a certain age may remember the murder of students on the Kent State
University campus 34 years ago and the anger it once aroused. On
May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen killed four college students
and wounded nine others – one of them, Dean Kahler, is still
paralyzed. He was, reported the FBI, 95–100 yards from the
riflemen when he was wounded. Yet no one was ever found responsible
nor have the questions surrounding the calamity ever been stilled.
protests in Kent had erupted following President Nixon’s TV speech
on April 30 that U.S. forces had invaded Cambodia, thus enlarging
a war he had once pledged to end. The next day Nixon derided antiwar
students everywhere as "bums." Protests on the campus
and in the neighboring town of Kent had erupted resulting in some
vandalism and property damage. The college ROTC was set ablaze on
May 2nd. No one has ever determined who set the fire, though students
were falsely blamed. On May 3, Ohio Governor James Rhodes, a Republican
conservative running for the Senate (he lost) called antiwar students
"worse than brownshirts and the Communist element and also
the night riders and vigilantes. They are the worst type people
that we harbor in America."
May 4th, then, Ohio guardsmen fired their M-1 semiautomatic rifles,
a .45 pistol and a shotgun for 13 seconds, killing four students
and wounding nine others.
do know that, according to a government memo dated October 9, 1973,
"undercover federal narcotics agents were present on the Kent
State University campus on May 4, 1970." Also an armed federal
agent was present on that day though no one was able to prove that
his weapon was ever fired. It has never been shown that the agents
were tied to the shootings, though there have been allegations of
a government conspiracy. But still, rumors were rampant. Students
were said to be armed with weapons but none were found. Another
tale had it that a student sniper had fired and that too was shown
to be a lie. In fact, we do not know why the National Guard –
the Vietnam era’s haven for men dodging the draft – was called
in and who ordered the men of Troop G to open fire.
the shootings began, Glenn Frank (now deceased), a conservative
KSU geology professor, courageously sought to persuade Guard officers
to stand down and then made a successful plea to students to disband,
less they too be shot. In 2000 I spoke with his son, Alan, a former
KSU student who estimated he was 50-75 feet from the guardsmen.
He was working on his father’s papers and believed that his father
had become increasingly dubious that justice had been served.
so, for most Americans today, there is only historical amnesia.
years ago, on the 30th anniversary of this avoidable tragedy, I
wrote that without the discovery of a "smoking gun," or
a deathbed confession, or the release of all local, state and federal
documents and court records (some have complained that not all relevant
documents have been released) plus a thorough examination of the
papers of then Governor James Rhodes and the Ohio National Guard
and the Nixon archives, we may never know the truth. All the same,
I remain convinced that a serious historian can help tell us if
war in Southeast Asia and the bitterness it caused at home, led
directly to a college campus in small-town Ohio alive with antiwar
this day, the definitive book about that terrible day has not been
written. Certainly, some informative works have been published but
they have concentrated only on some aspects. What we need is a book
that fairly examines all the events. "And yes, there are new
materials" to be found, especially in the invaluable and extensive
May 4 collection at the Kent State library, says Nancy Birk, its
Curator and University Archivist, citing as examples the U.S. Department
of Justice and Charles Thomas papers.
A. Thomas worked for twelve years at the National Archives and was
selected to study films of the shooting. He concluded that, "none
of the available footage showing dead and wounded students following
the lethal volley had been used in assembling the compilation film
shown at the public hearings" of the Scranton presidential
commission in August 1970. In Kent State/May 4, edited by Scott
L. Bills (KSU Press) Thomas wrote, "it looked very much as
if someone had doctored the evidence to minimize any impression
of the Guard’s brutality and to plant the spurious notion that the
soldiers had been confronted with a raging student mob."
the Scranton Commission’s 1970 verdict, "Report of the Presidential
Commission on Campus Unrest," which, while liberally casting
responsibility on all parties in the days leading to May 4th, decided
that "The indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students
and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable."
its summary of the FBI investigation, the Justice Department concluded
that "the few moments immediately prior to the firing by the
National Guard are shrouded in confusion and highly conflicting
statements." But "the claim by the National Guard that
their lives were endangered by the students was fabricated subsequent
to the event." Yet in spite of more than 1000 pages of FBI
reports, eyewitnesses and other investigations, in the end the courts
placed the essential burden of guilt on student antiwar demonstrators.
After a federal grand jury in 1974 indicted eight guardsmen a federal
judged dismissed all charges against the eight men. From the start,
a majority of citizens, according to a Gallup poll conducted by
phone, took the side of the National Guard, many respondents apparently
willing to believe that "radical" students on college
campuses threatened the war effort. Finally, in 1975, a civil suit
brought by the parents found for the defendants, but an appellate
court overturned the verdict. But after so many years defending
their dead and wounded sons and daughters the exhausted families
chose to settle with Ohio for the very modest amount of $675,000
and a statement signed by Rhodes and the guardsmen saying, "We
deeply regret those events and are profoundly saddened by the deaths
of four students and the wounding of nine others which resulted."
hope is that a fair-minded historian can tell us what happened and
why and whether justice was truly served.
is there a historian willing to undertake this necessary study?
him mail] most recent book was
a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, co-written with Jim O'Grady.
He has appeared in the New
York Times, Washington Monthly, Commonweal,
Antiwar.com, LewRockwell.com and many religious and secular publication.