Just as the horrific 1968 My Lai massacre is the most notorious battlefront incident of the Vietnam War, the May 4, 1970, National Guard shootings at Kent State University—killing four students and wounding nine—is the most notorious homefront incident. Within 13 seconds that day, 28 Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds into a crowd of 2,000 protesters, curious onlookers and students moving between classes.
The events precipitating the shootings began with President Richard Nixon’s April 30 announcement that South Vietnamese and U.S. forces had launched operations into eastern Cambodia targeting “privileged sanctuaries”—large portions of “officially neutral” Cambodia that 40,000 North Vietnamese troops had, in effect, occupied for years. Nonetheless, anti-war groups claimed Nixon was “expanding” the war by “invading” a neutral country, and they demanded nationwide protests.
On May 1, Kent State students protested nonviolently on campus, but later riots erupted in downtown Kent, prompting Mayor LeRoy Satrom’s request for assistance from Gov. Jim Rhodes. May 2 saw more student protests. That night a crowd, including students, burned the ROTC building and prevented Kent firefighters from extinguishing the blaze. The first National Guard contingent found the ROTC building a smoldering ruin.
By May 3, about 1,000 guardsmen with loaded weapons, fixed bayonets, tear gas, armored personnel carriers and helicopters occupied the campus. Rhodes, running for the U.S. Senate, gave a desk-pounding press conference in Kent that day denouncing student demonstrators as “worse than [Nazi] brown shirts and communist elements…the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” His hyperbole infuriated students, heightened townsfolk’s fears of more rioting and put guardsmen’s already-frayed nerves on razor’s edge.
Despite the potentially lethal situation, both sides mindlessly rushed toward confrontation: Student activists planned another protest for noon on May 4; and Maj. Gen. Sylvester T. Del Corso, the Guard’s adjutant general, vowed to use “any force that is necessary, even to the point of shooting” to fulfill Rhodes’ pledge. Students were “not going to take over [an Ohio university’s] campus,” Del Corso said. At 12:24 p.m. guardsmen, attempting to clear the campus commons of demonstrators, suddenly fired into the crowd, an event recounted in two recent books: Howard Means’ 67 Shots and Thomas M. Grace’s Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties.
Means’ superb book is the most balanced, detailed and compellingly written account. He reveals that the tragedy resulted from egregious leadership failures by all parties: mindlessly aggressive student protestors; incompetent university officials; clueless local and state politicians; and tragically inexperienced, poorly led guardsmen. All were equally culpable.
While Means’ book offers an unbiased judgment from an author-journalist, Grace’s account is undeniably personal. Grace was one of the nine wounded students. He was a committed activist and anti-war protester who became a social worker and union official.
Means’ extensively researched work stays focused on the Kent State shootings and aftermath. Grace’s book is a rambling, celebratory history of the anti-war movement, encompassing the broader landscape of labor activism and political dissent from the late-1950s through the Vietnam War. He finally focuses on the Kent State shootings in Chapter 11 (of 14 chapters).
Both authors note that the public overwhelmingly blamed the shootings on student protesters. A Gallup poll the following week revealed nearly 60 percent placed total blame on the students, while only 10 percent blamed the guardsmen (30 percent had no opinion). Means cites multiple uses of the phrase “They should have shot more of them [students]” and similar sentiments.
Both authors also claim the shootings significantly swayed U.S. public opinion against the war; but, if so, neither explains Nixon’s overwhelming defeat of avowed “peace candidate” George McGovern in the 1972 election (520 electoral votes to 17).
A Vietnam combat veteran, this reviewer praises Means for beginning his book by identifying the 24 U.S. servicemen who died in Vietnam on May 4, 1970, detailing the circumstances of each death. Grace has little room for “the troops” that his protests intended to “bring home.” But that was never the intent of a book glorifying the
anti-war movement. Grace noted that “Kent State students heralded…as a victory in Southeast Asia” the April 1975 conquest of democratic South Vietnam by North Vietnam’s repressive Communist regime. He ignores the repression, murders and horrific re-education camps that followed the Communist takeover.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s February 2017 issue.