The Vietnam War cost 58,000 American lives. When the US first bombed North Vietnam in 1964, 85% of the country supported this action. However, as the war dragged on and it became increasingly clear that the United States was not winning, simply fighting, the war became more and more unpopular in the eyes of the American people. There were mass protests and the one I want to focus on today is the protest at Kent State.
Richard Nixon became President in 1968 and with him came a promise to bring an end to the Vietnam War. However, the following year, the detail of the My Lai Massacre, in which US soldiers killed between 350 and 500 civilians, were exposed and in 1970, despite it looking like the war was winding down, a new invasion of Cambodia seemed to reignite the conflict. The public outcry at these events was exacerbated by the new draft laws, which meant that if you were drafted to the military, you were not allowed to defer your tour of duty. For people such as students and academics, this would be an interruption to their lives and studies.
Kent States is a public research university largely based in Kent, Ohio. On May 1st 1970, a group of 500 students congregated for a protest. The protest dispersed at around one p.m. so that people could attend class but they agreed to stage a second protest on May 4th in response to Nixon’s announcement of the Cambodia campaign. The May 1st demonstration ended with a group of history students burying a copy of the Constitution to symbolize that President Nixon had killed it. Things escalated that night when a number of drunken students began to throw bottles at police vehicles and store fronts. A state of emergency was declared and all bars were closed early, causing the crowd’s size to swell. The police finally dispersed the crowd with tear gas.
The following day, threats where sent out to city officials and local businesses while rumours began to fly about communist radicals hiding in Kent and planning to destroy the town. The mayor, who had declared the state of emergency the night before, met with city officials and a representative of the National Guard. After calling the Governor, a request for the National Guard to be sent to Kent was approved. By the time the National Guard arrived that night, a large protest was taking place on campus and the ROTC building was on fire. Police and firefighters were attacked with projectiles as they attempted to put out the burning building. As the protestors became increasingly aggressive, the National Guard resorted to tear gas and reports show that at least one student was stuck with a bayonet.
At a press conference the following day, Governor Jim Rhodes called the protestors “Un-American”. Meanwhile, students attempting to help with the clean-up effort in Kent’s Downtown were met with a mixed reaction from the townspeople and after being petitioned, the mayor imposed a curfew. At 8:45, students began a sit-in at a major intersection with the hopes of meeting with the mayor and university president. At eleven p.m. the National Guard began forcing students back to their dorms in accordance with the curfew and once again, several students were struck with bayonets.
And so, we come to May 4th. The university attempted to stop the demonstration, handing out leaflets claiming that the event had been cancelled. However, a crowd of around 2000 people assembled. As the first protestor began to speak, the National Guard began to try and disperse the crowd. The National Guard, in collaboration with the campus patrol, had attempted to stop the protest before it started earlier the morning by riding around in a jeep and reading a desist or arrest order. This failed and just after the victory bell had been rung and the protest started, the National Guard returned. At first, they attempted to use tear gas but the windy conditions made this an ineffective tactic. They fixed bayonets and began to advance, causing the students to scatter. The students regrouped in either the parking lot or atop a hill on campus while the Guards remained on an athletics field, unsure of how to proceed. Some reports claim that the guardsmen were seen aiming their rifles at the parking lot.
After taking some projectile abuse from the remaining students, the 77 members of the National Guard began to retrace their path towards the Commons, the grassy knoll where the protest had started. They followed by the students from Taylor Hill and a few from the parking lot. Eyewitness accounts claim that at 12:24, Sgt. Myron Pryor turned and began to fire at students with his pistol. He was followed by 28 of the 77 National Guard members present. They claim they fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds. No-one knows why Sgt. Pryor began to fire. The military investigation claimed that it was due to a sniper taking pot-shots at the guardsmen but this merely an allegation. What we do know is this- four students lost their lives and nine were wounded. Only two of the students killed had actually been part of the protest, the other two had simply been walking to their next class. Despite the guardsmen claiming that they fired for fear of their lives, no student wounded was closer than 70 feet and the nearest fatality was 225 feet away from the guardsmen.
After the shootings, the student population was ready for an all-out attack on the National Guard but they were talked down by faculty members, led by geology professor Glenn Frank.
The incident at Kent State amplified the cause of the anti-war advocates. Around 450 colleges across the country closed as students walked out in a mass boycott. There were more instances of violence at the hands of state National Guards. Five days after the shootings, there was a 100,000 strong protest in Washington DC against the war and the killing of unarmed students. Nixon’s reaction was seen as callous and insensitive, causing his opinion polls to drop from the lows 60s to the mid-50s. However, nothing really changed and that may be the saddest thing- the war would continue for another five years and eight of the men involved in the incident had their criminal trials dismissed. That said, for many, it did change the way that the government was seen and how state military forces are seen.
As a student with friends who are into the whole activism side of social change, I never know how to feel about events such as what happened at Kent State. A Gallup poll taken after the event had a majority of people blaming the students and yes, the actions of the students probably did raise tensions and put the guardsmen on edge but that doesn’t excuse in any way 29 men to open fire, in a position of legally recognised authority at unarmed students. In December of last year, the British police were criticised after breaking up a sit-in at Warwick University for free education. Footage from the event shows officers manhandling students and at one point, brandishing a slim, black tube at a group of students that causes them to recoil, this is claimed to have been pepper spray and a Taser is also claimed to have been brandished but not used. While it in no ways compares to the brutality of the events at Kent State; it still shows us that we need to have a proper discussion, across the world, about how we deal with protesters.