National crisis: Kent State shootings occurred 54 years ago today

Photo from the Warren Times-Mirror and Observer This editorial cartoon ran in the Warren Times-Mirror and Observer in the wake of the Kent State shootings which occurred 54 years ago today.

“KENT, Ohio (AP) – Four students were shot to death and 11 other persons wounded, four seriously in a confrontation with Ohio National Guardsmen and police at Kent State University.”

That was the lede in a small article published midway down the front page on May 5, 1970 in the Warren Times-Mirror and Observer.

The incident had occurred the day before, May 4, 54 years ago today.

As I’ve done with the Holocaust, Cuban MIssile Crisis, Pentagon Papers, etc., I wanted to go back and look at that initial reporting.

What did the first reports say? Did they jive with the reports from the multiple investigations that were undertaken in the wake of the incident that was a spark for nation-wide campus protests of the Vietnam War.

President Richard Nixon had expanded American involvement in southeast Asia to include Cambodia in the days prior to May 4.

Nixon had made ending the war a campaign promise in 1968, a year of tumult on its own merits. While there were certainly strategic reasons for launching military operations into Cambodia, the move certainly looked like an expansion of American operations appeared paradoxical to a promise to end the war.

That set the stage for the confrontation between members of the Ohio National Guard and students at Kent State.

“A state official said the shooting started when a rooftop sniper opened fire on the guardsmen,” that Times-Mirror and Observer report continued. An FBi report rejects that initial claim.

“The university, with an enrollment of 19,000, was closed and the town sealed off by police and guardsmen. Gov. James A. Rhodes called on the FBI for help in probing the disorders,” the report continued. The gunfire broke out as guardsmen dispersed an anti-war rally on the campus. Adj. Gen. S.T. Del Corso said guardsmen were forced to fire on the attackers.

“In Washington, President Nixon issued a statement about the incident. ‘This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy,’ the President said. ‘It is my hope that this tragic and unfortunate incident will strengthen the determination of all the nation’s campuses, administrators, faculty and students alike to stand firmly for the right which exists in this country of peaceful dissent and just as strongly against the resort to violence as a means of such expression.’

“The shooting came after guardsmen moved in with tear gas to disperse a rock-throwing crowd of 400 to 500 students in the Commons area near the football practice field.”

That’s all that was reported in that initial article.

The following day, the story moved above the masthead to the top of the front page – “Student Demonstrations Spread Following Deaths at Kent State.”

“Many students across the country responded Tuesday to the deaths of four students at Ohio’s Kent State University with candlelight services, marches, strikes, sit-ins and, in some cases, rocks and fire bombs,” the report stated. “Student reaction, sparked by the deaths and the Southwest Asian situation, was predominantly peaceful, but many campuses were tense as the protests spread.”

That article detailed student protests on campuses across the country. That included Columbia University where classes were suspended. In light of recent events, that caught my attention.

By May 7, the story had dropped off the front page.

There were follow-up stories in the paper over the following months. There was coverage of the various investigations into the killings, coverage of when charges were filed, coverage of how commencement worked as well as a story over a month later that reported a calm campus as students taking summer classes returned to campus.

I could find no local editorial coverage of the issue but for the editorial cartoon included here.

The New York Times archive includes an article that published excerpts from the FBI’s report on the shootings.

The report acknowledged that students had thrown rocks and “possibly other objects” at guardsmen.

“The number of rock throwers at this time is not known and the estimates range between 10 and 50,” that piece states. “Some rocks were thrown back at the students by the Guard.”

The article included what may be the most honest sentence from the investigations: “The few moments immediately prior to the firing by the National Guard are shrouded in confusion and highly conflicting statements.”

“When the firing began, many students began running; others hit the ground,” the report continued. Because they believed the Guard was firing blanks, some remained standing until they heard bullets striking around them. The firing continued for about 11 seconds.

“Of the students who were killed, Jeff Miller’s body was found 85-90 yards from the Guard. Allison Krause fell about 110 yards away. William Schroeder and Sandy Scheuer were approximately 130 yards away from the Guard when they were shot.”

President Nixon convened a special commission – the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest – that published a Sept. 1970 report that made a big-picture judgment of what happened at Kent State.

“Even if the guardsmen faced danger, it was not a danger that called for lethal force,” that report states. “The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified. Apparently, no order to fire was given, and there was inadequate fire control discipline…. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.”

So what? Why does this incident matter 54 years later?

An article published on Kent State University’s May 4 site answers that question directly.

“First, the shootings have come to symbolize a great American tragedy which occurred at the height of the Vietnam War era, a period in which the nation found itself deeply divided both politically and culturally,” the author states. “The poignant picture of Mary Vecchio kneeling in agony over Jeffrey Miller’s body, for example, will remain forever as a reminder of the day when the Vietnam War came home to America.”

They say that the “need for healing continues to exist” and “forgetting or distorting” the event can limit that.

Now, I generally dislike arguments that use logic similar to the moniker “those who don’t learn from history are bound to repeat it.” The phrase rings hollow to me, primarily because of the fact that time and time again we don’t learn those lessons. People are people. We screw up. We make plenty of mistakes on our own.

But I think there might be something to the logic here and the May 4 article authors make what I find to be a convincing argument in that direction.

“The Guardsmen in their signed statement at the end of the civil trials recognized that better ways have to be found to deal with these types of confrontations,” they conclude.

That’s certainly a compelling process improvement that comes out of what can’t be called anything short of a tragic situation.

“This has probably already occurred in numerous situations where law enforcement officials have issued a caution to their troops to be careful because ‘we don’t want another Kent State.’ Insofar as this has happened, lessons have been learned, and the deaths of four young Kent State students have not been in vain.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today