May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen killed four college students and
wounded nine others – one of them, Dean Kahler, is paralyzed below the
waist on the campus of Kent State University. Nobody was found
guilty of the bloodletting.
that awful day, Guardsmen fired M-1 rifles, .45 pistols and a shotgun
for 13 seconds, killing Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, ROTC student
William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer who was on her way to class, while
wounding nine others. Many Americans were outraged at the shootings
but the vast majority were not, apparently believing that a nation at
war was threatened by "radical" challenges on college campuses
and elsewhere and that a government at war was perfectly justified in
spying on its dissenting citizens and sending provocateurs to disrupt
antiwar opponents. (On May 14-15, 1970, in Jackson, MS., Phillip Gibbs,
a Jackson State junior, and James Green, a bystander and high school
student, were killed by officers called to the scene following disturbances
and student protests against the Vietnam war and continuing bias against
blacks. A dozen students were also wounded by gunfire. Again, no one
was ever convicted. (See, for example, Tim Spofford’s Lynch
Street: The May 1970 Slayings at Jackson State College Kent
State University Press).
protests in Kent erupted following Richard Nixon’s TV speech announcing
on April 30 that the US had invaded Cambodia, thus expanding a war he
had once pledged to bring to an end. The following day Nixon denigrated
antiwar students as "bums."
Kent State and in the neighboring town of Kent, there had been some
student vandalism and property damage. The college ROTC building was
set afire on May 2nd for which students were initially blamed and soon
the Ohio National Guard was dispatched to the school. On May 3rd, one
day before the shootings, Ohio Governor James Rhodes, a pro-Nixon conservative
running for the Senate, described antiwar students as "worse than
the Brownshirts and the Communist element and also the night riders
and vigilantes. They are the worst type of people that we harbor in
the years following that horrifying afternoon there have been judicial,
journalistic and historical investigations, a trial, and yearly memorials
to the dead and wounded. But for most Americans, there is only historical
amnesia. In 1975 a civil suit brought by the parents found for the defendants,
but an appellate court overturned the verdict. Still, after nine years,
the worn out plaintiffs opted to settle with Ohio for the modest sum
of $675,000 and a statement signed by Rhodes and the Guardsmen saying,
"We deeply regret those events and are profoundly saddened by the
deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others which resulted."
The families of the dead and the surviving wounded also stated their
feelings. "We have learned through a tragic event that loyalty
to our nation and its principles sometimes requires resistance to our
government and its policies a lesson many young people, including the
children of some of us, had learned earlier. That has been our struggle
– for others this struggle goes on. We will try to support them."
this day, we don’t know to what extent the Nixon White House and other
agencies may have been involved. We do know that, according to a government
memo dated October 9, 1973, "undercover federal narcotics agents
were present on the Kent State University campus on May 4, 1970."
Also, it since been widely alleged that still other agents had been
or were still on campus. Then, too, the government’s infamous COINTELPRO
program, aimed at crushing antiwar dissent, was in full bloom on May
4th. Was Kent State on its agenda? And did Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover,
neither of whom had any affection for antiwar dissenters, really want
a fair investigation?
after the murders, rumors abounded that Jeffrey Miller was found with
a gun (untrue), that a student sniper was in the area (also untrue)
and that students burned the ROTC building (never proven). Nor do we
know why the National Guard – that era’s safe harbor for men trying
to avoid Vietnam were called in and why they opened fire on unarmed
college men and women.
many began to ask questions and express doubts. Charles A. Thomas, for
one, worked in the National Archives for twelve years and between May
1-4, 1975 was assigned to its Motion Pictures Unit to study and describe
films of the shootings. He came to believe that, "none of the available
footage showing dead and wounded students following the lethal volley
had been used in assembling the compilation film shown at the public
hearings" of the Scranton presidential commission in August 1970.
" It looked very much," he concluded in Kent
State/May 4 (Kent State University Press), edited by Scott L.
Bills, "as if someone had doctored the evidence to minimize any
impression of the Guard’s brutality and to plant the spurious notion
that the soldiers had been confronted with a raging student mob."
the Guard opened fire, Glenn Frank, a conservative Kent State geology
professor, tried to convince its officers to stand down and then made
an impassioned and successful plea to students, begging them to leave,
lest they too be slaughtered. In the years following, Frank (now deceased)
sought to understand what had happened. His son, Alan (a former Kent
State student who by his own estimate was some fifty to seventy-five
feet from the Guard when they opened fire and thought they were shooting
blanks) is now at work on his father’s papers. His father, he says,
had become increasingly dubious that justice had been served.
the closest we have come to a evenhanded though still extremely tentative
verdict was that of the Presidential
Commission on Campus Unrest (the Scranton Commission, 1970) which,
while liberally casting responsibility for the heated atmosphere leading
up to May 4th, came down sharply on those who carried the weapons: "The
indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths
that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable."
the discovery of a "smoking gun," a deathbed confession, or
the release of all
state and federal documents, we may never know exactly what happened
and why. All the more reason, then, to convene an independent Truth
Commission with subpoena power to scrutinize archives opened and those
still closed and re-interview everyone still alive to try to answer
whether a government at war in Asia extended its war to a college campus.
it time that the nation learned the truth?