Four Dead in Ohio: Remembering the Kent State Massacre

The Kent State Massacre. On May 4, 1970, four students were killed by members of the U.S. National Guard. Nine students were wounded. The massacre occurred in response to a student protest speaking out against President Nixon’s April 30 announcement of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and his call for 150,000 more Americans to be drafted.

As part of their demonstration, the Kent State protesters set fire to the university’s ROTC building. It was then that 900 members of the Ohio National Guard were ordered to the campus by governor Jim Rhodes.

The gripping image from the Kent State Massacre that will forever be part of U.S. history.

The gripping image from the Kent State Massacre that will forever be part of U.S. history.

After the massacre occurred, Nixon said the following: “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 which exists in this country of peaceful dissent and just as strong against the resort to violence as a means of such expression.”

Nixon’s words were barely heeded, as the Kent State Massacre became the rallying cry for an end to the Vietnam war. As the HuffPost writes: “…over 450 college campuses closed because of protests. And just five days later in Washington, D.C., between 75,000 and 100,000 people gathered outside the White House to demand the removal of American troops from Southeast Asia.”

A few weeks later, the group Crosby, Stills, and Nash recorded “Ohio.” Even though the song was banned on some AM stations because it was extremely critical of Nixon, it still reached #14 on the Billboard charts and has become an iconic classic rock protest song.

The National Guard’s justification for opening fire on unarmed students was an unidentified sniper, who according to a reporter from the New York Times was never seen nor heard: “This reporter, who was with the group of students, did not see any indication of sniper fire, nor was the sound of any gunfire audible before the Guard volley. Students, conceding that rocks had been thrown, heatedly denied that there was any sniper.” Kent State’s page dedicated to the massacre offeres a clearer explanation:

The protestors moved up a steep hill, known as Blanket Hill, and then down the other side of the hill onto the Prentice Hall parking lot as well as an adjoining practice football field. Most of the Guardsmen followed the students directly and soon found themselves somewhat trapped on the practice football field because it was surrounded by a fence. Yelling and rock throwing reached a peak as the Guard remained on the field for about ten minutes. Several Guardsmen could be seen huddling together, and some Guardsmen knelt and pointed their guns, but no weapons were shot at this time. The Guard then began retracing their steps from the practice football field back up Blanket Hill. As they arrived at the top of the hill, twenty-eight of the more than seventy Guardsmen turned suddenly and fired their rifles and pistols. Many guardsmen fired into the air or the ground. However, a small portion fired directly into the crowd. Altogether between 61 and 67 shots were fired in a 13 second period.

Nonetheless, future court cases, favored the “self-defense” argument, even though some of the court decisions were questionable. More from the Kent State page:

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The answer offered by the Guardsmen is that they fired because they were in fear of their lives. Guardsmen testified before numerous investigating commissions as well as in federal court that they felt the demonstrators were advancing on them in such a way as to pose a serious and immediate threat to the safety of the Guardsmen, and they therefore had to fire in self-defense. Some authors (e.g., Michener, 1971 and Grant and Hill, 1974) agree with this assessment. Much more importantly, federal criminal and civil trials have accepted the position of the Guardsmen. In a 1974 federal criminal trial, District Judge Frank Battisti dismissed the case against eight Guardsmen indicted by a federal grand jury, ruling at mid-trial that the government’s case against the Guardsmen was so weak that the defense did not have to present its case. In the much longer and more complex federal civil trial of 1975, a jury voted 9-3 that none of the Guardsmen were legally responsible for the shootings. This decision was appealed, however, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a new trial had to be held because of the improper handling of a threat to a jury member.

The legal aftermath of the May 4 shootings ended in January of 1979 with an out-of-court settlement involving a statement signed by 28 defendants as well as a monetary settlement, and the Guardsmen and their supporters view this as a final vindication of their position. The financial settlement provided $675,000 to the wounded students and the parents of the students who had been killed. This money was paid by the State of Ohio rather than by any Guardsmen, and the amount equaled what the State estimated it would cost to go to trial again. Perhaps most importantly, the statement signed by members of the Ohio National Guard was viewed by them to be a declaration of regret, not an apology or an admission of wrongdoing:

Kent State is still extremely relevant today, as the Kent State Massacre page explains:

In Robert McNamara’s (1995) book, “In Retrospect:The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” is a way to begin is an illustration of the this process. In it he says that United States policy towards Vietnam was “… terribly wrong and we owe it to future generations to explain why.”

The May 4 shootings at Kent State need to be remembered for several reasons. First, the shootings have come to symbolize a great American tragedy which occurred at the height of the Vietnam War era, a period in which the nation found itself deeply divided both politically and culturally. The poignant picture of Mary Vecchio kneeling in agony over Jeffrey Miller’s body, for example, will remain forever as a reminder of the day when the Vietnam War came home to America. If the Kent State shootings will continue to be such a powerful symbol, then it is certainly important that Americans have a realistic view of the facts associated with this event. Second, May 4 at Kent State and the Vietnam War era remain controversial even today, and the need for healing continues to exist. Healing will not occur if events are either forgotten or distorted, and hence it is important to continue to search for the truth behind the events of May 4th at Kent State. Third, and most importantly, May 4th at Kent State should be remembered in order that we can learn from the mistakes of the past. The Guardsmen in their signed statement at the end of the civil trials recognized that better ways have to be found to deal with these types of confrontations. This has probably already occurred in numerous situations where law enforcement officials have issued a caution to their troops to be careful because “we don’t want another Kent State.” Insofar as this has happened, lessons have been learned, and the deaths of four young Kent State students have not been in vain.

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