[This is one of the essays in Murphey's book The Dispossession of the American Indian -- and Other Key Issues in American History. It was published as an article in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Summer 1993, and in the St. Croix Review. No doubt because of a computer glitch, the Endnote numbers were not included in the text. This in effect converts the Endnotes into a bibliography rather than keeping them as a way of knowing the source of specific references.]
KENT STATE, MAY 1-5, 1970
To visualize the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States adequately, it is necessary to charge their image with a sense of violent action, much as a Francis Ford Coppola or a George Lucas supercharges a movie with a pounding, gripping reality. The spring of 1970 was the highest point in a crescendo of anti-American militancy; of "hippies" opting-out and lying around without shirts or shoes in the hallways of universities; of marches and obscene chants and Dadaistic mockery; of rock-throwing confrontations with police and guardsmen, who were always blamed, at the time and afterwards, as "pigs" and as the true instigators. All of this was accompanied by a spineless apologizing on the part of millions of people who in their "sophistication" did not want to be "judgmental," and by the silence of a majority of loyal Americans who could find no means to make their feelings known. It was a time when insanity crackled in the air and treason was met with equivocation.
The first "Earth Day" was observed on April 22, 1970, just a few days before the events that we will be tracing at Kent State. It is important to remember that that first Earth Day was not a celebration of a constructive concern for the environment. It marked, instead, a wildly exaggerated form of the "ecology movement" that cast everything in the rhetoric of apocalypse and revolution. Televised marchers carried coffins symbolizing the impending destruction of human life. Books warned that we had just a short time to live unless we radically overturned the technology of the industrialized world. Others warned that "fascism" was about to take over the United States and that environmental degradation was the result of "the worms of capitalism."
During the four days from October 8 through 11 the preceding fall, the SDS riot called "the Days of Rage" ravaged Chicago. It will be worth noting that of the 284 rioters who are arrested, nine -- more than from any other university -- were from Kent State. (Not only does this cast some light on the Kent State situation; it illustrates the militants' mobility, since Kent State is in Ohio, a considerable distance from Chicago. It tells us, too, how lacking in real spontaneity the riots were.)
What happened at Kent State
Aftermath of the Cambodian incursion
On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced that American troops were going into Cambodia, across the border from South Vietnam, to clean out the sanctuaries from which Communist forces had long conducted the war. During the days that followed, the anti-Vietnam War movement rose up in furious opposition. There were riots at more than twenty American universities, and serious disruption on 760 campuses. Several hundred universities closed down, canceling the remainder of the spring semester. The National Guard was called out in Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Kentucky, and Ohio.
It was in this setting that five days of violence racked Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. On the fourth day, national guardsmen briefly opened fire, killing four and wounding nine. These events have since been known as "Kent State," just as one speaks of "Shiloh" or "Verdun."
A background of revolutionary activism
"Kent State" can hardly be understood without appreciating the extent of the revolutionary activism that had been building a foundation of violence before that weekend. Here, somewhat at random, are some of the facts about that activism:
1. The late 1960s and early 1970s were marked by a worldwide Marxist-inspired "student revolt." It is a mistake to think that internal American opposition to the Vietnam War was the prime factor. In his book about Kent State, James Michener wrote that "the source of the agitation lies elsewhere...Proof of this can be found by looking at Japan, France, and Venezuela. In Japan there was no foreign war and...no draft...The military-industrial complex does not exist...[But] the students of Japan are the most fierce of all young radicals, their assaults on society the most determined." He wrote of "the surging disturbances in France, which came close to causing the downfall of De Gaulle," and said that "in Venezuela, students had none of the American causes, none of the Japanese and none of the French, yet their protests were perhaps the most violent of all." He asked, then, "what fundamental reasons have caused this worldwide revolt?" and answered that "it is Marxist-based...Mao Tse-Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara...."
2. In 1962, the American radical group "Students for a Democratic Society" (SDS) met at an old CIO summer camp at Port Huron, Michigan, and adopted the "Port Huron Statement" written by Tom Hayden (later the husband of Jane Fonda). This statement summed up a leftist critique of American society, and served as the manifesto for the decade of activism that followed. It is worth noting that the Port Huron meeting repudiated the policy that many American "liberals" had adopted in 1947 of refusing to collaborate with Communists; instead, Communists were now welcome, and SDS became the focus for leftist radicals of all persuasions. This led to SDS's splitting up into a number of sectarian factions in 1969.
3. During the years that followed, many of the militants traveled to Cuba both for inspiration and to discuss revolutionary methods with Communists from Cuba and North Vietnam.
4. An undercurrent of radicalism had existed in Ohio going back to the labor agitation of the 1880s, and in 1965 this led radical leaders to select Ohio for special emphasis.
5. One of the leading radicals was Bernardine Dohrn, elected interorganizational secretary of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] in 1968. Later that year, she met with leaders of Vietnam's National Liberation Front (the "Vietcong") in Budapest. She returned to the United States to speak on college campuses, calling for closing down the universities. "A few well-placed bombs," she said, "could stop a lot of the institutions from functioning in this country." She took pleasure in the Manson murders in California: "Dig it, first they killed the pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim's stomach! Wild!" Dohrn made several visits to Kent State prior to the fateful weekend. She afterwards joined the "Weatherman" faction, disappeared into the underground, and was a leader in their program of terrorist dynamiting. Eventually she fled to Algeria.
6. The SDS had a system of "regional travelers" who moved from place to place, tying together the many strands of militant activism. One of those who visited the Kent SDS was Mark Rudd, who had led the violent shutdown of Columbia University.
7. By 1968 SDS became a significant force at Kent State. The Chicago and Cleveland offices sent organizers, and speakers were invited to keep the militants apprised of events in the French student strike. When Senator Hubert Humphrey spoke on campus, he was met with an organized walk-out.
8. National SDS conducted a "Spring Offensive" in April 1969. As part of this, SDS leaders at Kent State presented a set of demands to the University Trustees to abolish the Reserve Army Training Corps (ROTC) and to close down all war-related research. This led to a confrontation with the Trustees who were meeting in the Music and Speech Building; 58 arrests were made. SDS's campus charter was revoked.
9. The Weatherman faction of SDS established five communes in Ohio. One militant later described these to James Michener's interviewers as being "to teach severe discipline...The object was to produce revolutionaries programmed to obey orders...You surrendered all personal money, idiosyncracies and will power, assured that you would come out of the experience with total dedication." This commitment was reflected in the demand to "smash monogamy" within the movement, so that there would be no personal ties to serve as a restraining influence. (The effect, however, was to split the communes; but those who stayed emerged as more committed revolutionaries.)
10. By the spring of 1970, six or seven communes existed in Kent, Ohio. One of them was on Ash Street, where inhabitants lived off allowances from home. The seventeen members traveled constantly; Michener points out that they would leave Kent "on a few minutes' notice to speak at Harvard, or Wisconsin, or Michigan, or California." He adds that they attended conferences in Havana and Budapest, and that "some of them know Europe as well as they know Ohio." Another commune, in what had been called "the Haunted House," had been the SDS headquarters for northern Ohio, including Kent State.
11. The connection of the militants to the University as "students" was often contrived. Michener tells how one SDS activist enrolled for a single one-day-a-week course at Kent State so that he could "qualify for full student rights" and "move around campus as he wishes."
12. There had long been a flow of militant activity. In April 1968 Mark Rudd spoke to a campus SDS rally with a crowd of 1,000. That same year, arsonists burned down Kent State's West Hall. The black militants' campus newspaper ran an article calling for, "if need be, [the] killing of all racist deans, teachers, professors, coaches or university presidents"; and there were constant publications calling for the killing of policemen.
In February 1969 a revolutionary film festival was held at Kent State, and an SDS leader threatened to burn down the entire campus. In April 1969 another of its leaders charged through classrooms shouting slogans and waving a Vietcong flag. A large regional meeting of the Ohio and Michigan SDS leadership was held at the Kent Holiday Inn, accompanied by threats to "close the university down." Michener's book includes a photo of a May 16, 1969, "protest meeting" at which a Vietcong flag was held in a place of honor next to the speaker. The president of the Young Socialist Alliance ran everywhere spray-painting radical slogans: "Free Bobby. Free Huey. ROTC Off Campus. Off the Pigs. F**k the Pigs." On April 10, 1970, just three weeks before the "Kent State" weekend, Yippie leader Jerry Rubin urged a crowd of 2,000 gathered on the Kent State commons to "kill your parents." On April 16 a Kent State professor and five KSU students were arrested in Cleveland after assaulting police officers at the AT&T stockholders' meeting. On the final weekend in April vomit was splattered over the entrance to the bank in Kent, and the next day the words "End Imperelism" (sic) were painted across the front of the bank. It was on that weekend that the Kent Fire Chief received intelligence that militants intended to burn down the Kent State ROTC building.
Friday, May 1, 1970
In the early morning of May 1, spray-painted slogans appeared all over town. An organization called WHORE ("World Historians Opposed to Racism and Exploitation") sponsored a rally on the Kent State commons at noon, attended by approximately 500, "to bury the Constitution." At that rally, a radical professor who called himself a "libertarian communist" called for "street action downtown tonight." At 3 p.m., the Black United Students held a meeting at which a delegation of blacks from Ohio State University in Columbus told about the riots that had just shut down that university. About 400 were in attendance at this rally, and black militants stood behind the podium dressed in paramilitary uniforms, wearing black berets. (The literature about Kent State says that the blacks stayed out of the violence during this and the next four days.
Michener says "Field Marshal Perry kept his troops under control.")
Early Friday evening, additional people arrived from Ohio State University with reports that "it was going through hell." Shortly after eleven that evening, a riot was started on "the Strip" along North Water Street in Kent. Men wearing red armbands (identified by one author as members of a motorcycle gang) gathered trash in the middle of the street and set it on fire. When police responded, "the riot was on," with bottles, cans, beer mugs and glasses smashing against the police cars and knocking out the back window of a passing car. The mob began rocking the car of an elderly couple who were driving through. Trash cans were emptied into the street and set on fire. Some rioters armed themselves with Molotov cocktails. A Vietcong flag appeared. (As I describe these things, it is always worth asking how it happened that such implements as flags, Molotov cocktails, knives, machetes, icepicks, rocks, chunks of wood with nails protruding through them, and large pieces of concrete were so readily available.) A nearby toolshed was set on fire, and a policeman later testified that "the whole street was on fire."
Then the mob moved out of the bar district and toward the center of town, throwing bottles through store windows and chanting obscene chants. Windows were kicked in or smashed with a board. At the bank, five large windows were smashed. A second small wooden building was set on fire. Policemen were "under a heavy barrage of rocks." A cue ball hit one policeman on the head, sending blood oozing from under his helmet; another was hit on the head by a brick.
On the campus, university police responded to fire and bomb scares, and early on Saturday morning a brick was thrown through a window of the campus ROTC building. About 1,000 people were involved in the riot, which surged to the campus about 1 a.m. A militant with a bullhorn shouted "The revolution has begun! Join us! We're going to burn ROTC!" But the crowd dispersed and the ROTC building gained a reprieve for one more day.
Saturday, May 2
Tensions remained high all day Saturday, exacerbated by bomb threats, false fire alarms, and rumors of impending violence. A crowd began to gather around the Victory Bell on the Kent State commons as evening fell. A speaker stood on the bell-housing urging students to come out of the dorms. Members of the crowd warned newspapermen who were present that they would be killed if they took pictures. Next, the mob's leaders led it to the dormitories to roust out more students, and then back to the commons. As the mob arrived, now 2,000 strong, its members (often euphemistically called "students" or "young men" in the equivocal literature about Kent State) began to throw large rocks at the ROTC building. An empty gasoline can was used as a battering ram to try unsuccessfully to smash in the door; and two railroad flares were thrown at the building, but without catching it on fire. The campus police waited impotently, cloistered in a building 200 yards away. The crowd cheered as an American flag was burned. When someone in the crowd tried to photograph it, he was mobbed with shouts of "kill the bastard," was kicked by a dozen or more people, and was allowed to escape only after the film was taken out and exposed. Matches were applied to draperies, and Molotov cocktails and more railroad flares were used to catch the building on fire. Finally, by 8:30 p.m., the ROTC building was burning brightly, with the mob cheering "Burn, baby, burn!" No effort was made to conceal the supply of Molotov cocktails.
A fire truck arrived a few minutes later. When the firemen attached a hose to a hydrant and began running it to the building, members of the mob grabbed the nozzle and ran off with it. As a second hose was brought out, it was attacked with knives, icepicks and a machete, so that it was eventually cut in half. Members of the crowd, becoming impatient that the building was burning so slowly, soaked rags in gasoline from nearby motorcycles. A fireman tried to stop them from throwing the burning rags into the building, but was knocked down and beaten with a wooden club. This prompted the firemen to withdraw. Just the same, the building wouldn't stay lit, and the fire smoldered out, at least temporarily.
When sheriff's officers arrived to reinforce the campus police, the two used tear gas to drive the crowd from the ROTC area. This caused the arsonists to redirect their attention to burning an Athletic Department shed. An adjacent tree burst into flames. During this period, four campus policemen were injured by rocks.
Part of the mob then headed for the president's house, shouting that they were going to burn it down. They turned back when they saw that highway patrolmen had stationed themselves around the house.
Just then, the ROTC building caught solidly on fire, perhaps aided by additional Molotov cocktails. Ammunition in the building began to go off. When it was almost ten o'clock, the National Guard arrived, and was immediately attacked by a shower of stones, glass and bricks. Part of the mob tried to burn the library and then an information booth, but was deflected; others tore up a telephone booth, and built a barricade in the middle of Main Street.
The firemen returned to the ROTC building, but were too late. A cache of about 1,000 rounds of ammunition started going off, causing everybody to withdraw. It was at this time that a policeman was hit in the head by a large chunk of concrete and eight guardsmen were hurt by rocks and glass thrown at them. The Guard began to use tear gas and to warn of arrests if the crowd didn't disperse. Plate glass windows in nearby Taylor Hall were smashed by members of the crowd.
It is worth noting that during all of this no one was shot; instead, the mob was treated with an almost incredible indulgence. No arrests were made for serious offenses, although a state grand jury later indicted some participants.
During the night a stolen truck was used to ram and severely damage six airplanes at the county airport; a trainer was destroyed; and the mobile home that served as the airport office was burned down. An anonymous phone call a few weeks earlier had threatened sabotage to the airport.
Sunday, May 3
Crowds milled around the campus on Sunday, inspecting the burnt-out remains of the ROTC building. The national guardsmen were ordered by their officers to fraternize with the crowd, hoping to gain rapport. But despite what Michener speaks of as a "carnival-like atmosphere," there were many bitter exchanges; "one group of students sidled up to a Guard and muttered, 'We get you tonight, you bastard.'" Meanwhile, twenty-three Kent State faculty members met and approved a proclamation calling upon Ohio's Governor Rhodes to withdraw the troops from the campus. Ten blacks from Akron walked past a group of guardsmen, spitting on them. Michener's interviewers were later told that bags of human feces were thrown at guardsmen from car windows and that coeds did strip teases in dormitory windows, shouting to the guardsmen that they should make love, not war. In short, it was a day devoted to the Dadaistic mockery that was a hallmark of the New Left.
Early on Sunday evening two bottles of gasoline and a rope were found hidden near the campus police headquarters, and five gallons of gasoline were discovered on the roof of the Administration building. A few minutes earlier, a continuous ringing of the Victory Bell began, summoning yet another mob. The crowd began chants against the war and against "fascism." The National Guard used a bullhorn to order the crowd to disperse, but instead of breaking up the crowd remained where it was, shouting obscenities.
At nine o'clock the crowd's leaders called for a march on the university president's house. As the mob of approximately 3,000 approached its destination, the National Guard stopped it with tear gas. About 200 of the "students" broke off and began a riot along Main Street in the city. Another 700 people began a sit-in in the street at Main and Lincoln. Part of the National Guard lined up near the library, since a threat had been made to burn it down; the rest confronted those holding the sit-in. Helicopters swooped overhead searching for possible snipers on the campus rooftops. The 700 were soon joined by what the literature describes as hundreds of additional people, oddly called "casual spectators." The crowd pressed toward the guardsmen, who stood with bayonets pointed toward it.
Militant leaders wore white armbands and crosses on their backs. When three of them asked the Guard for a bullhorn to address the crowd, a Guard sergeant obliged them (in what appears to have been a continued effort to appear "reasonable"). The bullhorn was then used to read a list of "demands" and to tell the crowd what Michener finds to have been a lie, that the university president and the mayor of the city had agreed to come to the sit-in to hear their demands.
While all of this was going on, the main part of the mob that had stormed to the president's house -- now about 2,000 strong -- was violently confronting a Guard unit that had gone to protect the Air Force ROTC building. Guardsmen used rifle butts and bayonets when attacked with bricks, rocks and bottles. Coeds lifted their dresses to show that they were wearing nothing underneath, and baited the guardsmen with obscenities.
Finally, back at the sit-in, Guard officers announced that force would be used to disperse the sit-in at eleven o'clock. When guardsmen moved forward to enforce this order, members of the crowd set up a shout of "Filthy lying bastards," asserting that they had been betrayed by the Guard, since their leaders had told them that the mayor and university president were coming. Again, rocks rained down on the guardsmen.
From two to seven "students" were bayoneted, although without serious injury, during the melee that followed. A grand jury later commented on "a level of obscenity and vulgarity which we have never before witnessed. The epithets directed at the Guardsmen and members of their families by male and female rioters alike would have been unbelievable had they not been confirmed by the testimony from every quarter and by audio tapes." The "students" were chased up the streets and back to the dorms. It was all over, temporarily, about midnight.
Monday, May 4
During the morning on Monday, fifteen bomb threats kept tensions high on the campus and caused the cancellation of some classes. Even though classes had ostensibly resumed, militant leaders (who were not recognized as people who were enrolled at the university) wouldn't allow the mob action to end; they began to gather a crowd around the Victory Bell at eleven o'clock. Even after a Guard officer ordered the crowd to disperse, the militants began a continuous clanging of the bell, summoning larger numbers. The order to disperse was read again and again from a jeep that moved along the edge of the crowd, but the jeep was pelted with rocks. The crowd, as always, shouted obscenities and yelled "Pigs off campus," waving clenched fists. The scene was marked with Vietcong flags, men in Che Guevara headbands, and black suits.
When the Guard began to disperse this new mob with tear gas, the canisters were thrown back at the guardsmen. Women appeared with bags of rocks. As the guardsmen moved the crowd up over the hill to the right of Taylor Hall, they were met not only with the rocks, but with chunks of concrete and of wood studded with nails. Several of the "students" kept charging back toward the guardsmen, daring them to retaliate.
One troop of guardsmen went to the left of Taylor Hall to block the mob's coming back to the commons by that route. The others pushed the crowd up over the hill to the right of the building, and then proceeded past an ornamental pagoda and downhill to a practice football field that was situated at the base of the hill. While the guardsmen were assembled there, the crowd stood in large numbers across a small street from the field and several militants threw rocks from a parking lot near Taylor Hall at the end of the field. Tear gas went off among the guardsmen as the canisters were thrown back. In an apparent effort at intimidation, a squad of troops kneeled and pointed their rifles at those taunting them from the parking lot, but didn't fire.
Shortly after noon the Guard officers ordered the troops to retrace their steps to return to the commons. As the guardsmen started back up the hill toward the pagoda, the crowd fell in behind, calling cadence in ridicule and throwing rocks, nail-studded golf balls, railroad spikes, and concrete-filled Styrofoam cups. Many of the guardsmen were hit; one went down after being hit in the stomach by a half-brick. The guardsmen continued firing tear gas and were wearing their gasmasks.
What happened next, as the guardsmen arrived at the pagoda at the top of the hill, is the subject of much dispute, but suddenly the members of Troop G wheeled and fired without taking off their masks. In all, 28 guardsmen fired a total of 55 M-1 rifle rounds and five pistol shots during 13 seconds. Four people in the crowd lay dead or dying, and nine were injured. Many of the shots went down to the parking lot at the base of the hill, instead of the guardsmen's shooting directly into the mass of people on the deck of Taylor Hall a few feet away. Confusion has reigned ever since about whether the mob surged toward the guardsmen an instant before they turned and fired; about whether the fusillade was triggered by a sniper shot; and about whether any of the officers ordered the troops to fire. It would seem, however, that the firing was spontaneous, since photos show that the guardsmen didn't remove their gasmasks to increase their accuracy, and one guardsman went into
hysterics afterwards for having shot two people. The Left's alienated literature over the years, however, suggests that the shooting was premeditated, perhaps planned by the members of Troop G while they were on the practice field.
Back at the parking lot, a militant dipped a black flag in blood, and the mob attacked a photographer who took his picture. The Guard moved on down past Taylor Hall to the commons, and a long, ugly confrontation occurred while several thousand people stood shouting, some calling for "driving those f**kers right off our campus." It appeared as though the mob was going to charge the guardsmen, but long discussions took place with members of the faculty. Eventually the face-off ended, with the crowd sullenly dispersing.
Tuesday, May 5
Arsonists burnt down a Kent State equipment barn at two in the morning on Tuesday. A guardsman shot at the arsonists twice, but missed. Later that morning the university administration closed the campus for the rest of the spring semester, sending everyone home except the international students. During the same weekend following President Nixon's announcement of the movement into Cambodia, as many as 760 universities underwent disruption, and hundreds closed down.
In June, a month after the events at Kent State, Jesse Jackson spoke at the Oberlin College graduation. An article by New Left activist Bill Arthrell says that Jackson "implored [the graduates] to emulate Fidel Castro and Mao Tse-Tung and use their education to topple the system."
Bernardine Dohrn of the Weatherman faction issued a "declaration of war," and in the following months several buildings were dynamited across the country. The most infamous of those dynamitings occurred at the Mathematics Research Institute of the University of Wisconsin.
That fall, an organization called "the Kent Liberation Front" was organized, and on October 16 two thousand people marched to the Kent State Administration Building demanding that the grand jury indictments be dropped and that ROTC be abolished on campus.
Over the summer, Americans waited with bated breathe to see what would happen on campuses generally when the fall semester began. But,instead, a strange quiet prevailed, punctuated primarily by the bombings. The steam had gone out of the mass antiwar movement, and the revolutionary ugliness of the late 1960s and the spring of 1970 evaporated. Students of the New Left know that the movement had begun to splinter well before the events we have traced. As the 1970s went on, underground factions continued, such as the Symbionese Liberation Front that kidnapped Patty Hearst, but most of the "Sixties generation" turned inward, moving into a variety of mystic religions. After the incursion into the sanctuaries in Cambodia, the Nixon administration continued the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam. The splintering of the New Left and the winding down of the war were no doubt major factors in the cooling of mass revolutionary violence, but "Kent State" was the most ostensible turning point.
Those who were killed or wounded
The American Left immediately made martyrs out of those who were shot. Typical of this is an address delivered at Kent State University on May 3, 1980, by Martin Nurmi, a KSU English professor, who spoke of "the killing of the four lovely young people here."
Very few of those shot were, however, "innocent victims" as they have been portrayed. While reading the literature that has eulogized them, I've gathered, from a fact mentioned here and another there, enough information about them to show that they were very much involved in the mob action:
Allison Krause (killed). While Krause was still in high school, Krause yelled "F**k you!" and stomped out of her English class after her teacher tried to get her to stop talking in class. At Kent State, she was known as "the pearl of the Weathermen." In October 1969 she collected money for the Student Mobilization Committee, and in November she and her boyfriend hitchhiked to attend the Washington Moratorium. She was part of the crowd when Jerry Rubin spoke on campus in early April 1970. She smoked marijuana frequently, shouted obscenities at the Guard, and carried chunks of concrete and cinderblock in her pockets.
Jeffrey Miller (killed). Miller was part of the mob at the burning of the ROTC building on Saturday night, and again at the street sit-in on Sunday night. He wore an Indian headband, had long hair, was a rock music drummer, had a "stereotypical hippie" girlfriend, and attended classes only sporadically. He, too, attended the Washington Moratorium. On May 4, he was one of those who shouted obscenities at the Guard and threw back tear gas canisters. There is some dispute about what he was doing right before the guardsmen turned and fired: Capt. Snyder of the Guard said that Miller kept charging up the hill taunting the guardsmen with "kill, kill, kill," and had a pistol on him after he was shot; but the presence of the pistol is denied by those on the other side.
Sandra Scheuer (killed). Scheuer opposed American involvement in the war, dated a Yippie, and planned to take part in the Sunday night rally but fell asleep and missed it. It was claimed in some reports that she was just going from one class to another when a bullet hit her. (We have to be careful about this, though: the literature, almost all very sympathetic to the rioters, describes most of those present at all of the riots as simply passive spectators. It's as though the violent acts were done only by phantoms.)
William Schroeder (killed). Although Schroeder was attending college on an ROTC scholarship, he actively worked to oppose the war and a few days before he was killed had traveled to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland to participate in an antiwar rally there. Michener says he rushed to the scene to see the burning of the ROTC building, and "watched the fire with morbid fascination."
Alan Canfora (wounded). Canfora joined the SDS in 1969, took part in the Friday night riot, was present at the burning of the ROTC building, and was among those following the guardsmen up the hill when they turned and fired.
Joseph Lewis, Jr. (wounded). Lewis was described as "on the fringes of the crowd" as it pelted the ROTC building with rocks on Saturday night before it was burned down; and then he was pictured as something of a passive spectator as he and his girlfriend followed the mob to the president's house. When he was shot on Monday, he was just seventy-one feet from the guardsmen, "giving them the finger."
Dean Kahler (wounded). On Sunday night Kahler was among those who marched on the president's house, and then was part of those who headed into the city, chanting "One, two, three, four, we don't want your f**king war!" He managed to get back in time to take part in the street sit-in, and was one of those who claimed "the Guard lied to us." He was in Monday's crowd on the commons, and threw rocks at the guardsmen while they were on the football practice field.
Donald MacKenzie (wounded). He was an active participant in the moratorium marches, "was present" for the Saturday night burning of the ROTC building, and was part of the crowd that headed to the president's house on Sunday night, after which he took part in the street sit-in.
James Russell (wounded). The only mention I have found of Russell tells that he took part in the street sit-in on Sunday night.
Robert Stamps (wounded). Another of those who had attended the "peace march" in Washington, he is reported to have been one of the "passive spectators" at the burning of the ROTC building.
Doug Wrentmore (wounded). Two weeks earlier, Wrentmore was one of those who went to Cleveland to conduct the protest at the AT&T stockholders' meeting. He attended the Black United Students rally at 3 p.m. on Friday, May 1, and was at the Sunday night sit-in (although he was said to have "immediately left"). He held conscientious objector draft status, and after May 4 set up a commune.
Kneeling "coed." Although she wasn't among those killed or wounded, this young woman is worth mentioning because she appeared in a famous photograph that showed her kneeling over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller. James Michener refers to her lyrically as "the coed with the Delacroix face." Her name was Mary Vecchio, and it happens that she wasn't a coed at all, but a 14-year-old junior high school student who had run away from home in Florida. She was one of the supposed "students" in the rock-throwing mob on Friday night, and was among the rock throwers on Monday.
Public's support for the Guard; intellectual culture's indulgence
A Newsweek poll showed that more than 60 percent of the American people supported the Guard. Michener reported that in Columbus a public-opinion poll showed that 72.2 percent of Ohio residents supported the guardsmen's continuing to use live ammunition when needed. Peter Davies, in his book about Kent State, reports that many of the Kent State students' parents also supported the Guard and were hostile to the rioters.
This was in overwhelming contrast to the reaction by the liberal media. Michener says it "cannot be denied" that "the news media were almost universally sympathetic to the dead students...Across the United States college students could identify with the innocent faces and the brief character sketches the newspapers provided."
I have used Michener's book, which was prepared with the help of a large staff of interviewers, as a source for many of the facts cited in this article, but Michener himself told the story with an amazing equivocation. Most of his moral conviction was on the side of the rioters. He was candid about the connection between the Marxist-inspired student revolts all over the world, and described in detail the organizational efforts of the SDS and within the communes. But it was as if none of that mattered; again and again he played down the violence and temporized about its meaning. In his descriptions, the militant who spray-painted obscene slogans became "a word artist"; when a mob stoned the Guard or burned a building, it was as if no one in particular were doing it: Michener would say "someone, somewhere, started...." Rioters were called "boys" or "young men"; glass shattered "musically"; a militant had "a sudden urge to heave a brick through a ROTC window," as though his having the brick in hand was not itself proof of premeditation; the ROTC building's burning down was no real loss because it was an "antique" -- and, through it all, Michener was ready to accept the notion that just about everybody was "an innocent bystander."
The Left makes it a cause celebre
In 1982 Scott Bills wrote that "the annual commemoration of May 4 has been firmly institutionalized at Kent State." An annual candlelight walk and all-night vigil in the parking lot was started on the first anniversary in 1971. Jesse Jackson was the featured speaker at that first memorial program. That program was sponsored by the university, but in the years that followed, a struggle developed over who would control the commemoration -- the university, which would eventually tend to be more mainstream, or the far Left, which would use it for revolutionary symbolism. Bills tells of an "alternate" commemoration in 1974 attended by 6,500 people, "which featured Daniel Ellsberg, Jane Fonda, Julian Bond, and Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic as speakers." In October 1975 a "May 4th Task Force" was organized, and this succeeded in controlling the event during the years that followed.
In 1977 the university decided to build a gymnasium on some of the ground that the Left considered "sacred." Protestors occupied the first floor of Rockwell Hall and a "Tent City" was put up at the site to block construction. Various groups took part: the Revolutionary Student Brigade, the Young Socialist Alliance, the Communist Youth Organization, and the Spartacus Youth League. After the university obtained an injunction, 193 occupants of Tent City were arrested.
In February 1981 NBC ran a television movie entitled "Kent State" that presented the leftist perception. In general, the way "Kent State" is pictured in the literature is well illustrated by a doctoral dissertation written by a certain Miriam R. Jackson, who wrote that "there was something terribly wrong with a society that could kill its own children in 1970 for exercising rights of speech and assembly...."
The real meaning of "Kent State"
If by contrast we think about the events without the warping of alienated ideology, several aspects emerge:
1. Far from pursuing a policy of deadly force against mob violence, the authorities in Ohio and across the country were committed to just the opposite: they allowed buildings to burn, property to be destroyed, people to be attacked, and soldiers to undergo unbelievable physical and moral abuse with virtual impunity, much as the authorities did during the Los Angeles riots in 1992. When the guardsmen turned and fired on May 4, their action was the rare exception, not the rule.
2. Those who espouse alienation against American society engage heavily in sophistry, one form of which is to drop the context. They focus on the 13-second fusillade and speculate endlessly about why the guardsmen fired. They would have us forget or consider irrelevant the entire five days and all the turmoil elsewhere in the country. This dropping of the context allows them to ignore everything the "students" (rioters) had done and to argue disingenuously that "no one deserves the death penalty for shouting an obscenity or throwing a rock." It allows them also to transform the "victims" into fresh-scrubbed innocents.
3. The lawyer who later headed the legal team that represented those who were shot has stated candidly in a book that he could not prove that the guardsmen had planned ahead-of-time to turn and fire. But if we were to assume that this unproved supposition were true -- that some of the guardsmen decided among themselves to shoot as a way to punish the rioters --, what precisely would that tell us about "American society"? Virtually nothing. Would it justify years of angry "commemorations" and rhetoric about "a society that will kill its own children for exercising rights of speech and assembly"? Certainly not. The Left can build its case for martyrdom only by a demagogic sleight-of-hand by which it extrapolates from the reactions of a few soldiers under great pressure into a basis for generalized alienation.
4. From reading the literature, I haven't been able to come to any definite conclusion about whether the guardsmen were or were not justified in firing when they did (except that two important facts stand out: that they didn't pull off their gas masks to enable themselves to aim carefully; and that they didn't point into the mass of people just to their left, where they would have killed a great many more).
But I do have a strong conviction that soldiers, policemen and firemen should not be expected to perform their duties under conditions of such abuse; and that there is no reason for a free society to subordinate so greatly the interests of law-abiding citizens to those of revolutionaries and rioters. In recent years we have seen televised scenes of "student rioters" in South Korea throwing Molotov cocktails that explode at the feet of police who react passively, doing nothing more than scrambling to put out the flames on each other's bodies. What precisely is it that has created such a skewing of priorities that this is allowed to happen, either in South Korea or the United States?
I surmise that the reason is that society has been induced, by a continuous pressure to absorb the attitudes of the Left, into adopting something of a "criminal ethic" that protects rioters. In much the same way that many people adopt what is really the ethic common to a criminal in-group when they accept the notion that it is "squealing" to report a criminal violation, an ethic has come to be accepted that sees rioters as "innocents" and the police as the "heavies." At least, that is the ethos that permeates the American media. We have seen that polls showed that the public at large did not accept that view of it. But among the articulators of opinion -- which is to say, among the media and in academic circles -- a total moral convolution occurs, turning black into white and white into black; our sympathies, we are told with great passion, should be with those who burn and rampage; our condemnation should be on those whose job it is to stop them.
There is no reason why this should be so. In a civilized society, freedom is an essential value; but no serious thinker devoted to a free society would equate rioting with "freedom." The actions of the rioters at Kent State were in direct contradiction to the freedom of the people as a whole to maintain a university, to make decisions through orderly democratic processes about such things as whether to have an ROTC program, and to be secure in their persons and property.
5. The enormous trauma that the shootings produced within the antiwar movement and in the media resulted from an abrupt reversal of the self-assured immunity that this skewing of values had created. The rioters thought that Dadaistic mockery and a "carnival atmosphere" of destruction and alienation could go on forever without personal consequences to themselves. Suddenly, four of them lay dead, and the smug game of hating America had taken on a startling new complexion. The committed revolutionaries went underground to do their bombing; but the mass of rioters came from the same stock as the trucklers and equivocators among "liberals" and America's "educated" population. They lost all stomach for a fight that was no longer comfortable and easy. No wonder real revolutionaries have contempt for the people they use as fodder.
6. There is, however, a broader and perhaps more important point to make. It is that the Left, by its condemnation of all established authority and its idealization of nihilism, seeks to delegitimate the existing social order. That is the real point of the martyrdom and the commemorations. The guardsmen aren't seen merely as individuals in a finite setting; they are, instead, symbols of the hated "system."
Enforcement of order is justified if the social order is legitimate; it is rightly to be condemned if the order is illegitimate. The Left assumes the illegitimacy of American order, and it follows that the efforts of police and guardsmen are insupportable. The revolutionaries' slogans, calling police "Pigs" and "Fascists," are consistent with this logic.
This has been precisely the view that Marxist-Leninists have taken all over the world since 1917. In their eyes, the revolutionaries have never been the instigators of violence, since they have simply been taking what is theirs. The forces supporting the established society have always been accused of "starting the violence," no matter what the provocation. This sounds like sophistry to us, and in large measure it should be counted as sheer propaganda; but it is also the sincere view of the ideologues who hold to the worldview.
The debate about "Kent State" -- just as about the other cause celebres that the Left uses in its assault on Americans' self-perception -- is really an argument that tests the depth of the commitment by Americans to their own identity and legitimacy. To the extent they accept without complaint the Left's view of such things as "Kent State," they accept the denial of their own right to exist.
1. James A. Michener, Kent State: What Happened and Why (New York: Random House, 1971), 514.
2. Michener, Kent State, 160.
3. Scott L. Bills, ed., Kent State/May 4: Echoes Through a Decade (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1982), 7.
4. Michener, Kent State, 159.
5. Ibid., 90, 91.
6. Ibid., 94.
7. Ibid., 91.
8. Ibid., 143.
9. Bills, Echoes, 8.
10. Michener, Kent State, 147.
11. Ibid., 149.
12. Ibid., 449.
13. Ibid., 78.
14. Ibid., 86.
15. Ibid., 151.
16. Ibid., 99.
17. Ibid., 212.
18. Ibid., 26, 27.
19. Ibid., 104.
20. Ibid., 146.
21. Ibid., 157.
22. Ibid., 46.
23. Ibid., 179.
24. Ibid., 178, 179.
25. Ibid., 24.
26. Ibid., 189.
27. Ibid., 13.
28. Ibid., 15; Peter Davies and the Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, The Truth About Kent State (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1973), 12.
29. Michener, Kent State, 64.
30. Ibid., 21; Davies, Truth, 12.
31. Michener, Kent State, photo no. 29.
32. Ibid., 35.
33. Ibid., 39.
34. Ibid., 48; Davies, Truth, 13.
35. Michener, Kent State, 51.
36. Ibid., 62.
37. Ibid., 51.
38. Ibid., 52.
39. Ibid., 62, 63.
40. Ibid., 56.
41. Ibid., 57, 127.
42. Ibid., 131.
43. Ibid., 186.
44. Ibid., 191, 192.
45. Davies, Truth, 17.
46. Michener, Kent State, 192.
47. Ibid., 193.
48. Davies, Truth, 17.
49. Michener, Kent State, 193, 205.
50. Ibid., 194.
51. Ibid., 195.
52. Ibid., 196.
55. Ibid., 197.
57. Ibid., 198; Davies, Truth, 18, 19.
58. Michener, Kent State, 199.
59. Ibid., 210.
60. Ibid., 417.
61. Ibid., 255.
62. Ibid., 265.
63. Ibid., 266.
64. Ibid., 267.
65. Ibid., 268.
66. Ibid., 269.
67. Ibid., 270.
68. Ibid., 271, 272.
69. Ibid., 276.
70. Ibid., 277.
71. Ibid., 241.
72. Ibid., 351.
73. Ibid., 327.
74. Ibid., 345.
75. Ibid., 350-357.
76. Ibid., 332, 352.
77. Ibid., 336.
79. Ibid., 338.
80. Ibid., 339.
81. Ibid., 365, 369; Joseph Kelner and James Munves, The Kent State Coverup (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 131.
82. Davies, Truth, 48; Testimony of General Sylvester Del Corso before the President's Commission on Campus Unrest, August 19, 1970, 387.
83. Michener, Kent State, 340.
84. Ibid., 341.
85. Ibid., 371; Kelner and Munves, Coverup, 66, 220.
86. Michener, Kent State, 363; Del Corso testimony, 369.
87. Davies, Truth, photo no. 50.
88. Michener, Kent State, 343.
89. Davies, Truth, 3.
90. Michener, Kent State, 377.
91. Ibid., 400.
92. Ibid., 422.
93. Davies, Truth, 186.
94. Bills, Echoes, 23.
95. Ibid., 97.
96. Michener, Kent State, 517.
97. Bills, Echoes, 29.
98. Ibid., 94.
99. Ibid., 59, 111.
100. Ibid., 246.
101. Michener, Kent State, 481.
102. Ibid., 314.
103. Ibid., 317.
104. Ibid., 318.
105. Ibid., 321.
106. Ibid., 395, 467.
107. Ibid., 219.
108. Ibid., 285.
109. Ibid., 304-308.
110. Ibid., 464.
111. Ibid., 381.
112. Ibid., 383.
113. Ibid., 300.
114. Ibid., 285.
115. Bills, Echoes, 148.
116. Michener, Kent State, 312.
117. Kelner and Munves, Coverup, 194.
118. Michener, Kent State, 218.
119. Kelner and Munves, Coverup, 102; Davies, Truth, 38.
120. Kelner and Munves, Coverup, 52-54; Davies, Truth, 7.
121. Kelner and Munves, Coverup, 48.
122. Ibid., 102.
123. Ibid., 115.
124. Ibid., 105.
125. Michener, Kent State, 37.
126. Ibid., 285.
127. Ibid., 310, 478.
128. Ibid., 545, 550, 552.
129. Davies, Truth, 143.
130. Michener, Kent State, 411.
131. Davies, Truth, 141.
132. Michener, Kent State, 428.
133. Ibid., see 412, 434-447.
134. Ibid., 46.
135. Ibid., 50.
136. Ibid., 51.
137. Ibid., 53.
138. Ibid., 57.
139. Ibid., 134.
140. Ibid., 270.
141. Bills, Echoes, 32.
142. Ibid., 33, 34.
143. Ibid., 39.
144. Ibid., 41.
145. Ibid., 46
146. Ibid., 45.
147. Ibid., 60.
148. Ibid., 181.
149. Ibid., 237.