Quick Study: What happened at Kent State?

Campus memorial for students killed and wounded in 1970.
Campus memorial for students killed and wounded in 1970.
Image: StudyHall.Rocks.
You didn’t have to be there. If you've ever studied the Vietnam War, you know about May 4, 1970, the day four college students were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State.

    The words "Kent State" remain synonymous with war protests of the time. The university in Kent, Ohio, has marked the places where Allison Krause, 19, Jeffrey Miller, 20, Sandra Scheuer, 20, and William Schroeder, 19, fell on the parking lot outside a residence hall. Nine other students were wounded in the standoff spawned by the government’s decision to invade Cambodia, broadening the Vietnam War.
     The shooting is discussed and debated to this day. Its mayhem and fog-of-war aspects evoke another grisly historical event -- the Boston Massacre.
     But for all the discussion, descriptions of what happened are sometimes wrong, even in textbooks, wrote two Kent State professors, Jerry M. Lewis, professor emeritus of sociology, and Thomas R. Hensley, professor emeritus of political science, in the paper, “The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The Search for Historical Accuracy,” (available online, originally published in 1998, Ohio Council for the Social Studies review). 
      Here is an overview:
  • April 30, 1970: The invasion of Cambodia.

     President Richard Nixon had run for office in 1968 promising an honorable peace settlement to end the Vietnam War, recounts William A. DeGregorio in The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (Barricade Books; 2013).
     But two years later, during a televised address,  Nixon announced that U.S. troops had invaded Cambodia. Nixon said North Vietnamese forces were using “military sanctuaries” along the Cambodian frontier to launch “hit and run” attacks against American and South Vietnamese forces.
     “In cooperation with the armed forces of South Vietnam, attacks are being launched this week to clean out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian Vietnam border,” Nixon said. He explained that South Vietnamese forces, with American air and logistical support, would take on parts of the operation, but added: “There is one area, however, ...where I have concluded that a combined American and South Vietnamese operation is necessary. Tonight, American and South Vietnamese units will attack the headquarters for the entire communist military operation in South Vietnam. This key control center has been occupied by the North Vietnamese and Vietcong for five years in blatant violation of Cambodia’s neutrality. This is not an invasion of Cambodia. The areas in which these attacks will be launched are completely occupied and controlled by North Vietnamese forces. Our purpose is not to occupy the areas. Once enemy forces are driven out of these sanctuaries and once their military supplies are destroyed, we will withdraw.”  (See the announcement on the ABC News website.)

  • May 1: Student protests erupt.
      At Kent State University, an anti-war rally was held May 1 at noon on the university's commons.  A group of history students “buried a copy of the Constitution, which they claimed had been murdered when U.S. troops were sent into Cambodia without a declaration of war by Congress,” recounts the May 4 Task Force website at Kent State.
     That evening, a spontaneous anti-war rally formed when students gathered at a group of bars in town. “Bonfires were built in the streets of downtown Kent, cars were stopped, police cars were hit with bottles, and some store windows were broken. The entire Kent police force was called to duty as well as officers from the county and surrounding communities,” wrote professors Lewis and Hensley. Kent's mayor, LeRoy Satrom, declared a state of emergency and ordered all bars shut down. That decision “increased the size of the angry crowd,” the professors wrote.
      Police used tear gas to force the crowd back toward campus.
      Satrom also called the office of Ohio Gov. James Rhodes to seek assistance. Another rally was scheduled for Monday, May 4. 
  • May 2, 1970: Local officials prepare for more.
     The town cleaned up the mess from the night before. The Kent State Task Force website noted that some students helped with the cleanup.  
      Anticipating more trouble, the mayor and other city officials met with a representative of the Ohio National Guard. Fearing “rumors that radical revolutionaries were in Kent to destroy the city,” the mayor asked the governor to send the guard to Kent, according to Lewis and Hensley. (Read the letter at the National Archives website.)
     Later, at 8 p.m., students gathered again in the commons. The crowd reached an estimated 2,000 protestors, recounts the May 4 Task Force website. The protestors surrounded the ROTC building and broke windows. Some set the building on fire.
     When firefighters arrived and attempted to put the fire out, students slashed their hoses and attacked them.The building burned. A police officer called to the scene told the FBI that he and other officers were hit with a barrage of rocks, half bricks and other projectiles.
  •  May 3, 1970: 1,000 Ohio National Guardsmen occupy the campus.
     Despite the war-zone atmosphere, it was a warm day. Some students chatted with the guardsmen. 
     Then Rhodes held a press conference in which he charged that “dissident groups” were going from one campus to another, stirring up trouble. “These people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community. They’re worse than the brownshirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They are the worst type of people that we harbor here in America.”
    The governor also said this: “We’re going to ask for an injunction…that is equivalent to a state of emergency and that will give some additional authority to some of the people that are affiliated with the state of Ohio.”
    On a recording of the conference, someone can be heard asking what type of authority.
    “Arresting authority,” Rhodes said.
     That was never done, noted Lewis and Hensley in their analysis, but the "widespread assumption among both Guard and University officials was that a state of martial law was being declared in which control of the campus resided with the Guard rather than University leaders and all rallies were banned.” 
     Confrontations between the guard and students erupted that evening.
  • Monday, May 4, 1970: It starts as a peaceful rally.
     Protestors started gathering on the university commons at 11 a.m. By noon, students packed the area. Lewis and Hensley stated that the estimates are inexact, but there were 500 core protestors, 1,000 “cheerleaders” and an additional 1,500 spectators milling around – in all, a crowd of about 3,000. The consensus was that the crowd was “primarily protesting the presence of the Guard on campus, although a strong anti-war sentiment was also present,” Lewis and Hensley wrote. As a result of Rhodes’ statements the day before, “all officials -- Guard, University, Kent -- assumed that the Guard was now in charge of the campus and that all rallies were illegal.”    
   Shortly before noon, Gen. Robert Canterbury of the National Guard ordered the protestors to disperse. The students paid no attention, and a guardsman with a bullhorn was sent off in a jeep to tell the protestors to disperse. The students tossed rocks at the jeep, and the jeep retreated.
  • Loaded and locked.
   Canterbury ordered his troops to load and lock their weapons. The guardsmen fired tear gas into the crowd and marched across the commons in an attempt to disperse the rally.
     “The protestors moved up a steep hill, known as Blanket Hill, and then down the other side of the hill onto the Prentice Hall (a dormitory) parking lot as well as an adjoining practice football field,” recount Lewis and Hensley. “Most of the Guardsmen followed the students directly and soon found themselves somewhat trapped on the practice football field because it was surrounded by a fence. Yelling and rock throwing reached a peak as the Guard remained on the field for about ten minutes.”
       Some guardsmen huddled together; others knelt and pointed their guns. They then turned and began to march back up Blanket Hill. They reached the top of the hill, and “28 of the more than 70 Guardsmen turned suddenly and fired their rifles and pistols, the professors wrote.
      During a 13-second period, 61-67 shots were fired – some into the air, some into the ground and some directly into the crowd.
      Four students died. Jeffrey Miller, shot in the mouth, was 270 feet from the guard and standing on an access road that led to the Prentice Hall parking lot. The other students shot were 300-400 feet away. All were in the Prentice Hall parking lot area. Allison Krause was shot in the left side, and William Schroeder was shot in the back. Sandra Scheuer was shot in the neck. A speech and therapy major, she was walking to class when she was shot. Nine other students were wounded. Kent State faculty members have been credited with calming students in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, thus preventing more bloodshed.
  • The unanswered question: Why?

    Later, National Guardsmen testified that they fired because they feared for their lives. Not everyone agrees. Over the years, there have been conspiracy theories, as outlined by Lewis and Hensley: Some authors, they wrote, “argue that the Guardsmen's lives were not in danger. Instead, these authors argue that the evidence shows that certain members of the Guard conspired on the practice football field to fire when they reached the top of Blanket Hill.” Others are unpersuaded by this conspiracy theory but also reject the self-defense theory.
      In 1974, District Judge Frank Battisti dismissed the case against eight Guardsmen indicted by a federal grand jury. Civil proceedings lingered for several years. In 1979, an out-of-court settlement provided $675,000 to the wounded students and parents of deceased students. The settlement was paid by Ohio, not the guardsmen, Lewis and Hensley noted, “and the amount equaled what the State estimated it would cost to go to trial again.” 

      Quick Study was compiled by YT&T editors using these sources:


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