“TIN soldiers and Nixon coming/ We’re finally on our own/ This summer I hear the drumming/ Four dead in Ohio…” Fifty years after the Neil Young song, four deaths in a mass shooting on a campus in the United States would be considered a tragedy, but hardly catastrophic.
It was different in 1970. Lone rangers going on a rampage wasn’t the norm back then. Besides, the culprit in the Kent State University massacre wasn’t a lunatic armed with a lethal assault weapon. It was the Ohio National Guard — a military reserve force — equipped with M1 rifles that murdered four students and wounded nine on May 4.
A few days earlier, on April 28, Richard Nixon had authorised the invasion of Cambodia, despite having been elected president in 1968 on a platform that included ending the American war in Vietnam. The president announced it on television two days later, galvanising a largely youthful rebellion that had been gaining momentum — and acquiring enemies — since 1965.
A couple of weeks earlier, it had been announced that 150,000 American troops would be pulled out of Vietnam. The extension of the war into Cambodia — which in due course created the conditions for the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge — came as a shock to anti-war activists who had dared to hope that Nixon might indeed live up to his promises. Campuses erupted in anger.
Did America erupt in outrage? Not quite.
At Kent State, a rally on May 1 decided to convene a second protest on the following Monday, May 4. Downtown disturbances that evening prompted the Kent mayor to seek assistance from the Ohio governor, who was happy to send in the National Guard. In the intervening weekend, Kent State’s wooden Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) was set on fire, and about 1,000 National Guard troops were stationed on the campus.
The May 4 rally had been disallowed by the authorities, but the students refused to accept that verdict, so the protest went ahead. A segment of the National Guard kept an eye on it, firing tear-gas shells that were occasionally lobbed back at the troops, alongside stones and other available missiles. Then, without warning, the shooting started.
Many of the students had assumed that if the troops used their guns, they would be firing blanks. By the time they realised it was live ammunition, four students lay dead and another nine had been wounded. Two of them were committed anti-war protesters. The other two had merely been making their way from one class to the next.
Did America erupt in outrage at this instance of its children being mowed down not by ‘the enemy’ in the fields of Vietnam but by their supposed guardians? Not quite. A Gallup poll purportedly conducted the day after the shootings showed 58 per cent of respondents blamed the unarmed victims, 11pc put the blame on the perpetrators, and the remainder expressed no opinion.
In retrospect, one could say that if the majority of adult US citizens had opposed from the outset the idea of their sons being sent off to bring the ‘American way of life’ to far-off Vietnam, the imperialist misadventure might have been called off much sooner.
The Kent State atrocity certainly did serve to reinforce a rebellion on campuses across the nation, leading to the country’s first nationwide student strike. But when students from Kent State and other universities returned home for the summer break, all too many were roundly berated for their radicalism. Far too many parents latched on with barely a second thought to the Nixon administration’s depiction of their children as communist dupes. Ronald Reagan, running in 1970 for re-election as the governor of California, declared: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.”
Just 11 days after Kent State, police killed two students and wounded 12 at the historically black Jackson State university in Mississippi during a related protest. That murder tends to get less prominence, because the deaths of African Americans were par for the course.
Between the two events, a mass funeral in New York for Kent State victim Jeffrey Miller — one of three fatalities of Jewish origin — was disrupted by pro-Nixon construction workers, many of them working on the city’s twin towers. “They were,” Jill Lepore writes in The New Yorker this week, “trying to make America great again”, linking the recent past to the atrocious present.
The 21st-century American tragedy is that too many, although by no means all, of those who stood up for civil rights and made a stand against the Vietnam War are today happy to latch on to Donald Trump or Joe Biden as potential saviours — but from what? From precisely the conditions that this pair of presidential contenders epitomise?
Far too many of the radically minded youth of half a century ago have unthinkingly morphed into reactionaries of one stripe or another. Perhaps the foremost task of today’s largely progressive American youth is to ensure that the past is never repeated.
Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2020