Looking back: Kent State revisted

by Joe Courter

What follows is an article from the Iguana in April 1995, Vol 9, #7 we’re publishing as part of an occasional series of “look-backs.” It was published on the 25-year anniversary of the killings at Kent State.

May 4th 1995 will mark the 25th anniversary of the 1970 killing of four students at Kent State University by soldiers of the Ohio National Guard. As someone who was a college freshman in the spring of 1970; and active in the anti-war activities that were happening at my campus in southwestern Michigan, these killings had a profound personal impact; they were students of my age doing what I would have been doing had I been there at Kent State. That United States armed and trained soldiers would shoot and kill students made me realize how much the government hated the anti-war movement, and this increased my resolve to oppose the U.S. policy which turned young men into killers, be they soldiers in Vietnam or Ohio. Or Mississippi, where only ten days after the Kent killings, two students were killed at Jackson State in a protest of both the war and the Kent State shootings.

On May 4, 1990, Gainesville held a concert honoring the memory of the students killed twenty years before, and Scott Camil, a former leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and more recently Veterans for Peace wrote for the program:

“May 4, 1990 is a day we should remember, honor and pay tribute not only to those who were killed and wounded at Kent State and Jackson State but also to all of those who have lived up to the responsibility that comes with democracy. We honor those who have put themselves on the line, trying to keep our government from committing crimes and human rights abuses all over the world.”

As time goes by, that the war in Vietnam was a mistake is admitted by more U.S. government officials. On Sunday, April 9, 1995, the headline quotes one the war’s main strategists, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, saying the “U.S. was wrong to pursue the Vietnam War.”

Unlike our current president who was anti-war then but won’t defend that position now, I’m proud and comfortable and feel history has vindicated the anti-war movement: we saw the lies, we knew the history, and we resisted the undeniably illegal and immoral Vietnam War.

The reason that Kent State and many other campuses and communities flared up in rebellion in 1970 was the April 30 announcement by then-president Richard Nixon that the United States forces in Vietnam had invaded Cambodia, thus widening a war which was supposed to be winding down. I still remember my own outrage, and hollering back at the electronic Nixon on my dorm lounge TV screen.

The tragedy of the student murders at Kent State has never been fully explained, as there were many unresolved issues which still remain cloudy even after investigations and inquiries launched by all sides, including suits by guardsmen against the students, and suits against the guard, as well as fact-finding by the University itself.

Two books, The Fourth of May, by William Gordon, and The Truth About Kent State, by Peter Davies, provide an idea on how things got so out of control that day, an idea which hasn’t gotten much attention (and probably won’t if there is coverage of the 25th anniversary).

Across the country, while opinion of the war was mixed, the long-haired student protesters were not popular with the average American, especially in conservative Ohio. May 5th was primary election day, and incumbent Republican governor James Rhodes was trailing in the polls against Robert Taft Jr. Rhetoric against student protest was pretty vehement, with California governor Ronald Reagan quoted on April 7, 1970 on how to handle campus protest, “If it takes a bloodbath, lets get it over with. No more appeasement.” Vice President Spiro Agnew put it another way:

“We must look to the university that receives our children. Is it prepared to deal with the challenge of the non-democratic left?  One modest suggestion for my friends in the academic community: the next time a mob of students, waving their non-negotiable demands, starts pitching bricks and rocks at the Student Union—just imagine they are wearing brown shirts or white sheets and act accordingly.”

So here’s Governor Rhodes, in the wind-up of a close election campaign. And here’s an outbreak of student rebellion at Kent State, beginning with a peaceful rally of 500 at noon on May 1st, then some bonfires, broken windows and looting in Kent downtown that evening.

A focus of attention on the Kent State campus was the ROTC building, an older wooden structure dating back to the 1940s which the campus had been considering for demolition. There were rumors of an attempt to burn the building on Saturday, May 2, and indeed on that evening students did try. Here’s where it gets weird. According to eyewitnesses, police just watched as student protesters attempted—but failed—to set the building on fire. No arrests were made, and when a small fire did break out and firefighters arrived, they were harassed by protesters and pulled out. Again, no arrests. Police secured the area and the students left to go downtown, returning later in the evening only to find the ROTC building engulfed in flames.

Next morning at 9:00 who’s standing there next to the ruins of the ROTC building being photographed but Governor Rhodes, who helicoptered to Kent to meet with high ranking National Guard Officials and other local, state, and federal officials.

Quoting from tapes of the press conference in the KSU files, William Gordon describes the denouncement of violence at Kent State:

“Rhodes claimed that ‘we are up against the strongest, well-trained militant revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America … They’re worse than the brown shirts and the Communist element and the night riders and the vigilantes … [They intend] to destroy higher education in Ohio.’ After Rhodes ended his speech, a reporter asked General Del Corso how long the Guard would remain in Kent. Rhodes, butting in, said, ‘Until we get rid of them [the protesting students].’ He added: ‘Ohio is not only a target. The only thing is we have done something different. Instead of prolonging a fifteen-day [demonstration] at Columbia and a twelve-day [demonstration] at Harvard and three years at Berkeley, we are going to do something about it and with them.'”

Now keep in mind this was a campus where life was pretty well going on normally. A lot of students were out of town over the weekend as usual, and Monday, the day following this inflammatory statement, was a normal class day. But the ROTC building’s burned-out hulk was enough for Rhodes to justify having called out the National Guard, who pulled into Kent just hours after the fire Saturday night.

On Monday, there was a standoff between the National Guard and unarmed students, which ended in coordinated firing by a dozen or so Guardsmen who were no doubt frustrated but not under threat.  They killed four and injured several others. On May 5th, Governor Rhodes won the primary election. A few days later, two students were killed at Jackson State in what may be thought of as a copycat crime.

No amount of investigation will bring back Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, William Schroeder or Sandy Scheuer, or ease the memories and pain of their loved ones or those wounded—or those who did the firing. But the bigger question of how things got to that stage is important, and I would ask this:

What role did agent provocateurs play in the events at Kent State? The history of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s program to disrupt dissident groups is now well known. Were they leading the rock-throwing? Did they incite the burning of the ROTC building? Did they commit the arson? Were they in the Guard unit? The fact is Governor Rhodes won his election after escalating a situation of student protest into a killing zone.

Did it all occur for the sake of political theater and political gain? If ABC News even talks about it, will they ask this question? Don’t hold your breath.

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