Forty years ago today I became a Democrat; I became a progressive; I became a liberal. I didn’t start out that way. Born and raised in the rural West, I started out conservative and it had not worn off by May 4, 1970, when the government murdered four students and shot nine others on the campus of Ohio’s Kent State University. Two of those dead kids gunned down by the Ohio National Guard were protesting President Nixon’s decision, announced four days earlier, to send American troops into Cambodia and Laos.
The other two were walking to class.
Even today, forty years on, I am filled with the emotions of that day: Stunned disbelief that such a thing could happen in the United States of America and powerless rage that it did.
It took a lot to propel me past my conservative upbringing. The only daily newspaper that reached the little town which formed me was owned by a family active in the John Birch Society. The president of the state’s largest university was believed to be a communist, even though he was born and bred on a ranch not eighty miles away. To most, Martin Luther King was a communist agitator and Bobby Kennedy was unspeakably awful. And, most people in my town believed that the only sensible policy in Vietnam was to, “bomb the gooks back to the stone age.”
Perhaps I would have escaped that mind-set even without the Kent State murders, but they added rocket fuel to the journey.
M-1 Rifle Carried at Kent State
I thought by now that I would have achieved, if not Olympian detachment from those days, at least a short distance from which I could reflect on them more dispassionately, but it hasn’t happened. Impotent rage sits on my shoulder today, just as it did forty years ago. Somewhere my brain knows that two Democratic presidents made the decisions that got us into the Vietnam War and that all but one Democratic senator voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and that Richard Nixon truly did have the responsibility of doing what he could to minimize casualties, given his decision not to end the war quickly.
But the intemperate, foolish governor of Ohio had no such responsibilities. For that matter, neither did the governor of my state who called out the National Guard and sent them to my campus four days later. (Or not. He denies having done it.) The authorities here decided to allow all students to accept passing grades for the semester and go home. Many did, defusing the local crisis. But I didn’t. A friend and I had a bet that semester about who would get the highest grades so we stayed. Besides we both paid for our college educations out of our own pockets and wanted to get our money’s worth. (As for the contest, we could have left early: It was a tie.)
President Nixon Explaining the Cambodia "Incursion"
As for the National Guard on my campus, I offer eye-witness testimony that they came with bayonets fixed. I assume, but don’t know, that they – like the Ohio National Guard – had been issued live ammunition as well. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I see in the official history of the guard here, they were sent to quell the “student riots.” Odd. I don’t remember any “riots”, although I do remember protests.
I need to be clear: I was never a member of that vociferous, misguided minority who took out their rage about the Vietnam War on those brave young Americans who fought it. Two friends and one relative died there, another received a Bronze Star, my sister confronts to this day the aftermath of what she endured there, and I know and have known many others who served honorably and well in Vietnam. The war and the murders at Kent State were no more their responsibility than mine.
Vietnam Womens' Memorial
America suffered almost as many casualties on President Nixon’s watch as on Kennedy’s and Johnson’s combined. I thought then and think now that Nixon drug his feet far, far too long. He ran promising to end the war and he should have ended it in his first year in office. Not a whit of world history would have changed and a great deal of death and human suffering would have been avoided. (Of course, when the country elected him, it did not yet know that he was a congenital liar.) Nobody knows for sure how many Vietnamese were killed in their civil war into which we stumbled and bumbled, but fewer would have died had we departed in 1969 instead of waiting for that last degrading exit from the roof of the American Embassy, thirty-five years ago last week.
I know that the universe is not in the business of justice; I know that other students were murdered before (Orangeville) and after (Jackson State); I know that other, far worse atrocities have been committed; but Kent State was my personal awakening atrocity and still I rage and still I wonder: How could such a thing have happened in the United States of America?
Most of the photos taken that day in Ohio are still in copyright and while I imagine that the photographers, both student and professional, would not mind if I used their photos under “fair use” exceptions, I choose not to. But the photos are widely available and here are links to several that illustrate the folly of that day. Here you’ll see an unarmed, flag-waving student while guardsmen kneel seconds before opening fire. Here is the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by John Filo of the young lady kneeling over one of the dead and screaming. The closest student was at least 30 yards away and one of the kids killed was at least 400 feet away. No student was armed.
For more on the events leading up to that day and the day itself, see this page and its links.
For Vietnam War casualties, the Wikipedia page seems reliable.
The photo of the M-1 rifle is in the public domain. It is one of the rifles carried that day by the Ohio National Guard that now resides at the Smithsonian. Not every artifact in the Smithsonian is glorious.
The photo of the Vietnam Womens’ Memorial is by MBisanz. For more on the 265,000 women, all of whom volunteered for service in Vietnam, go here.