Kent State—the Tragedy that Shook the Nation

Jules Archer

Mary Ann Vecchio, mourning over the body
of Jeffrey Miller, on the campus of Kent
State University, in Kent, Ohio.
© 1970 Valley News-Dispatch

This essay may be cited as Jules Archer, “Kent State—the Tragedy that Shook the Nation,” chapter one of The Incredible Sixties: The Stormy Years that Changed America (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), pp. 1–9.  I’ve included, in Post-it note yellow, the comments I found myself writing in the margin as I read this chapter.

Page numbers appear in blue: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9


It is a beautiful spring morning in 1970.  Monday, May 4, is a day that twenty thousand students at Ohio’s Kent State University will remember in horror and sorrow for the rest of their lives.


When the 10:45 classes end, several thousand students pour out across the rolling campus.  Some six hundred gather for a peaceful demonstration against the unpopular war in Vietnam.  They protest President Noxon’s violation of his promise to end the war, instead widening it by ordering American troops to invade neighboring Cambodia, a neutral nation.


Antiwar turbulence in Kent has days before led Governor James A. Rhodes to rush the Ohio National Guard to the town, then onto the campus.  In full military regalia they now march up Blanket Hill toward the peace rally.  The students watch their advance in dismay, stunned that military force has invaded their campus.


They listen incredulously as campus police officer Harold E. Rice shouts through a bullhorn:  “Attention!  This assembly is unlawful!  This is an order—disperse immediately!”  Freedom of assembly?  First amendment?


Indignant at what they see as a denial of their First Amendment right to assemble peaceably, many students boo and shout catcalls.


At 11:55, Guard commander General Robert H. Canterbury orders his troops, “Prepare to move out and disperse this mob.”


The guardsmen lock and load their rifles with high-velocity, large caliber [2] bullets that can tear clean through a body.  Armed also with tear gas canisters, they don gas masks and fix bayonets to their rifles.


“General,” a shocked faculty member protests to Canterbury, “you must not march against the students!”


“These students are going to have to find out,” the general replies grimly, “what law and order is all about.”  Bastiat: “The law perverted!”  It’s easier for criminals to pretend that they are defending the law—when in reality they’re defying it—when they wear fancy suits and badges, and when other criminals, calling themselves politicians, claim to give them “permission.”


At noon, the troops press forward with bayonets outthrust as they fire tear gas at the students.  Gasping, choking, and weeping, the students scatter, reviling the guardsmen:  “Toy soldiers!  Murderers!  Weekend warriors!  Fascists!”


A few infuriated students express their frustration by hurling rocks and stones, but they are too far away from the troops for their missiles to have any serious effect.  It is the right of these students to defend themselves from criminals.


Many students forced to flee are not even demonstrators, but simply onlookers or passersby on their way across campus to the next class.  One is Sandra Scheuer, who earlier warned a friend not to get involved in the antiwar demonstration.  Another is Bill Schroeder, so far from being an antiwar activist that he's the outstanding sophomore in the Kent State Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).


Yet these two are fated to share the destiny of two other students who are demonstrating—beautiful Allison Krause, an honors student planning a career helping emotionally disturbed children, and Jeffrey Miller, described by his friends as “ready to help you any time you needed him.”


At 12:05 General Canterbury orders his men to continue advancing downhill against the retreating students and clear the campus.  The guardsmen pause when they reach the football practice field.  The students closest to them now are in a parking lot more than thirty yards away.  Allison Krause is among indignant students who shout angry insults at their pursuers.


The guardsmen respond by using grenade launchers to fire more tear gas.  A few students hurl some canisters back, while others fling stones.  But few missiles reach the guardsmen, who are ordered to kneel and aim their rifles at the students.  They hold their fire when a second order is given to retreat up the hill and regroup with other Guard units on campus.


Students follow them, shouting taunts.  At first the guardsmen ignore them, continuing to march back up the hill.


Suddenly the men of Troop G pause and wheel around, rifles upraised.  At 12:24 one of them, possibly an officer, fires his weapon.  This is immediately followed by a staccato sound like a series of giant firecrackers exploding.  At least ten guardsmen fire fifty-five rifle bursts, five pistol shots, and a shotgun blast at students over a hundred yards away in the parking lot.


When echoes of the fusillade fade away, thirteen bodies are sprawled on [3] the ground.  Nine students are wounded.  Four are dead—Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, Sandra Scheuer, and Jeffrey Miller.  Of the thirteen who were shot, only two have been hit frontally.  Seven have bullets in their sides and four in their backs, proving they were not advancing but fleeing.


One young guardsman is horrified by the spectacle.  Falling to the ground and tossing hysterically, he cries out, “I just shot two teenagers!”  The other guardsmen march off up the hill, leaving the dead and wounded behind.  Inhuman monsters.


“I saw the kids fall,” art major Lucia Perry, 18, subsequently relates, “and I looked out at the crowd and there were people carrying, you know, people with blood all over them down the hill, and I just couldn’t believe it.  I’ve never seen people so mad and so horrified.”


What events of the sixties had led up to the incredible murder of four American students on an American college campus by American troops?


Throughout most of the sixties, the United States had waged an undeclared war against the small Southeast Asain country of North Vietnam.  Year after year, as more and more American youths were drafted to fight, casualties mounted alarmingly.  A growing antiwar movement demanded that the conflict be brought to an end.  “The gradual shift of Vietnam sentiment from hawk to dove, first in the Senate and then more grudgingly in the House, was heavily influenced by constituent mail,” noted The New York Times correspondent Warren Weaver, Jr.


But Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and then Richard M. Nixon persisted in seeking a military victory.


On April 20, 1970, President Nixon assured the nation that he was doing everything possible to bring the war in Vietnam to a negotiated end.  But ten days later he went on TV to reveal that he had ordered American forces to invade neutral Cambodia to clean out enemy hideouts.  He had not done so during the first five years of his term, he explained, “because we did not wish to violate the territory of a neutral nation.”  This assertion was branded untrue by foreign correspondents, who revealed that Nixon had authorized no less than 3,875 secret air strikes against Cambodia during the previous fourteen months.


The president’s revelation that he was escalating the war instead of ending it sparked a rash of civil disorders greater than any the nation had ever experienced in this century.


Thirty-seven college and university presidents signed a letter to Nixon [4] demanding that he take immediate steps to end the war.  Campuses all over America erupted in huge demonstrations, some accompanied by bombings and other violence to “bring the war home” to the Nixon administration.  Many demonstrations were led by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).


Nixon reacted bitterly in a speech to civilian employees at the Pentagon.  “You see these bums, you know,” he told them, “blowing up the campuses today [who] are the luckiest people in the world, going to the greatest universities, and here they are . . . storming around this issue.”


Vice President Spiro Agnew lashed out at antiwar demonstrators as the equivalent of Nazi storm troopers or Ku Klux Klansmen, urging the public to “act accordingly” in dealing with them.


On Saturday, May 2, antimilitary fervor ran high on the Kent State campus.  That evening a crowd of some two thousand student demonstrators were exhorted to attack the campus’s empty ROTC building and set it aflame.  When local firemen arrived to quench the fire, students cut their hoses.


General Canterbury arrived in Kent with about three thousand National Guardsmen.  He was accompanied by General Sylvester Del Corso, the Guard adjutant, who ordered, “Shoot any rioter who cuts a fire hose!”  But the ROTC building burned to the ground.


Students cheered.  “I was glad it burned,” junior Rita Rubin said later.  “I’m against the war in Vietnam.  I’m against anyone getting military training on a college campus.  We’ve been trying to end ROTC for a year, and burning down the building was a reasonable answer to an administration that doesn’t listen to its students.”


But the student body was shocked when the guardsmen moved onto the campus in armored personnel carriers, army trucks, and jeeps, arrayed in full battle gear.


Twenty-three members of the faculty issued an indignant protest:  “The appearance of armed troops on the campus of Kent state University is an appalling sight.  . . .  The president of the United States commits an illegal act of war and refers to his opposition as ‘bums.’  That students and faculty and, indeed, all thinking people reject his position is not only rational but patriotic.  True, burning a building at Kent State University is no joke; we reject such tactics.  Yet the burning of an ROTC building is no accident.  [6] We deplore this violence but we feel it must be viewed in the larger context of the daily burnings of buildings and people by our government in Vietnam, Laos, and now, Cambodia.”


On Sunday, May 3, Governor Rhodes arrived in Kent by helicopter.  At a news conference broadcast to the guardsmen as well as to all Ohioans, he attacked “dissident groups and their allies.”  He vowed, “We’re going to use every weapon of the law-enforcement agencies of Ohio to drive them out of Kent.  . . .  They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”


Robert I. White, the university’s president, later suggested that the governor’s threats were politically motivated.  Polls showed him likely to lose his bid for the Republican senatorial nomination that was only “two days away from a primary that would end his political career.”  Rhodes, said White, was “desperately riding a last-minute law and order campaign train.”


At 7:10 P.M., some seven hundred students gathered on campus to protest both the war and the guardsmen’s presence on their campus.  A Guard officer ordered them to disperse.  When they refused, guardsmen hurled tear gas at them.  Reeling and choking, they fled.  Some two hundred surged into town, where they continued their defiance by sitting down in the street.  Guardsmen stabbed seven students with bayonets; two had to be hospitalized.


One was a girl who had taken no part in the demonstration.  She later testified, “I saw their faces.  There was hate; and it was coming towards me in the form of swinging rifle butts and bayonets.  They were yelling, ‘Get back, get back!’  Get back to where, I do not know.  . . .  There was nowhere to go—we were encircled by guardsmen.  There was no provocation.  . . .  I was bayoneted in the lower abdomen and in the right leg.”


The guardsmen drove the students back to the campus, pursuing them with tear gas.  The propellers of the helicopter overhead swept the fumes into dormitories.  When gasping students fled the buildings, guardsmen chased them back in.  That night fifty-one students were arrested for violating a curfew that many had not heard about.


Those were the turbulent events that had led up to the murder of four Kent state students the following day.


[7] The FBI sent agents to investigate the killings.  The guardsmen insisted that they had fired their weapons only because their lives had been endangered by demonstrating students.


General Canterbury declared that a “charging mob” had come within four or five yards of the Guard just before the shooting.  But pictures taken by news photographers at the moment the Guard fired shows that only three students were anywhere near the Guard, the closest over twenty-three yards away.  The nearest of those killed, Jeffrey Miller, had been over eighty-five yards distant from the guard when he was shot.


One guardsman admitted to a reporter from the Knight newspaper chain, “The guys have been saying that we got to get together and stick to the same story—that it was either our lives or them, a matter of survival.”


The FBI reported, “Six guardsmen, including two sergeants and Captain Srp of Troop G, stated pointedly that the lives of the two members of the Guard were not in danger and that it was not a shooting situation.  . . .  We have reason to believe that the claim by the National Guard that their lives were endangered by the students was fabricated subsequent to the events.”


Even Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had urged repressing antiwar demonstrators, stated, “It’s not premeditated, but it’s a murder and certainly can’t be condoned.”


Nevertheless, President Nixon held the students responsible.  “This should remind us all once again,” he said, “that when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.”  despite having witnessed the events on TV newscasts, sixty percent of the public condoned the shooting, according to a Newsweek poll.


A shock wave swept across the nation’s campuses.  Ten days after the Kent State deaths, two more demonstrating students were killed at Jackson State College in Mississippi by police and highway patrolmen.


Over 450 colleges and universities shut down in protest over these murders, the first sustained national strike in the history of American higher education.  Some infuriated students set fire to ROTC campus buildings, while others inflicted damage on military property at their universities.  In that turbulent year, over 7,200 students were arrested during antiwar demonstrations.


Resistance surfaced even within the Nixon administration itself.  Health, [8] Education, and Welfare (HEW) Secretary Robert Finch charged that Agnew’s fiery speeches against college students had contributed to “heating up the climate in which the Kent State students were killed.”


In a letter made public, Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel reminded the president that the British Empire had made a mistake in 1775 by refusing to listen to the violent protest of young men in its American colonies.  “The outcome is history,” he wrote.  “My point is, if we read history, it clearly shows that youth in its protest must be heard.”


“America was in anguish last week,” Max Frankel wrote in The New York Times, “her population divided, her campuses closed, her capital shaken, her government confused, her president perplexed.”


Former HEW Secretary John Gardner declared, “The nation disintegrates.  I use the phrase soberly.”


Hoping to calm the rising storm of opposition, President Nixon appointed a commission, headed by former Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, to investogate the Kent State shootings and causes of campus unrest.


The Scranton Commission found that the shootings had been “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable,” especially since the demonstration had been a “peaceful assembly” that the guardsmen had had no right to order dispersed.


The commission took a strong stand against violence, whether committed by students or agents of the law:  “Students who bomb and burn are criminals.  Police and National Guardsmen who needlessly shoot or assault students are criminals.  All who applaud these criminal acts share in the evil.”  The commission went on to deplore the tragic effects of persisting in the Vietnam War:  “The crisis on American campuses has no parallel in the history of the nation.  This crisis has roots in divisions of American society as deep as any since the Civil War . . . [and] reflects and increases a more profound crisis in the nation as a whole.”


Taking a poll of students, the commission revealed that seventy-five percent, most of them previously political moderates, now professed themselves disenchanted with the American system and felt it needed basic changes.  They blamed the Nixon administration for widening the war, sabotaging civil rights, and responding to protest only with violence against demonstrators.


[9] Despite the outrage of the dead students’ parents, an Ohio grand jury refused to indict any of the guardsmen for the Kent State murders.  Ohio’s Senator Stephen M. Young called the grand jury’s decision “a fraud and a fakery.”  Why am I not shocked that justice was not served?


How had the state of affairs in the United States of America deteriorated to the point that the nation appeared to be coming apart at the seams?  Why were millions of angry young people alienated from a baffled older generation?


The killings at Kent State were the culmination of all the dramatic events that had occurred during the decade leading up to it—the incredible sixties, the stormy years that changed America.  The state is simply the most successful criminal syndicate within a given region.

Copyright © 1986 by Jules Archer