Society comes off the hinges. Fear and hatred swirl out of control. Violence erupts. Outbursts of aggressive behavior attempt to regain control or to restore justice.
We live in such times. Precedent offers a chance to reflect on how things turn violently wrong and how they might have gone differently. Three new books on events of May 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio examine the killing there of four young people by Ohio National Guardsmen. Compared to today’s mathematics of slaughter, that toll is puny, and the incident seems long ago. Yet all three volumes are gripping.
Kent State holds the imagination by posing so many unanswered questions. The shootings were so profane. In a country that sends its youth to fight and die for democracy, American soldiers killed American students exercising the rights of free speech and assembly on their campus. If our leaders truly hold those rights sacred, why not display more forbearance in the face of dissent—even if by foul-mouthed longhairs throwing rocks and human waste? Why did the guardsmen fire? Did outside agitators foment the violence?
In Death and Dissent, Thomas M. Grace excavates the deep roots of protest at the Ohio university. With admirable rigor, Grace chronicles a 15-year interplay ranging over civil rights, free speech, and Vietnam that enmeshed student radicals and patriotic frat men, student and town newspapers, administration and faculty, police and military, and local, state, and national politicians.
Out-of-town radicals did come to Kent, but Grace shows protest there to have been homegrown and enduring, tinged by the perspectives of blue-collar students and their union-member parents living in nearby Cleveland.
“The growth of the antiwar movement was a complex phenomenon, and at Kent State its development owed much to Old Left connections,” he writes.
The fusillade that helped swing opinion against the Vietnam War as never before came after days of campus protests nationwide reacting to President Richard Nixon’s April 30 announcement that he had sent American forces into Cambodia, enlarging the conflict.
In downtown Kent, on May 1, rowdies smashed store windows. The next night, the campus ROTC building burned. On May 3, Ohio Governor James Rhodes, a U.S. Senate candidate in the coming week’s GOP primary who declared himself fed up with troublemakers he called “worse than brownshirts,” vowed he would “eradicate the problem” by having the National Guard drive protesters off campus.
Most students at Kent State that spring weren’t antiwar activists, but many were infuriated by the Guard’s occupation of campus—a showing “massive in men and machinery” that included helicopters and bayoneted rifles, writes Howard Means in 67 Shots, a taut account.
A rally was set for Monday, May 4. Despite the Guard’s presence, hundreds participated, with 2,000 other students passing nearby bound to and from class. Guardsmen let off tear gas, prompting some protesters to raise middle fingers, scream obscenities, hurl rocks, and throw back gas canisters. Within minutes, guardsmen opened up with M1 rifles. Their bullets killed Jeffrey Miller, 20; Allison Krause, 19; William Schroeder, 21, and Sandra Scheuer, 20. Nine other students were wounded, including Dean Kahler, 20, left paralyzed from the waist down.
Inquiries judged the shootings unwarranted. Probers rejected soldiers’ claims that rocks had imperiled them and that snipers had been shooting at them. Guardsmen, maneuveringing among hundreds of students, had orders to break up gatherings of more than two people. The men in uniform were fighting their own fear and fatigue—and anger. Some seemed to want to teach the punks a lesson.
The troops were serving a fraught municipality. Drawing on Kent State’s oral history archives, Craig Simpson and Gregory Wilson illuminate in Above the Shots the extent to which some townspeople had reached the breaking point.
Talk spread that students had cached rifles and dynamite. “We really thought kids were going to come down and burn us out,” said Kent resident Rosann Risland, then raising a toddler. “Not just the downtown. The people who owned businesses downtown really hated the students.” To many, the Guard was a godsend, bloody denouement or not. Town and state leaders failed in a fundamental democratic duty: to keep venues of dissent from becoming killing grounds.
Means, Simpson, Wilson, and Grace render comprehensible the blinkered outlooks of students, guardsmen, and townspeople. The real lapse, Means concludes, was mingling so many armed guardsmen with so many students and trying to keep the Kent State campus open.
“It didn’t require a Ph.D. in psychology to predict that prohibitions against peaceful assembly would be ignored,” he writes. “Increasingly forceful behavior on the part of the students and Guardsmen was all but certain to ensue.”
—John Reichard is a writer in Silver Spring, Maryland