Kent State 1970: We Need a Serious Look at What Happened and Why

Mary Ann Vecchio gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student, Jeffrey Miller, lying face down on the campus of Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio.

This originally appeared at Antiwar.com on May 4, 2015

It’s been 45 years since draft-deferred Ohio National Guardsmen aimed their M-1 rifles and .45 pistols at unarmed Ken State College students, killing four and wounding nine on May 4, 1970. You have to be well into middle age now to remember that day. My memory is stirred whenever I look at three photos: John Filo’s striking shot of teenager Mary Ann Vecchio on her knees weeping as she bends over student Jeffrey Miller’s body, I photo I took of Jeffrey’s grieving mother for a magazine my son Alex once edited, and a picture of two of the forever crippled in wheelchairs, KSU student Dean Kahler and wounded Marine Vietnam vet Ron Kovic of Born on the Fourth of July fame.

On the 41st anniversary of the shootings in 2011, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the state’s largest newspaper, concluded, “There has never been a completely satisfactory explanation for why the Guard fired.” In fact, it went on, “The central unresolved question in the Kent State affair has been why several dozen Ohio Guardsmen pivoted in unison and fired” and for 13 agonizing seconds killed and wounded so many of their peers. The previous year the paper had reported the finding of an audio recording where a Guard office was said to shout, “All right, prepare to fire.” This led to an editorial urging the state to take another look “and give full account of that tragic day.”

“That tragic day” followed Nixon’s announcement that the U.S. had invaded Cambodia and expanded the war, causing antiwar college students throughout the nation to go on strike. It was a time when the President called antiwar students “bums” and Ohio’s Republican Governor James Rhodes, in a tight and ultimately losing race, described students against the war as “worse than brown shirts and the communist element and also night riders and vigilantes. They are the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

A majority of blinkered Americans agreed. Apprehensive and uncertain, yearning for a return to an allegedly untroubled era before the tumultuous sixties, and manipulated all their lives to believe that only an “exceptional” America protected them against Communist and Asian hordes, they supported the shootings, as a Gallup poll reported. Pat Moynihan thought May 4th amounted to a pro-war plebiscite, a prescient remark given that two years later Nixon overwhelmingly defeated George McGovern, an unflinching dove. And Milton Viorst, one of the sharpest pundits of those years, thought, “The 1960s ended in a small town in Ohio named Kent.”

After several trials, a presidential commission, and books galore, no one was ever held responsible despite a final settlement of a meager $674,000 distributed among the thirteen families. It did, however, lead…

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