5 Lessons Learned From the Kent State Shooting: 50 Years Of Remembrance

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The Ohio National Guard is called in to disperse a rally scheduled for noon on May 4, 1970. Shortly after the protest begins, guardsmen fire tear gas at the students. Some students later said they were surprised the guardsmen followed them as they ran away from the tear gas. The guardsmen were clearly armed, but many students said they believed their weapons were not loaded with live ammunition.Kent State University News Service

Part-time Kent State University student photographer John Filo captured the haunting moment when Mary Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway, screamed in horror as she knelt over the body of Jeffrey Miller, a student and victim of the Kent State shootings. On May 4, 1970, four students were shot and killed and another nine were wounded during the melee with soldiers from the Ohio National Guard. Two student victims participated in the demonstration while two others, including Bill Schroeder, an ROTC student, were hit as they walked to class.

The climatic killings happened in a matter of 13 seconds, which was the culmination of events that occurred only days before. The Vietnam War and troop mobilizations had decreased, and Americans were under the impression that Richard Nixon would end the war when was elected president in 1968. Instead, on April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced in his televised “Cambodia Incursion” speech his decision to do the opposite. He explained that the North Vietnamese were using Cambodia as a safe haven for its fighters, and he was going to use the power of the U.S. military to move them out.

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Students run for cover after the National Guard opens fire. Twenty-eight guardsmen fired into the crowd for 13 seconds, wounding nine students and killing 4. Photo courtesy of Kent State University News Service.

This angered many, causing a social and political strife that sprouted continuous anti-war protests across college campuses as a part of the “Student Strike of 1970.” The following day, peaceful demonstrators at Kent State University held a rally at noon on a grassy area of the Commons in the center of campus. Emotions ran high, speeches united the students, but belligerents couldn’t be contained.

The peaceful protest went haywire. Businesses were vandalized, their windows shattered, and bonfires were set ablaze in the streets of downtown Kent, Ohio. The few violent protesters armed by a mob mentality challenged riot police, who countered with tear gas.

On Saturday, May 2, a wooden ROTC building burnt to the ground after gasoline-soaked firebombs were tossed through the windows. Added to burning government property, firefighters’ hoses were slashed by edged weapons to yield their efforts in extinguishing the flames. As police were having difficulty containing the mob, the Ohio National Guard responded to Mayor Leroy Stratom’s State of Emergency declaration. The atmosphere was a ticking time bomb between protestors and Guardsmen, which ultimately led to the tragedy on May 4.

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Screengrab from a video published on History.com showing a protestor hurling a tear gas canister back toward the National Guard soldiers.

The 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings is still surrounded by unanswered questions. At a time when the nation was divided over the U.S. involvement in southeast Asia, a catastrophe created a new generation of activism. The story that once grabbed headlines remains alive today as Americans still feel the social impact of the incident. As we remember that fateful day, it’s also important to reflect on the lessons learned from the tragedy.

Value In Deescalation

Nixon and other political officials received backlash from college students when they referred to student protestors as “bums” and other demeaning names over the course of the tumultuous days. Their words were further increasing the divide, which ultimately led to violence. “My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home,” Nixon said. “Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.”

The onslaught of condescending monologue toward the student protestors increased the tension and anxiety. The rally the students planned on May 4, 1970, was canceled after university leaders printed 12,000 leaflets prohibiting rallies. The National Guard wore gas masks and had bayonets attached to their rifles, while Kent police were dressed in riot gear as they took control of the campus.

The perspectives of the National Guardsman, some of whom attended Kent State University, weren’t in the mindset of an “us” versus “them”; in contrast, they were sympathetic to the students.

Initially scheduled for noon, an estimated 3,000 students were present despite the warnings; 500 were antiwar protestors, 1,000 were cheerful spectators of the showdown, and 1,500 were merely in the background. The National Guard used tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd. The students that were involved in the demonstration either ran away or confronted the escalation by picking up the smoking tear gas canisters and hurling them back toward the soldiers. More than 70 Guardsmen aimed and fired their rifles, which sent a volley into the air, ground, and gathering of protestors. Reports estimated that between 61 and 67 bullets were shot in 13 seconds.

Nixon later addressed the nation: “We are going to find the methods that will be more effective to deal with these problems of violence, methods that would deal with those who use force and violence to endanger others, but at the same time would not take the lives of innocent people.”

The lessons learned from this encounter are not to infringe upon rights protected by the First Amendment but rather to promote freedom of speech and the right for peaceful assembly. Placing value on deescalation from federal and state politicians, as well as the National Guard and the police, can help avoid violence.

National Guard Perspective

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Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of the student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Photo by John Paul Filo/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

The National Guard receiving a call during an antiwar protest wasn’t abnormal at the time. “On Saturday, October 21, 1967, 20,000 angry antiwar demonstrators marched on the Pentagon, determined to shut it down,” Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, wrote in his 1995 book “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.” “We decided to surround the building with troops armed with rifles, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of the asphalt ring, and to station U.S. marshals between them and the protesters.”

The perspectives of the National Guardsman, some of whom attended Kent State University, weren’t in the mindset of an “us” versus “them”; in contrast, they were sympathetic to the students. “To break up peaceful and legal assemblies,” Sergeant Mike Delaney referenced Gov. James Rhodes’ order in a NY Times interview a month after the shooting, “and it was that frustration which gave the militants on campus a chance to organize a resistance which gave birth to the tragedy.”

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Map of Kent State, “Location Map May 4-Shooting.” Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The part-time soldiers didn’t believe in using military force at home, and some said that if they weren’t in uniform, they would have been right there alongside the students. “But I wouldn’t have been throwing rocks and wrenches,” Delaney reasoned. The guardsmen were on edge as the uprising at Kent State gained steam, having already deployed to Akron, Ohio, to quell agitators from the Teamsters strikes, which they had heard rumors of snipers shooting truck drivers and miscreants dropping rocks onto their vehicles from overpasses. They feared similar tactics and turmoil could come to the college campus. It didn’t help that inaccurate reports were circulating that suggested radical intentions of “direct action raids” to burn down all government buildings.

The soldiers were ill prepared. After the shooting, Brigadier General Robert Cantebury said that the mob had come as close as 3 feet from the soldiers, which was later proven inaccurate as the closest aggressor was 75 feet away. The Guardsmen trusted their leadership, who put them in a bad spot and ultimately failed them.

The lesson learned from understanding the mindset of the National Guardsmen, some who were at fault and others who were a witness in the cataclysmic event, is to understand that poor leadership and indecisiveness leads to confusion and, in times of uncertainty, mistakes are made.

The Ohio National Guard responded to Kent State armed with M1 Garands, 12-gauge shotguns, bayonets, and tear gas canisters.

National Guard Crowd Control

Understanding the perspectives of the National Guardsman is important for learning from their actions. The missteps they took from poor leadership showed tactical flaws in how to combat increasingly escalated scenarios. The Ohio National Guard responded to Kent State armed with M1 Garands, 12-gauge shotguns, bayonets, and tear gas canisters. Four students were killed by gunfire, while another nine were injured, some by the use of bayonets.

President Nixon’s own Scranton Commission in their official record determined that “even if the guardsmen faced danger, it was not a danger that called for lethal force. The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.”

Since then, both the military and law enforcement developed nonlethal weapons such as mace, pepper spray, tasers, and rubber bullets. Although there is no perfect solution, nonlethal measures coupled with proper training give more leeway in how to act.

“We Don’t Want Another Kent State”

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Screen grab from Kent State Shooting Expert.

The slaughter spawned a new generation of activists who spoke out about injustices but also presented a critical look into how law enforcement and the National Guard approach future confrontations in these demonstrations. The “Student Strikes of 1970” were the first nationwide student protests in history and forced 800 institutions to close. The impact of these gatherings and the aftermath of the massacre encouraged Kent State University to develop one of the earliest conflict resolution undergraduate programs in the country. It evolved from the Center of Peaceful Change in 1971 to The Center for Applied Conflict Management (CACM) in 1994 to its current name, The School of Peace and Conflict Studies.

According to Kent State University’s website, “Today the School builds upon the legacy of its predecessors, regularly enrolling more than 1,000 students each year in courses that teach applied skills in conflict management and nonviolent change.” Kent State University recognizes education is an important step in learning from past injustices.

Healing

Several books, articles, and songs were written about the events that occurred on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University. To this day, a half-century later, conspiracy theories and historical inaccuracies cloud the search for the truth. An NBC News spokesman reported on the evening of the shooting that “the Guardsmen did not open fire until after they came under sniper fire themselves.” Those reports were deemed false. Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young wrote the song “Ohio” in protest to the deaths of the four Kent State victims: Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder.

Kent State’s 50th Commemoration Benefit Event, during which CSNY planned to take the stage and perform their song “Ohio” in front of a live audience, has been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, a virtual hour-long commemoration began at noon on the May 4th website. Todd Diacon, the president of Kent State University, said, “We hope to replicate some of that programming (four days of events) for the 51st commemoration.”

In remembrance of the Kent State tragedy, healing takes a lifelong devotion dedicated to the victims and their families to ensure their memories are kept alive and their deaths were not in vain.

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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