Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
So begins the lament by Neal Young about a dark day in American history that I touched upon last week. After reflecting upon this event I felt it deserved a full article; after all it was our Tiananmen Square.
First let me share some background on what was happening in America that lead up to the May 4th, 1970 massacre of students by National Guardsmen on the Campus of Kent State University in Ohio. We had spent more than a decade fighting a very unpopular war in Vietnam that seemed futile to the youth of our nation. As a matter of fact the dissenters had long suspected what we now know to be true, the war was not going our way and our leaders knew it. Kennedy realized early on that we needed to end our involvement there and planned to do so after the election. Unfortunately, an assassin changed the course of history and the war dragged on. His successor Lyndon Johnson stated privately as early as 1963 that we needed to end our involvement but he could never find a means to do so. The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 revealed a deep divide between young America and an older generation who felt like America had come unglued. Much of older white America was mystified by protests for civil rights and against the war. This dynamic set the stage for confrontation and over reaction. In November 1969, the My Lai Massacre by American troops of between 347 and 504 civilians in a Vietnamese village was exposed thus leading to increased public opposition in the United States to the war. The nature of the draft also changed in December 1969, with the first draft lottery since World War II. This eliminated deferments allowed in the prior draft process affecting many college students and teachers. On April 30th, 1970 Nixon announced he had expanded the war into Cambodia touching off protests on collage campuses nation wide. On May 1st, 1970 around 500 students gathered for an anti-war protest at Kent State. Later that night near midnight trouble began when angry students left a bar and began vandalizing the town. Police cars were pummeled, storefronts were smashed and a bonfire was set in the street. Mayor Leroy Satrum declared a state of emergency and appealed to Governor Jim Rhodes for help. On May 2nd, about 5 pm National Guardsmen arrived to find 1000 protestors cheering as the ROTC building burned. Protesters slashed fire hoses and threw rocks and bottles at firemen. The National Guard made numerous arrests and used tear gas in an effort to gain control, at least one student was slightly wounded with a bayonet. On May 3rd, at a press conference Governor Rhodes went ballistic, pounding his desk he said, "We've seen here at the city of Kent especially, probably the most vicious form of campus oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups. They make definite plans of burning, destroying, and throwing rocks at police, and at the National Guard and the Highway Patrol. This is when we're going to use every part of the law enforcement agency of Ohio to drive them out of Kent. We are going to eradicate the problem. We're not going to treat the symptoms. And these people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community. They're worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes", Rhodes said. "They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America. Now I want to say this. They are not going to take over [the] campus. I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America." This paranoid rant just added fuel to the flame. As planned three days prior two thousand students gathered on May 4th, on the Kent State campus. The stage was set for confrontation and miscalculation. The Ohio National Guard attempted to disperse the protesters failing time after time to do so. At some point someone made the decision to advance the Guard upon the unarmed students. At 12:24 pm it appears 29 members of the Guard opened fire on the students killing four and wounding nine others.
Who was responsible has never fully been determined with conflicting accounts from witnesses and Guardsmen. Only two of the four students killed, Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, had participated in the protest, and the other two, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder had been walking from one class to the next at the time of their deaths, Sandra was 390 feet from the Guard.