Four dead in Ohio

The massacre of students at Kent State--and at Jackson State 10 days later--touched off a period of revolt in U.S. society not seen since the 1930s, writes Eric Ruder.

The Kent State shootings in May 1970The Kent State shootings in May 1970

THIRTEEN SECONDS. Sixty-seven shots. Four dead. Nine wounded.

The massacre at Kent State University just after noon on May 4, 1970, shocked the nation.

Like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two years earlier, nearly everyone alive at the time remembered what they were doing when they heard the news that college students protesting the war were shot dead in broad daylight by members of the Ohio National Guard.

A few days earlier, on April 30, President Richard Nixon had delivered a televised speech to announce the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. The news gave the antiwar movement an immediate jolt.

Nixon had been elected in 1968 because voters turned against President Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the war, and because Nixon touted a supposed "secret plan" to end the war. The backdrop to the election was the Tet Offensive in early 1968, which demonstrated to the world that the U.S. had no reasonable hope of a military victory in Vietnam. So the only question that remained--or so most people thought--was what the terms of a peace settlement would be.

For this reason, it was widely assumed that the war was winding down, and by the fall of 1969, participation in the antiwar movement appeared to have crested. By early 1970, the Nixon administration had withdrawn some 50,000 troops and announced plans for much larger withdrawals.

In secret, Nixon was expanding the war, authorizing B-52 bomber strikes in northern Laos. But the public perception of the approaching end of the war drained much of the urgency from building the antiwar movement. The invasion of Cambodia changed all that.

The Nixon administration itself had been divided on what to do. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and Nixon himself wanted to escalate the killing in order to gain more leverage at the secret peace negotiations they were conducting with the Vietnamese in Paris.

Nixon wanted a way to demonstrate the U.S. military's lethal capabilities in spite the troop withdrawals. Nixon thought "that you couldn't be completely predictable, you couldn't let the other fellow take you for granted, you had to strike out savagely from time to time, and certainly as we left, we were going to 'go out with our teeth going out last,'" recalled Marshall Green, an aide to Kissinger involved in the Paris talks. "That was one of his favorite expressions."

On the other hand, several other Nixon aides were opposed to an escalation. Four days before Nixon announced it, National Security Council (NSC) staffer William Watts refused to attend an NSC meeting, and instead gave his resignation. Kissinger's military aide Alexander Haig told Watts that he "just had an order from your Commander-in-Chief, and you can't refuse." Watts replied, "Fuck you, Al. I just have, and I've resigned."

Another administration official, Secretary of State William Rogers, warned Nixon, "If you do it, in my opinion the campuses will go up in flames."

That's precisely what happened. The day after Nixon's speech, there were "hundreds of protests and public meetings across the country," writes Tom Wells in his book The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam. "A national student strike began to take hold; within four days, strikes were in progress at over a hundred schools...Maryland students launched a 'hit-and-run' attack on their school's ROTC headquarters and skirmished with state police. At Princeton, students firebombed an armory."

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AT KENT State in northeastern Ohio, about an hour's drive from Cleveland, the wooden building that served as the campus' ROTC headquarters was burned to the ground on the evening of May 2. The Ohio governor called in the National Guard, and nearly 1,000 Guardsmen arrived in full force on May 3, armed with standard issue M-1 rifles.

The "Guardsmen occupied the campus, making it appear like a military war zone," write historians Thomas Hensley and Jerry Lewis. They continued:

The day was warm and sunny, however, and students frequently talked amicably with Guardsmen. Ohio Governor James Rhodes flew to Kent on Sunday morning, and his mood was anything but calm. At a press conference, he issued a provocative statement calling campus protestors the worst type of people in America and stating that every force of law would be used to deal with them.

Rhodes also indicated that he would seek a court order declaring a state of emergency. This was never done, but the widespread assumption among both Guard and University officials was that a state of martial law was being declared in which control of the campus resided with the Guard rather than University leaders and all rallies were banned.

Further confrontations between protestors and guardsmen occurred Sunday evening, and once again rocks, tear gas and arrests characterized a tense campus.

On Monday, May 4, students began gathering around 11 a.m. for a demonstration that had been called at the end of the antiwar protest the previous Friday. By noon, some 3,000 students had assembled in and around the Commons--across from some 100 Guardsmen, who stood watch over the charred remains of the ROTC building.

Just before noon, Ohio National Guard Gen. Robert Canterbury made the decision to order the protesters to disperse, but the bullhorn announcement went unheeded. When a police officer and some Guardsmen drove across the Commons in a jeep to tell protesters that the rally was banned, they were met with jeers and rocks. The jeep retreated, and Canterbury ordered his troops to "load and lock" their weapons.

The Guard fired tear gas into the crowd and began marching toward the students to enforce the dispersal order. The students retreated, and the Guardsmen followed. Several minutes passed, as the Guardsmen huddled to determine their next move. As they made their way back in the direction of the ROTC building, they suddenly stopped, turned and fired. Some fired into the ground or the air, and some directly at the students.

The response to the killings at Kent State among students across the U.S. was instantaneous and furious. In a matter of days, student strikes that had begun after Nixon's speech spread everywhere, shutting down more than 500 campuses, 51 for the rest of the academic year.

"Protests were held at nearly 1,350 colleges and universities during the month of May, with perhaps half the nation's students participating in them," according to Wells. "Many were moderates or conservatives protesting for the first time."

According to the May 6 Washington Post, "The overflow of emotion seemed barely containable. The nation was witnessing what amounted to a virtual general and uncoordinated strike by its college youth."

Joel Geier, a veteran of the 1960s struggles, described the period following the massacre as "the most radical moment in the U.S. since the 1930s." He recalls:

Kent State showed that they were treating us--the antiwar movement, really the mainstream of society--like they could shoot us down in the streets, like they did in the ghetto. It was a statement from them that we didn't count--that if you protested, they could use lethal force. It threw every institution in the country into a huge uproar. People felt that nothing could be done to stop these people, that democracy is meaningless.

I got a call from someone in New York City saying that they were marching with 50,000 people up 2nd Avenue, but they later found out about 100,000 people marching down 7th Avenue.

I was living in Berkeley at the time and a member of the International Socialists (IS), and we called the student strike in Berkeley, pretty much by accident, because we had the steps already reserved for a rally that day. By the time of our midday rally, we knew students had been killed, because it was 9 a.m. in Berkeley when it happened.

We decided to lead people from there and go into the main campus building to shut it down. We said, that's it, they are killing students, and we are shutting the place down.

Then we held a meeting at the Greek Theater to figure out what to do, and there were 22,000 people there. There were two motions, and we had a vote by section. The right-wing motion was from the Berkeley Students for a Democratic Society chapter. They wanted to turn the university into a "red base"--that is, to take over the university and use it as a platform to engage in various actions outside of the university through our control over it.

The IS motion was to go to the working class and call for a general strike as the only way to stop the war. We lost 12,000 to 10,000.

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TODAY, THE events of May 4, 1970, are memorialized as tragedy, an especially horrific example of the repression used by the Nixon administration in its furious attempt to crush all dissent against its war policies.

But at the time, the Nixon administration tried to blame the protesters for the lethal violence unleashed by the National Guard. As Nixon told the New York Times:

This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy. It is my hope that this tragic and unfortunate incident will strengthen the determination of all the nation's campuses, administrators, faculty and students alike to stand firmly for the right which exists in this country of peaceful dissent, and just as strong against the resort to violence as a means of such expression.

Nixon's lip service to the notion of "peaceful dissent" was routinely contradicted by Vice President Spiro Agnew, who served as the administration's attack dog against the antiwar movement.

Just six days before the Kent State massacre, at a Republican Party fundraiser in Florida, Agnew lashed out at what he called the overly "permissive" attitude of university officials and faculty toward the student protest movement, which he equated with Nazis and Klansmen, and called for a showdown.

"One modest suggestion for my friends in the academic community," said Agnew. "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. It's better to have a confrontation than a cave-in."

He singled out Yale University President Kingman Brewster and called for his termination because Brewster had said he didn't think Black revolutionaries could get a fair trial in the criminal justice system--a reference to the Yale faculty vote to strike in support of the Black Panthers, eight of whose members were facing murder and kidnapping charges in a trial in New Haven.

The Nixon administration also wasted no time in crafting various justifications and alibis for the massacre. J. Edgar Hoover, the notorious FBI director behind the government's infiltration and disruption of civil rights and antiwar protesters, told White House officials that one of the female victims was "sleeping around" and was "nothing more than a whore."

An Ohio Guard official circulated in the media the allegation that a sniper had fired on the Guard troops--an allegation for which no evidence ever surfaced. The Guard commanders also defended the killings by claiming that the troops fired in self-defense and in fear of their lives, but the evidence flatly contradicted this story.

Though the nearest of the nine wounded students was 71 feet from the troops, all the students killed were more than 265 feet away, suggesting that the troops were directing lethal force at students who posed them absolutely no immediate danger.

But the truth about sniper fire and student rioters didn't matter to the Nixon administration, the National Guard or anyone else in the establishment. In fact, 10 days later, another massacre of students was carried out--this time at the predominantly African American campus of Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss.

At Jackson State, a much smaller number of students compared to Kent State--about 75 or 100--were confronted by 75 local and state police bearing carbines, submachine guns, shotguns, service revolvers and even personal weapons. The students were protesting the war, racism on campus and in the town, and the killing of the students at Kent State.

As the cops advanced on the crowd, the students retreated, congregating in front of a dormitory. Suddenly, the police opened fire. An FBI investigation found that more than 460 bullets had been fired at the students and the dormitory.

But the massacre at Jackson State has never received the same attention as the Kent State killings. "This has everything to do with racism," explains Geier. "At Kent State, it was white students on a Midwest campus who were shot dead, but the killing of African Americans in the South was a matter of course. Countless civil rights workers had been killed by police and white racists in the land of Dixie."

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IN MAY 1970, there's no question that the potential existed for the student movement to unite with the rest of society, in particular the labor movement, in a broad action against the war. Organized labor, which Nixon had relied on as a foundation of pro-war support, was beginning to pull apart. As Wells writes:

On May 7, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers called for U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. The same day, Walter Reuther, speaking for 1,800,000 UAW members, told Nixon of the union's "deep concern and distress" over the invasion and governmental repression of dissent.

The General Executive Board of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America called the Kent State killings "a tragic product of an administration in Washington which has made escalation of war abroad and repression at home its most distinguishing characteristics."

Other union leaders also spoke out. Organized labor's support for the war was faltering. And rank-and-file workers participated in antiwar protests in unprecedented numbers.

But the Nixon administration stepped up the pressure on its remaining pro-war friends in the labor movement, and though administration officials denied it, it seems likely that they played a role in fomenting a May 8 assault by 200 construction workers wielding crowbars and wrenches on peaceful student demonstrators in Manhattan.

According to Wells:

Seventy youths were injured, some "very brutally." Two men in gray business suits were seen directing the "well-organized" attack, which came from four directions. One construction worker revealed that the workers were offered a monetary bonus by at least one contractor if they would take time off from their work to "break some heads." New York police were also in on the assault and cheered the workers on. President Nixon told New York union leaders that he found their expressions of support "very meaningful."

As weeks after May ran on, the usual summer exodus from campuses took the life out of the student strike, but activists had big expectations for the fall. As Geier recalls:

We assumed that in September, the campuses would open up with a tremendous amount of radicalism. But they were comparatively quiet. We now faced a new challenge. We had shut everything down, and the question was no longer about winning over more people on campuses--because everyone was already won over. But the war continued.

Students now realized how powerless they were, that they lacked the social weight to have a real impact. The most demoralizing meeting I ever remember was in December 1970. It was the end of the antiwar movement in any significant way. There were still twice yearly demonstrations, but they had a set-piece quality.

The relative calm on campuses meant that in September, when the President's Commission on Campus Unrest issued its report on the Kent State massacre--concluding that "the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable"--the Nixon administration had already regained the initiative.

May 1970 had touched off one of the most tumultuous periods in American history, but the necessary political organization, connected to working class people and institutions, did not exist on a large enough scale to continue driving the opposition forward.