As believable or unbelievable as it may seem, on May 4, 1970 the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State Univ. students, killing four and wounding nine. They’d been protesting the US invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
Most anti-war protests had been peaceful, with students burning draft cards at protest rallies and marches. The long Vietnam War had divided US public opinion much like the Iraq War did decades later. Anti-war protesters were no longer just hippies, drug users, or free love promoter. They now included educated, middle-class college students.
On Friday May 1, Kent State students held their own peaceful anti-war protest on their grassy central Commons. Later that evening though, bonfires were lit in the streets downtown. Beer bottles were thrown at the police. Common thugs began to break windows and loot stores. The police resorted to tear gas to clear the streets.
On Saturday May 2, a nervous Kent mayor closed the bars and declared a state of emergency. He called Governor James Rhodes and requested he send the Ohio National Guard ASAP to help maintain order. Guardsman were stationed nearby and began to arrive that evening.
As they came on campus, the soldiers were greeted with the Kent State ROTC building in flames.
It’s unknown if student or non-student protesters started the fire. Kent State had already abandoned the old ROTC building and was planning to raze it. 100 student protesters circled the building shouting and celebrating the blaze. They sliced the fire fighters’ hoses brought to extinguish the flames. National Guard members had to resort to tear gas to disperse the crowd. The ROTC building burnt to the ground by morning.
By Sunday May 3, 1,000 National Guard troops were patrolling the campus and tensions on both sides were extremely high. Governor Rhodes arrived and at a national press conference accused the student protesters of being unpatriotic:
“They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. Every force of law will be used to deal with them.”
Many Kent State students assisted local businesses in cleaning up the previous night’s damage, but others continued to hold protests. That evening, the National Guard continued to break up demonstrations, threatening crowds with tear gas and bayonets.
Finally on Monday May 4, classes resumed and protesters scheduled another rally at noon on the Commons. University officials attempted to ban the gathering but failed. Student demonstrators began shouting at the Guardsman to get off their campus. The Commons now contained about 3000 people, half of which were spectators. At the burned-out ROTC building stood 100 guardsmen carrying military rifles with bayonets.
Shortly before noon, a National Guard General ordered the demonstrators to “Disperse at once!” via bullhorn. When that was ignored, he ordered his men to load their weapons. Tear gas canisters were fired into the crowds, but due to stiff winds that day, they were ineffective. Some students threw the canisters and rocks, back at the soldiers. The Guard was then ordered to march across the Commons to disperse the protestors.
Yelling and rock throwing reached its peak as the Guardsmen marched in for about ten minutes. The soldiers quickly became surrounded and, realizing their situation, began to retreat. At the top of Blanket Hill, 29 of the 77 Guardsmen turned suddenly and fired their rifles either at the air, the ground, or directly into the crowd.
The gun shots lasted just 13 seconds but the guardsmen managed to fire off 67 shots. When the bullets stopped firing, first there was silence, then the screams began, 4 students were dead and 9 others lay wounded on the grass.
Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer.
The shootings shocked the nation and escalated protests across the country. Kent State immediately closed. Many colleges and universities cancelled classes for the remainder of the academic year. Neil Young’s even wrote a song, “Ohio,” commemorated the mass shootings.
Why did members of the Guard shoot into a crowd of unarmed students?
The Guardsmen later testified they fired because they were in fear of their lives. They felt the demonstrators were advancing on them and fired in self-defense. The multiple federal criminal and civil trials that followed agreed with the position of the Guardsmen.
Many experts however found the Guard responsible and agreed with the conclusion of the 1970 Scranton Commission Report. “The indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of unarmed students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
Anti-war protests finally drew to an end when President Nixon, withdrew U.S. soldiers from Vietnam in 1973. Seven years later an out-of-court settlement provided $675,000 to the wounded students and the parents of the dead, paid for by the State of Ohio. The statement signed by members of the Ohio National Guard was a declaration of sincere regret, not an apology, or an admission of wrongdoing.
Almost 50 years later, our nation remains of the razors edge of peaceful demonstrations that to often lead to senseless violence.
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