The Kent State shootings, 50 years on: a massacre that shocked ‘a nation on the edge of chaos’

After the National Guard killed four students on their Ohio campus, Richard Nixon was told that the US's generational rifts could tear its society apart

Andrew Naughtie
Monday 04 May 2020 13:04 BST
Kent State shooting: news footage from 1970

On 30 April 1970, Richard Nixon gave a televised address explaining that despite his wish to draw down American forces from Vietnam, and despite the majority of the American people wanting the war to end, the US military was going to mount operations in Cambodia. The president explained that since the North Vietnamese were using Cambodian territory to plan and execute attacks within Vietnam, the US had no realistic choice but to destroy their presence there by military force.

“We take this action not for the purpose of expanding the war into Cambodia,” he said, “but for the purpose of ending the war in Vietnam, and winning the just peace we all desire.”

Those words did nothing to convince the US’s anti-war movement that Nixon had peaceful intentions. The announcement roused furious protests across a country already rent asunder by the politics of the Vietnam War – and just a few days later, at a demonstration on an Ohio university campus, four students would be shot dead by the National Guard.

At the time Nixon made his address, the war was at its height, and so was nationwide feeling against it. The massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians by American troops at My Lai had come to light a few months earlier, and on 15 November 1969, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee had staged what remains possibly the largest anti-war protest in American history.

By the following spring, the mood was febrile. Journalist Howard Means, author of 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, told C-Span in a recent interview that at Kent State, “all the toxic orders of the Sixties flowed together”.

“It was an age of hate, an age of mistrust, a generational divide … You had Richard Nixon’s speech on intimidation on that Thursday, in which he announced the extension of the war into Cambodia after saying he was going to bring home 150,000 troops – that was a time bomb waiting to erupt, and it did the next evening on the streets of Kent.”

The day after the president’s TV address, students held a demonstration against the war, symbolically burying a copy of the US Constitution to protest its “murder” at the hands of the Nixon administration and the military-industrial complex. That warm Friday night saw a crowd of drunk students venting their indignation in downtown Kent; at the mayor’s request, people were herded back to campus by police using tear gas.

Over the weekend, the atmosphere grew more heated. Students surrounded the campus’s ROTC building, which was set on fire; Governor Jim Rhodes, who would describe the students as “the worst type of people that we harbour in America”, called in the National Guard, who occupied the campus. Suddenly, the student protesters were being told to disperse by uniformed men armed with military weapons.

Further scuffles broke out between guardsmen and protesters on Sunday, with tear gas used again – but by Monday, the protesters were more determined than ever to hold the rally they’d planned.

As some two thousand people gathered on the campus at around noon, the guard began using tear gas and bayonets to move the crowd – and as they tried to retrace their line of march, 28 guardsmen fired on the protesters.

In just 13 seconds, they fired more than 60 shots; 13 students were injured, four of them fatally.

Speaking to CBS News shortly after the killings, one student injured at the protest described the scene:

“A few kids were throwing sticks and stones – that was only a handful, not more than ten, 15. And then the guards shot some tear gas up on the hill to disperse the crowd, and the kids picked it up and threw it back.”

“And all of a sudden I heard them shooting. And then I saw people dropping to the ground, and I fell to the ground also, because I couldn’t walk any more.”

The students shot dead were Allison Krause, Jeffrey Glenn Miller, William Knox Schroeder, and Sandra Lee Scheuer. Another, Dean R. Kahler, was permanently paralysed from the chest down.

Documented by photographers in shocking images that remain some of the most infamous of their era, the massacre sparked a nationwide student strike. Violence between authorities and police broke out on other campuses, including Mississippi’s Jackson State College, where the National Guard and local police fired more than 150 shots into a dormitory where they claimed a sniper (never proven to exist) was hiding. Two students were killed.

For his part, Richard Nixon issued a statement via his press secretary that called on all involved to take responsibility for what was happening: “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 that exists in this country to dissent and just as firmly against the resort to violence as a means of such expression.”

In the midst of the fury that greeted the massacre, he set up a panel to try and understand why such protests were persisting, and why they seemed to be getting more dangerous. The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest gave the president a stark message about what was happening not just at Kent State, but across the country, pointing to a generational rift that had the potential to tear the US apart:

“If this crisis of understanding endures, the very survival of this nation will be threatened. A nation driven to use the weapons of war upon its youth is a nation on the edge of chaos.

“A nation that has lost the allegiance of part of its youth is a nation that has lost part of its future.

“A nation whose young have become intolerant of diversity, intolerant of the rest of its citizenry and intolerant of all traditional values simply because they are traditional, has no generation worthy or capable of assuming leadership in the years to come.”

The massacre’s cultural footprint is a deep one. A month later, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released their single “Ohio”, written by Neil Young in response to the shootings (“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We’re finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio”).

The still-shocking images of the massacre’s aftermath have lodged in the collective memory, and the sight of idealistic students met with state brutality – as has happened more than once in recent years – always evokes the events of May 1970.

At the other end of the scale, the shootings have inevitably been commodified and exploited on occasion. Most infamously, apparel chain Urban Outfitters was roundly condemned for selling a “vintage” Kent State sweatshirt that featured what some took to be artificial bloodstains. The store pulled the item from its site.

Nixon’s Cambodian incursion has since become one of the most notorious episodes of the Vietnam War, and Its legality remains highly disputed. The country was bombed well into the remainder of the Nixon administration, and the US’s campaign there is now credited with spurring the rise of the Khmer Rouge – a communist guerilla movement that would later take dictatorial control of Cambodia and murder some two million people.

The students of Kent State, meanwhile, have not been forgotten. Their university hosts a museum to their memory, and even offers an undergraduate class on the events of 4 May – events that to this day remain a nadir of the Vietnam War’s consequences at home.

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