38 Years ago today, during a student protest at Kent State University in Ohio, Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed students, killing four and wounding 9 others. One of the students who was wounded was left a parapelegic.
Many of the students who were shot were not participating in the protest-- they were either walking from one class to another or observing the protest from a distance.
The photo at the top of this post, of Mary Ann Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old runaway, over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller, has become iconic.
The Kent State protests were part of a large wave of protests across the country over the American invasion of Cambodia. After promising peace in the 1968 election, Nixon had widened the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The ostensible goal of this invasion was to destroy bases that the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong had been using to launch strikes into South Vietnam.
From Nixon's point of view, the invasion of Cambodia was part of the strategy to "Vietnamize" the war-- to substitute South Vietnamese troops for American troops. The problem was that the South Vietnamese government was increasingly unstable, corrupt and untenable. In the end, there was little left to prop up.
The move was looked at as a widening of the war, prompting the widespread protests.
The killings, which came to be known as the Kent State Massacre, have themselves remained controversial. What is known is that 77 National Guardsmen, who were armed, faced hundreds of students, some of whom were throwing rocks. The Guardsmen had no training in riot control-- odd, given that the stated purpose of states having a National Guard is to deal with civil disorder.
The guardsmen pursued a group of students over a hill. The students turned left, but the guardsmen continued straight, until they reached a place closed off by a fence. At this point, "command and control" had clearly fallen apart. The guardsmen did not want to go back over the hill, which they considered a "retreat." Yet, they could not move forward. After ten minutes, the guardsmen finally turned around to go the only way out of the area, back over the hill.
Then, suddenly, at 12:22 PM, some of the group of guardsmen, for reasons unknown to this day, turned around, at the top of the hill, and fired their M-1 Garand semi-automatic rifles. Some fired into the ground or into the air; some fired into the groups of students in the area. Of the 77 guardsmen in the group, 29 fired their weapons. The 67-shot fusillade lasted 13 seconds.
For decades now, there have been a lot of questions. The guardsmen testified that they feared for their lives. Yet, the students who were killed were nowhere near them-- they were all 200-400 feet away. No one has ever taken responsibility for the order to fire; in fact, whether there was an order to fire has been debated.
Not long after the shootings, the Ohio National Guard Adjutant General claimed that a sniper had been firing at the guardsmen. This was, of course, a blatant lie.
In an awful irony, one of the students killed, William Knox Schroeder, who had been walking from one class to another, and uninvolved in the protest, was a member of the campus ROTC (Reserve Officer's Training Corps).
And of course, the irony of the fact that National Guard duty was a popular way to get out of going to Vietnam was not lost on a lot of people. (You might remember that our current President got out of going to Vietnam the very same way).
Across the country, protests over the killings and the widening of the war erupted, shutting down over 450 campuses.
In the end, there were no prosecutions of any of the guardsmen. Later the President's Commission on Campus Unrest stated that "the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable." I'm sure it was very comforting to the families of the dead and wounded students.
The Vietnam War was to drag on for nearly five years after the shooting.
Neil Young later immortalized the incident in his song "Ohio." He wryly stated in the liner notes of his great Decade collection that it was ironic that the song ended up being a hit, and that he made a lot of money off of it. Still, I find the song angry, sad and powerful. I found a great clip on Youtube of Young performing the song with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in 1974. As we find ourself in another endless, unwinnable war in Asia nearly four decades later, the words "how many more?" really resonate.