream and counterculture.
20 A Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by a young photography student named John Filo, in which a young woman kneels over the body of a dying Jeffrey Miller, served as both a reminder and banner for the young, rebellious and disillusioned students. The picture has taken on a broad scope of symbolic meaning for many Americans who lived through the turbulent years of Vietnam. It also serves as a point of reference for new generations of student activists seeking to understand the roots of their legacy, roots that many argue stem directly from the Kent State massacres.America finally saw the end of the Vietnam War on April 30th, 1975.
Nearly fifteen years of continuous warfare had wrecked havoc upon the collective psyche of the American population. Estimates of between 58,000 and 6,000 American casualties paled, however, in comparison with the two to five million military and civilian deaths in Vietnam.21 With the final chapter of the Vietnam War written, the harshly divided American public was ready to begin a long road to recovery. The country had already witnessed the assassinations of John F.
Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, as well as the senseless violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention perpetrated by Chicago law enforcement. The Kent State shootings, in conjunction with the takeover of Saigon by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong only served to rub salt on the wounds of a generally disenchanted population. The most important ability a country can possess is the knowledge to learn from past mistakes and reproduce what was done successfully. The American public has learned that every government is capable of brutalizing its own citizens and that even peaceful social dissent is considered a great threat to social institutions and the power elite.
The public must learn from the examples of Kent, Jackson, the Chicago DNC and the Vietnam War in general. Their sacrifices, whether intentional or not, have illustrated that unity in voicing dissent can be effective in changing governmental policy, but that it will come inevitable come at a cost. The American government has yet to learn from the lessons of war and continues to implement strategies proven ineffective during the Vietnam campaign. Those who died at Kent State University on May 4th, 1970 did not die in vain because they will be remembered as critical to the turning point in necessary to end the war in Vietnam.
References 1 Gavin, Philip. “The Vietnam War.” The History Place, 1999. http://www.
historyplace.com/index.html (accessed 14 Apr 2007).2 “Statistical Information About Casualties of the Vietnam War.
” United States National Archive, Feb 2007. http://www.archives.gov/research/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.
html (accessed 13 Apr 2007).3 Gavin, Philip.4 Ibid.5 Simkin, John.
“Vietnamization.” Spartacus Educational, 2007. http://www.spartacus.
schoolnet.co.uk/VNvietnamization.htm (accessed 14 Apr 2007).
6 Rhodes, James A, Gov. Press Conference, Kent Fire House, Kent, Ohio, 3 May 1970.7 Payne, Gregory, PhD. “Chronology.
” May 4 Archive, 1997. http://may4archive.org/chronology.shtml (accessed 14 Apr 2007).
8 “The Kent State University Shooting of 1970.” BBC h2g2, 14 Sept 2004. http://www.bbc.
co.uk/dna/h2g2/A2773389 (accessed 13 Apr 2007).9 United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Kent State Shooting.
” 1975.10 Tuchman, Gary. “Kent State Shootings Remembered.” CNN.
Vietnam: Echoes of War, 4 May 2000. http://archives.cnn.com/2000/US/05/04/kent.
state.revisit/ (accessed 14 Apr 2007).11 Atwood, Paul, PhD. “Vietnam War.
” MSN Encarta Online Encyclopedia, 2007. http://encarta.msn.com/text_761552642__1/Vietnam_War.
html (accessed 14 Apr 2007).12 Lewis, Jerry M. and Thomas R. Hensley.
“The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The Search For Historical Accuracy.” Ohio Council for the Social Studies Review, Vol 34, 1998, pp 9-21.13 Rothman, Ellen K. “Harvard Students Occupy University Hall April 9, 1969.
” Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, 2007. http://www.massmoments.org/moment.
cfm?mid=108 (accessed 14 Apr 2007).14 “War and Protest – The US in Vietnam 1969-1970.” BBC h2g2, 17 Apr 2002. http://www.
bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A2773389 (accessed 13 Apr 2007).15 Payne, Gregory, PhD.
“Aftermath.” May 4 Archive, 1997. http://may4archive.org/aftermath.
shtml (accessed 14 Apr 2007).16 15 Payne, Gregory, PhD. “Appendices.” May 4 Archive, 1997.
http://may4archive.org/appendices.shtml (accessed 14 Apr 2007).17 “The Historical Impact of Kent State and the National Student Strike – May 1970.
” The Kent May 4 Center, 16 March 2006. http://www.may4.org/?q=node/8 (accessed 14 Apr 2007).
18 Garmon, Margaret A. “Legal Chronology May 5 1970 – January 4 1979.” Kent State University Spiccoli Library. http://speccoll.
library.kent.edu/4may70/legalchronology.html (accessed 14 Apr 2007).
19 Ibid.20 Atwood, Paul, PhD.21 “Statistical Information About Casualties of the Vietnam War.” United States National Archive, Feb 2007.
http://www.archives.gov/research/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html (accessed 13 Apr 2007).
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