views updated

Bill Rubenstein

Excerpt from his essay "Tragedy at Kent"

Published in Middle of the Country, edited by Bill Warren, 1970

"This is a "national tragedy," one that will, when history is written, be one of the hallmarks of a leadership distinterested in and unconcerned with the pulse of its people."

In November 1968 Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon was elected president of the United States, defeating Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey. One important factor in Nixon's successful campaign to win the presidency was his repeated promise to end the war in Vietnam if elected. Upon assuming office in early 1969, Nixon did take some steps to decrease U.S. involvement in the war. For example, he devised a military strategy that allowed him to begin withdrawing American troops from the conflict. This withdrawal was interpreted by most Americans as a sign that the war might finally be drawing to a close. Even American antiwar activists expressed hope that an end to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was in sight, although they grumbled about the slow pace of the troop withdrawal.

In late April of 1970, however, Nixon approved a massive military operation into Cambodia, a country on the western border of Vietnam. Nixon explained that the invasion was intended to wipe out Communist military bases that threatened both the Cambodian government and South Vietnam. But news of the invasion of Cambodia sparked tremendous anger across the United States. Only weeks earlier, Nixon had promised the American people that peace was near. Many people, ranging from antiwar activists to ordinary citizens, believed that the president's expansion of U.S. military operations into Cambodia was a betrayal of that promise.

When the American people were informed of the incursion (raid) into Cambodia, fierce and angry debates about Nixon's decision erupted in communities all over the country. At the same time, antiwar demonstrations flared up on dozens of college campuses. The protests infuriated Nixon, who called the student protestors "bums" who were "blowing up" the nation's campuses.

One of the strongest student protests against the invasion of Cambodia took place at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. In previous years divisions over the war in Vietnam had created a tense atmosphere on the Kent State campus and its surrounding community. In fact, hostility between student peace activists and supporters of the war (both in the student body and in the larger community) had actually escalated into violence on several occasions. Despite this troubled history, however, no one anticipated that the demonstrations that erupted on the Kent State campus after the invasion of Cambodia would ultimately end in tragedy.

The sequence of events on campus

The first Kent State student protests took place on May 1, one day after Nixon announced the U.S. invasion into Cambodia. An antiwar rally was held at noon on the Commons, a grassy area that was regularly used for various types of campus events and demonstrations. During the course of this rally, antiwar leaders called for a second antiwar demonstration to be held at noon on Monday, May 4.

Later in the evening of May 1, a large number of young people rampaged through downtown Kent, breaking windows, setting small fires, and committing other destructive acts of vandalism. Most observers—and many members of the Kent business community—identified the rioters as primarily Kent State students. But others claimed that the vandals were mostly "radicals" or non-students from outside the community who took advantage of campus demonstrations as an excuse to make trouble. Several witnesses, for example, claimed that members of a motorcycle gang were prominent participants in the disturbance. In any case, the angry crowd roamed throughout the downtown area until the Kent police force received reinforcements from other nearby communities. At that point, police used tear gas to push the crowd out of the business district and back to the campus, where they dispersed.

The next day, Kent Mayor Leroy Satrom declared a state of emergency in the town. He was worried about the possibility of new disturbances and concerned about rumors that radical revolutionaries planned to use antiwar demonstrators to create violent chaos throughout the community. Later that day, Ohio Governor James Rhodes approved Satrom's request for assistance from the Ohio National Guard. (The National Guard is a volunteer military organization whose membership can be mobilized to serve during wars, natural disasters, and other emergencies. Many young Americans joined the National Guard to avoid serving in Vietnam during the war.)

Ohio National Guard troops arrived at Kent State on the evening of May 2. That same evening, the campus ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) building went up in flames as demonstrators cheered. This building served as the training center for students who planned to pursue military careers. The identity of the arsonists was never fully determined. But radical demonstrators were widely blamed for the fire because of the antiwar movement's hostility toward the military training program. As the evening wore on, the atmosphere on the campus continued to deteriorate. Some demonstrators sliced fire hoses and threw rocks at firemen who tried unsuccessfully to save the building. Other protestors clashed with policemen, guardsmen, and other students who supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam. These angry confrontations did not end until late in the night.

On May 3 the Kent State campus was quiet for most of the day, as National Guard units took up positions all over the campus. All in all, nearly one thousand Ohio National Guardsmen were stationed around the university. Some students expressed anger and concern about the heavy military presence. But the afternoon remained peaceful, and many students and National Guardsmen actually chatted quietly and respectfully with one another. Governor Rhodes, meanwhile, traveled to Kent to hold a press conference about the disturbances. He warned that he was prepared to use force to stop the demonstrators, who he called "the worst type of people that we harbor in America." Rhodes also indicated that he would seek a court order declaring a state of emergency in the community. The governor never actually made this request, but both National Guard and university officials interpreted his statement as a signal that the Guard was responsible for maintaining control of the campus.

Later that evening, the peaceful atmosphere on campus gave way to a new round of clashes between protestors and law enforcement personnel. Students and other antiwar activists expressed anger about efforts to impose a curfew on the campus. They claimed that the curfew was a transparent attempt to silence their protests against the war. Guardsmen, meanwhile, heard rumors that radical snipers (riflemen who shoot from concealed positions) might be lurking atop campus buildings. As anger and tension mounted on both sides, violence broke out once again. Demonstrators threw rocks and insulted Guardsmen, who responded with tear gas and mass arrests.

On the morning of May 4, students began gathering around the campus Commons area for the noon antiwar rally that had been planned three days earlier. University officials had tried to ban the rally, but their efforts were ineffective. By noon the Commons area contained about 3,000 people. The students in attendance ranged from avid antiwar demonstrators to curious spectators. At the other end of the Commons, meanwhile, stood approximately one hundred Ohio National Guardsmen, each armed with M-1 rifles and riot gear. The rest of the Guardsmen were dispersed elsewhere on campus.

Just before noon, the commander of the National Guard, General Robert Canterbury, ordered the demonstrators to end the rally and disperse. Authorities announced Canterbury's order using a bullhorn, but the students ignored the directive. A group of police officers and Guardsmen then tried to drive across the Commons to end the rally, but their jeep was driven back by rock-throwing protestors. Canterbury then ordered his men to load their weapons and fire tear gas canisters into the growing crowd.

Over the next several minutes, National Guardsmen and crowds of demonstrators maneuvered against one another. Dividing into smaller groups, the Guardsmen repeatedly used tear gas and the threat of force to push protestors off one area of the Commons, only to have another group of protestors move back into another area. Many of these demonstrators shouted insults at the Guardsmen or pelted them with rocks. After about ten minutes, one large group of frustrated and angry Guardsmen turned their backs on the demonstrators and moved up Beacon Hill, near the ruins of the ROTC building.

Near the top of the hill twenty-eight of the Guardsmen suddenly turned without warning and fired their weapons in the direction of a group of students. Many of the Guardsmen fired into the air or into the ground. But some of the soldiers shot directly into the crowd of unarmed students. Altogether, more than sixty shots were fired in a thirteen-second period. Four students were killed and another nine were wounded in the barrage of gunfire. Several of the victims had not even been part of the demonstrations; they were shot while walking to and from their classes.

Bill Rubenstein was an eighteen-year-old history major at Kent State when the shootings occurred. In the following essay he recalls the events that led up to this tragic event. He also offers eyewitness testimony about the shootings, which stunned the American people and threw colleges and universities across the nation into even greater turmoil.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Bill Rubenstein's essay "Tragedy at Kent" . . .

  • Rubenstein sympathized with the antiwar demonstrators, so he is not an impartial source of information on the events that took place at Kent State in May 1970. Nonetheless, his account of the facts surrounding the shooting incident closely matches those offered by historians.
  • Most people who lived in the town of Kent reacted to the arrival of the National Guard at Kent State with "great relief and thankfulness," recalled one Kent resident in Kent State/May 4. They viewed the downtown riot of May 1 as evidence that the campus demonstrations against the war were spinning out of control.
  • Many scholars believe that the National Guard crackdown on Kent State protestors during the first few days of May 1970 actually increased support for the demonstrators among the rest of the school's student body. Many students who had not actively protested against the war resented the presence of the Guard on campus, especially after the violent clashes that took place on the evenings of May 2 and 3.
  • Most members of the American antiwar movement strongly disliked the presence of ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) programs on college campuses. They charged that these programs trained young men to serve as military officers in Vietnam, thus contributing to an immoral war. As protests against the war increased in America, a number of ROTC facilities were burned or vandalized on college and university campuses around the nation. Nonetheless, large numbers of people who opposed the war disapproved of attacks on ROTC buildings, vandalism of area businesses, and other acts of destruction committed by radical antiwar activists. Many believed that such acts of destruction were themselves immoral, no matter what the target was. Others claimed that attacks on ROTC facilities and other radical actions were stupid because they eroded public support for the antiwar movement.
  • The National Guardsmen who were assigned to the Kent State campus were relatively young and inexperienced. Their repeated clashes with student demonstrators undoubtedly made many of them angry and frustrated. In addition, persistent rumors that radical snipers might be prowling the area made some Guardsmen uneasy. But the lives of the Guardsmen, all of whom were heavily armed and equipped with protective gear, were never in any danger from the protestors. As a result, many people agree with the findings of President Nixon's Commission on Campus Unrest, which was formed after the shooting. This commission, chaired by former Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, concluded in 1970 that "the indiscriminate [random or careless] firing of rifles into a crowd of students [by the Guardsmen] and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."
  • Many students who attended Kent State University in 1970 did not actively participate in the furious debate over the Vietnam War. They neither protested with the antiwar movement nor spoke out in favor of the war. Instead, they simply pursued ordinary college activities like studying and dating. The shootings at Kent State, though, turned their lives upside-down.

Excerpt from "Tragedy at Kent":

It was Monday morning, May 4, 1970. The sun was shining and the temperature was rising. An armored personnel carrier was parked at the southwest corner of the campus and armed sentries stood around it. I had an uneasy feeling. As I slowly passed by the patrols of National Guard and State Police, my uneasiness increased. I could not help but think of the past two days, of the curfew, and the bayonets, and the tear gas.

I went directly to the student union to have lunch and to wait for my 12:05 class. . . . When I reached the union, I stopped to look at the ruins of the adjacent ROTC building which had been burned down two nights before by students protesting its presence on campus. The National Guard surrounded it. In front of the union, students were discussing the rally of the night before and were reading the distorted news stories published in the local papers. Sitting on the lawn in front of the union, I began to read Governor Rhodes' statement in the Plain Dealer (a Cleveland newspaper) that the demonstrators were worse than "fascists and vigilantes, " and that the National Guard was necessary to maintain order. The Guard had been here for two nights now and its presence sickened me.

At 11:55, the Victory Bell, the traditional rallying call on campus, began to ring, beckoning the students to a rally on the commons. Bythe time we reached the commons, there were already over a thousand students amassed on the hill. [A few people then spoke at the rally, calling for a halt to the ROTC program on campus and the removal of the National Guard.] When we heard a voice through a bullhorn ordering us to disperse, the . . . resentful crowd became defiant. It was our opinion that we had a right to demonstrate on our own campus and we refused to move. We hurled some unpleasant verbiage back and were ordered to disperse again. We remained adamant and became more defiant. Ten or fifteen minutes had now gone by.

A jeep with guardsmen started to advance toward us. It was halfway between us and the guardsmen at the ROTC building when the first stones were thrown by the students. The jeep fell back. As it turned around, about four tear gas grenades were launched into the crowd. . . . We began to feel the effects of the gas. Our eyes teared and our faces burned.

We began to move slowly up the hill and by the time we got to the top of the hill, more gas had been launched. Passing over the crest of the hill, we lost sight of the guardsmen, but as we descended, some more grenades went off. We covered our mouths and noses with handkerchiefs to protect ourselves as much as possible from the pungent gas.

Just then, I saw the National Guard in line formation coming up over the hill. They were in full gear and their bayonets were fixed. My friend and I made a short detour into the lobby of Dunbar Hall (a dorm) to find some water to relieve our stinging eyes. When we came out, the guardsmen were lined up on the football practice field at the bottom of the hill. Most of the students were outside the dormitory where I was, or outside the practice field fence below the guard. . . .

While the guardsmen were on the football practice field, another crowd gathered at the top of the hill. The Guard turned and . . . they began to march up the hill [Beacon Hill]. The students at the top of the hill immediately and totally dispersed from view. The Guard continued to march up the hill. The students at the practice field at the bottom of the hill, thoroughly embittered by the Guard's bullying actions, started to follow them back up the hill to regain their position on the commons. Some began to throw stones again. Given the fact that there was considerable distance between the guardsmen and the students, and given the fact that the guardsmen were in full gear, including helmets and field jackets, ... these stones were of little threat to the Guard.

The Guard reached the summit and paused with their backs still to us. And then, I witnessed the most horrifying event of my life. Without any warning, the guardsmen turned and began to fire ammunition aimlessly into the crowd. I was horror-struck. Amidst screams and gunfire, I turned and ran for cover in Dunbar Hall. The windows of the dorm lobby allow a complete view of the practice field and the hill from which the guardsmen were firing down on the students. I saw people fall to the ground. I saw others stop to help. And then the firing stopped.

My first reaction was that the Guard had been using blanks to frighten the students and that the tactic had worked well, for as soon as the shots began, the students turned to run. I stood in amazement. But when my friend Robby Stamps was dragged into the dorm by two fellow-students with a bullet in his buttock, I knew it was no hoax. I just stood in disbelief.

I looked out of the window and I saw people standing around. And then I saw some lying on the ground. I just stood there gaping. From Victory Bell to murder took a half hour. Ambulances arrived. Two fellows brought Robby out. An attendant approached them with a stretcher and Robby told them to use it for someone who needed it more. Then he hobbled into the ambulance. . . . As I walked outside, I saw the pools of blood on the parking lot. It made me sick. I went inside. Inside and outside, I saw the same disbelief on everyone else's face.

We were requested by loudspeaker to return to our dorms, but I live off campus and went to the dorm where my friends live. We sat around to wait for even more horrible news. I already knew of Robby's injury because I had seen it. But I was not prepared for what came next. They told us that Sandy Sheuer was dead. Then they told us that Allison Krause was dead. It was not until 6:00 p.m. that we learned that Jeff Miller was dead. In all, four were killed. I don't know how many were wounded.

I shall never forget the spectre of my friends lying dead on the field. I shall never forget that shooting without warning. No one can really believe that it happened there. No one can really believe that it happened at all. It all seems like some sort of macabre trick that my mind is playing. And yet I know that it did happen because I saw the blood. I saw the distorted faces of my dead friends. I saw the shock and disbelief as the shots rang out. I heard the volley and the screams and didn't believe my ears. I saw the murder and didn't believe my eyes.

What I do believe, though, is that this is a "national tragedy," one that will, when history is written, be one of the hallmarks of a leadership distinterested in and unconcerned with the pulse of its people.

What happened next . . .

After the shooting, the Guardsmen retreated back to the Commons area. Some of the demonstrators rushed to provide assistance to the shooting victims who lay bleeding on the ground, while others wandered around in stunned disbelief. Many of the students, however, gathered together in a large and vengeful crowd that advanced on the Guardsmen. At this point, violence could have easily exploded again. Some of the demonstrators were so angry about the shootings that they were reportedly willing to risk their own lives to attack the Guardsmen. If such an attack had been launched, the Guardsmen almost certainly would have opened fire again on the gathered crowd.

Further tragedy was averted, however, by university faculty members and student leaders. They convinced the crowd to disperse and leave the Commons area, even as ambulances roared onto the campus to pick up the dead and wounded students. A short time later, Kent State University President Robert White ordered the school to be shut down. By early evening the entire university had been sealed off with roadblocks. The student body—by this time nearly paralyzed with grief and rage—received a court order to leave the campus. Within hours of the shooting, the entire campus was deserted except for National Guardsmen, investigators, and university officials.

When the townspeople of Kent heard about the shootings and the deaths of the four students—Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Sandra Lee Scheuer—reaction was mixed. Some community members expressed shock and sadness about the incident. But many others held the demonstrators responsible for the deaths. Sick of the unrest that had rocked their community and nation in recent years, many Kent residents viewed student protestors as unpatriotic and immoral troublemakers. In addition, many of the townspeople supported U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. As a result, many members of the community felt that the protestors got what they deserved. In fact, some townpeople expressed regret that the Guard had not killed more demonstrators.

Outside of Kent, meanwhile, news of the shootings stunned the nation. Many Americans saw the violence at Kent State as the surest sign yet that the country was ripping itself apart over the Vietnam War. Reaction to the shootings was particularly strong on the nation's campuses. In the days following the tragedy at Kent State, an estimated 4.3 million students mounted antiwar and anti-government protests at 1,350 universities and colleges across the United States. Significantly, many of the protestors who took part in these rallies were participating in antiwar activities for the very first time. "The overflow of emotion seemed barely containable," said the Washington Post on May 6. "The nation [is] witnessing what amounted to a virtual general and uncoordinated strike by its college youth." As the demonstrations continued, more than five hundred campuses were temporarily closed, including the entire state university system in California. Fifty-one of these schools remained closed for the rest of the academic year.

The Nixon administration was alarmed by the widespread campus unrest. But Nixon continued to believe that the Cambodian incursion had been a wise move, and his hostility to the antiwar movement made it hard for him to feel sympathy for the protestors. In fact, the White House issued a statement after the shooting that seemed to blame the demonstrators for the tragedy: "This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy." In the meantime, Vice President Spiro Agnew called the killings "predictable" and refused to criticize the National Guard. Instead, he suggested that the tragedy should be placed at the feet of the antiwar movement, which he characterized as a collection of "traitors and thieves and perverts and irrational and illogical people in our midst."

The Nixon administration's attitude toward the Kent State tragedy infuriated many Americans, including the father of Sandy Krause, one of the slain students. "My daughter was not a bum," he tearfully declared in a television interview. "She resented being called a bum because she disagreed with someone else's opinion. She felt that war in Cambodia was wrong. Is this dissent a crime? Is this a reason for killing her? Have we come to such a state in this country that a young girl has to be shot because she disagrees deeply with the actions of her government?"

A variety of state and federal investigations were launched in the weeks following the shootings, but none of the Guardsmen involved in the Kent State shooting were ever punished for their actions. The inquiries did result in federal criminal and civil charges against several of the Guardsmen. But they were not convicted. A judge dismissed the criminal charges against the Guardsmen, indicating that the prosecution did not have enough evidence to gain convictions. In a 1975 civil trial, meanwhile, a jury voted nine to three that none of the Guardsmen were legally responsible for the shootings. A new trial was ordered, however, when the Court of Appeals ruled that the first trial had been tainted by a threat against a member of the jury.

Legal action associated with the Kent State shootings finally came to an end in January 1980. At that time, a settlement was reached between the National Guardsmen and the wounded students and parents of the students who had been killed. Under the terms of this settlement, the state of Ohio agreed to pay $675,000, which would be shared by the wounded students and the parents of the slain students. The Guardsmen were not required to make any financial payment. They did agree to sign a statement of "regret" over the shootings. But the Guardsmen and their supporters were quick to note that the statement was not an apology or an admission of wrongdoing.

Did you know . . .

  • In the days following the Kent State tragedy, vicious and baseless rumors about all of the dead students were spread by people who opposed the antiwar movement. These rumors ranged from statements that they had been violent radicals to gossip about their personal appearance and lives. Even high-ranking government officials joined in this character assassination of the slain students. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, for instance, dismissed one of the women who was killed as "nothing more than a whore."
  • One of the students who was killed in the Kent State shootings—William Schroeder—had himself been enrolled in the university's ROTC program.
  • The most famous photograph from the Kent State shootings showed a young woman screaming over the body of one of the slain students (Jeffrey Miller). Kent State student John Filo, a photography major who took the picture, won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph. It appeared on the front pages of newspapers all across the country, and it continues to be one of the best-known images of the entire Vietnam War era. When the photograph was first published, everyone assumed that the young woman crying over the body was a Kent State student. In reality, however, she was Mary Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old runaway who became trapped in the chaos on campus.
  • Two days after the Kent State shootings, police officers in Mississippi opened fire on a crowd of unarmed black students at Jackson State College. The attack killed two students—Phillip Gibbs and James Green—and wounded twelve others. These shootings added to the wave of outraged protests that washed across the country during the spring of 1970.
  • Kent State University remained closed for six weeks after the shootings. During that time, school faculty held offcampus meetings and sent assignments through the mail so that students could receive credit for the semester. The university opened for classes again in the summer of 1970.

Sources

Bills, Scott. Kent State/May 4: Echoes through a Decade. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1988.

Davies, Peter. The Truth about Kent State: A Challenge to the American Conscience. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.

Grant, Edward J., and Michael Hill. I Was There: What Really Went On at Kent State. Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 1974.

Heineman, Kenneth J. "'Look Out Kid, You're Gonna Get Hit!': Kent State and the Vietnam Antiwar Movement." In Give Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Antiwar Movement. edited by Melvin Small and William D. Hoover. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Michener, James. Kent State: What Happened and Why. New York: Random House, 1971.

Report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970.

Taylor, Stuart, et al. Violence at Kent State, May 1 to May 4, 1970: The Students' Perspective. New York: College Notes and Texts, 1971.

Warren, Bill, ed. The Middle of the Country: The Events of May 4th as Seen by Students and Faculty at Kent State University. New York: Avon, 1970.


Ohio National Guard Releases a Declaration of Regret

In 1980 the Ohio National Guard agreed to issue a declaration of regret about the 1970 shootings at Kent State. This declaration was part of a legal settlement of a lawsuit filed by surviving victims and the families of slain students. Following is the full text of that declaration:

In retrospect, the tragedy of May 4, 1970, should not have occurred. The students may have believed that they were right in continuing their mass protest in response to the Cambodian invasion, even though this protest followed the posting and reading by the university of an order to ban rallies and an order to disperse. These orders have since been determined by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to have been lawful.

Some of the Guardsmen on Blanket Hill, fearful and anxious from prior events, may have believed in their own minds that their lives were in danger. Hindsight suggests that another method would have resolved the confrontation. Better ways must be found to deal with such a confrontation.

We devoutly wish that a means had been found to avoid the May 4th events culminating in the Guard shootings and the irreversible deaths and injuries. We deeply regret those events and are profoundly saddened by the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others which resulted. We hope that the agreement to end the litigation will help to assuage [heal] the tragic memories regarding that sad day.


About this article

Rubenstein, Bill

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article