The shootings on the Campus of Kent State University on May 4 of 1970 were a tragic event. The incident was a multiple day-long protest against the ongoing United States involvement in the Vietnam War.
The National Guard had been called up to deal with these protests and attempt to keep the peace on campus as some of the protests involved rocks being thrown, there was a building burned to the ground, and other not so peaceful things the assembled crowd had been involved in. There are conspiracy theories that say there was some government involvement and undercover operatives on the campus mixed in with the students. I don’t know that any of those have ever been proven or disproven honestly.
The incident that is still talked about is that the National Guard did open fire for a reason that is still argued. One thing that is not argued is that on May 4, 1970 the guard did, in fact, fire 67 rounds of ammunition over 13 seconds resulting in four dead students and nine wounded.
This is where the real anger and outrage begins. From time to time when looking through social media websites I can see some photo-shopped picture with a caption about “HOW ABOUT THIS SCHOOL SHOOTING NEWS MEDIA.”
Ok I get it. This particular shooting did involve portions of the government. But let’s do a deep dive here rather than just look at a few details and pictures from what was by all accounts a tragic (and preventable) day.
The Constitution of the United States (which I have co-authored a book about) says we, as citizens, have the right to peaceful assembly. The students on the campus did assemble peacefully (initially).
On the first day of the protests there was a demonstration numbering about 500 people. That protest dispersed around 1pm as people left to attend their classes and follow up protests were planned. Interestingly, during that protest a couple of students buried a copy of the U.S. Constitution claiming President Nixon had killed it. Later that night things turned bad. Around midnight people were leaving bars and began throwing beer bottles at police cars and throwing heavy things through store front windows. That marks the beginning of the end of the peaceful portion of the protest.
On the second day (Saturday May 2nd 1970) city officials and downtown businesses started receiving threats. The Mayor and some officials from the city of Kent met with a representative of the Ohio National Guard. The Mayor Kent called the Governor of Ohio to ask for the National Guard to be sent to help protect citizens from what was a powder keg of not so peaceful protestors assembling in the area. Now, someone reading this is saying they had reason to not be peaceful, and I won’t render judgment on that. I will say that the Constitution guarantees us right to peaceful assembly. It does not guarantee us the right to throw rocks at police or anyone else for that matter.
Day three of the multi-day building was marred by what, in my opinion, was a Governor who could easily be branded moronic. The man held a press conference in the local firehouse and referred to the student protestors an un-American just because the disagreed with the War. One of the great things about this country is that we can disagree. Its ok. We don’t have to all think with one mind. This certainly served to encourage if not outright enrage the student protestors further.
Day four of this mess (of which there are many books written and I have summarized an a paltry 4 paragraphs so forgive the brevity) was the day the National Guard fired on the students. This is no doubt the guard did this. There is an enormous amount of doubt as to why. Was there a sniper that fired at the guard as some people say? Was it because the students were throwing Dixie cups full of hardened concrete and nails at the guard as the guardsman have said (and no one ever refuted to my knowledge)? I don’t know. But I do know the guard fired.
The claim is that the guard wanted to kill as many students as possible. Let’s review this for a minute.
The guard unit present was, essentially, an infantry unit (my Father was among them that day). There are so many claims that the guard was aiming to kill that it makes you think for a minute so let’s do just that. Put on our logic hats.
The crowd had been ordered to disperse and did not (they were no longer peaceful as we reviewed). The guard used tear gas to try to get them to do so, the protestors threw the teargas back at the guard.
The guardsmen (77 of them) advanced on the students in an attempt to get them to disperse. The students did not. From a distance of about 100 yards or so 29 guardsmen later said they fired their weapons. These facts are not in dispute, and I won’t try to do so as they are known to be facts.
The guard fired a total of 67 rounds of ammunition in 13 seconds. The students did disperse.
There were (very tragically) four students killed and nine wounded. This is tragic and I don’t want to make it sound like it isn’t because it is. My contention here is two-fold.
First, this could have been prevented. Had the students dispersed or the local government not been stupid and outraging the protestors (or attempted in some other way to meet with them to talk) this could have been prevented. Or, for that matter, if the students had been peaceful (as the Constitution gives them the right to be) this would have never happened.
Second, the guard is not regular army. Someday I will also write a book on this subject and explain it more but for this format let’s stick with brevity. The guard had rifles and machine guns from an elevated position at 100 yards. Had they been trying to kill someone there would NOT have been 4 dead and 9 wounded. It would have been more along the lines of 20 dead and 30 wounded. The range with the weapons on station would have not made this a low casualty rate event.
My father was among those on the field that day. He was in that guard unit and while alive BARELY ever spoke of that day.
I can tell you that he was a software engineer, biggest nerd, largest patriot, who once upon a time was studying to be a priest (then met my mother), and the furthest thing from a killer that you would ever meet. He once said (and notes located on his computer confirm) that he did discharge his weapon that day.
He fired (as I am sure much of the remainder of the guard) fired into the ground between the protesters and the guard position. Funny thing about rifle rounds at an angle is that sometimes they ricochet. Could some of those that hit students, or buildings, or trees been ricochets off the ground? Very possibly. Could some of the guard fired over the head of the protesters in a further attempt to get them to disperse? Possibly.
Could one or two of the guardsmen have been aiming at the students? That is also very possible.
However, I do know one thing that is very very probable. An infantry unit with machine guns, M-1 Garand rifles and an elevated position is not on a killing spree with these injury and fatality rates.
This is an example of politicization of a tragedy. These events, as was the Vietnam War, are tragic. The guardsmen did not go there looking for kicks on killing some college kids. Remember guardsmen may, in some cases, be college kids. These guys are engineers, neighbors, fathers, and pharmacists all serving their country.
These events were tragic. Both sides made mistakes but it was not the government out seeking to kill a bunch of protesters so some evil conspiracy can be played out to continue, if not continue to ramp up, our involvement in Vietnam.
If what I am saying is try why did the Guard admit fault here? I have some ideas on that but that is a discussion for another day. Currently I will leave you with these thoughts. While the killings at Kent State were tragic, they were preventable by people on both sides of the altercation. It was not the government looking to extermination opposition to a policy. It was not the guard looking to slaughter students, had that been the case far more fatalities would have been the result.