A Tragic Anniversary
Column By Vincent R. Vurchio
Four dead in Ohio.
May 4, 1970. Kent State University campus, Kent, Ohio. Four students killed and nine wounded by National Guardsmen.
Let’s back up a bit.
Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 with a promise to end the Vietnam War, a conflict that was in the process of tearing this country in half. The undeclared war, referred to as a ‘police action’, was like no other we had ever fought before, nor have we ever encountered another like it since. No Vietnamese had attacked the US. No Vietnamese had even threatened to attack the US. We had no quarrel with the Vietnamese people, the majority of whom had no time to consider international politics because they were too busy trying to put food on their tables. The Vietnamese people were not our enemy.
Our enemy was world Communism, embodied in the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China. We could not go to war with these two. Not directly. So instead we waged a symbolic war in Vietnam, militarily supporting an unpopular dictatorial regime in the southern half of the country and trying desperately to keep the Communist north from taking over the whole peninsula. The fear was that if Vietnam fell, then all the rest of Southeast Asia would fall. It was the dreaded domino theory, and some said it would lead across the Pacific to Hawaii and right on into California if we didn’t draw the line in Vietnam.
Over 47,000 US soldiers died in that war. 47,000. To those who compare Vietnam to our current entanglements in the Middle East, keep that number in mind. 47,000. We blanched when Iraq cost us a thousand troops. At three-thousand we were ready to quit. 47,000. Three times that number came back from Vietnam physically wounded, and many more bore invisible wounds that still haunt this society today. It’s been estimated that over two million Vietnamese were killed during that war. And Nixon promised to stop the slaughter.
What he did instead was invade Cambodia. The Communists were using Cambodia as a hiding place and staging ground, like our current enemies use Pakistan. Nixon announced on April 30th, 1970, that he had ordered our troops into Cambodia, and the general reaction of most Americans was what today would be called a giant “WTF?”.
College campuses across the country exploded. They were already centers of antiwar protest, and this betrayal was taken as the last straw. Protesters hit the streets by the millions. Tensions rose. Nixon declared that the protests would not be allowed to threaten our national security. He suggested a get-tough policy. And so when the protests in Kent State spilled off campus and out into the streets, resulting in rioting and looting, the mayor called the governor, and the governor, comparing the protesters to Nazi brown-shirts, called for the National Guard.
On May 4th, about 2,000 students armed with anger, rocks, bottles, and epithets, confronted 75 National Guardsmen, armed with loaded rifles and bayonets. The previous day several students had been bayoneted by guardsmen as they were herded back into their dorms. The campus ROTC building had been torched. Now, in a grassy area on campus normally used for rallies, the trouble started again.
The Guardsmen attempted to move the crowd after orders to disperse were ignored. Tear gas canisters were ineffective, and most were being thrown back at the Guardsmen. The students, who knew the campus better than the Guardsmen, managed to maneuver the Guardsmen into an athletic practice field, pretty much the way Crazy Horse had trapped General Custer into an indefensible position. The absolute truth of what happened next may never be known. But shortly thereafter, four students were dead, nine others were wounded, and most of them hadn’t even been participating in the protest, they were trying to get to class.
Some say the Guard was ordered to fire, some say they were fired on first, although only one Guardsman was injured enough to require medical attention and his wound was from a rock, not a bullet. By that year it was impossible to tell how many protesters on any campus were actual students and how many were FBI plants, agitators placed in volatile situations to make sure peaceful gatherings somehow turned violent in an effort to further blacken the reputation of the antiwar movement. Perhaps the Guardsmen just panicked, perhaps they feared for their lives, but for whatever reason a volley of 67 shots was fired over the course of fifteen seconds.
The American government had now declared war on its own youth.
Neil Young wrote a song about it that night. Campuses across the country shut down as students boycotted classes. The government investigated, but of course nobody was ever blamed for anything and nobody attached to the National Guard ever served a day in jail. People still debate the justification, and whether or not the tragedy was the obvious conclusion of an antiwar movement that had gone from peaceful sit-ins to violent confrontations, or the purposeful escalation from a government suddenly terrified of its own people. Ten days later a similar incident at Jackson State campus in Mississippi occurred. he National Guard was not involved, just local and state police, so the death of two students and the wounding of twelve never got the attention Kent State did. But the damage was done, and it went way beyond six funerals and tons of rhetoric.
I was just turning seventeen in a small upstate New York town when Kent State happened. I was draft bait. I had applied for Conscientious Objector Status but the local board wasn’t buying it, and in the long run I don’t blame them. I thought the war was wrong and I had taken part in many local protests. But up to that point I was convinced that all the patriotic crap I’d been fed in school was true, that the Constitution protected and even encouraged our right to protest, that it was all part of the process that made our country work. I believed that after the dust settled we would be a stronger and better people for the experience.
I never dreamed that the government that is supposed to exist for the benefit of the people would become so paranoid that it would kill its own youth to protect its status quo. I learned that day that the government will tell you what you want to hear about conserving your rights and freedoms while understanding among themselves that when those rights and freedoms become inconvenient to whatever cause they currently are pushing, they will not hesitate to kill you if they feel it becomes necessary. And they won’t even feel bad about it.
The National Guard did more than kill four students that day at Kent State. They killed a generation’s trust in the system. Now, whenever the government comes up with a new proposal we wonder what they’re really up to. Did we invade Iraq because of their ties to Al Qaida (the 9-11 terrorist came from Saudi Arabia, who happen to be our ‘friends’), or because they possessed WMD’s we were never able to find (and didn’t even care enough about to fabricate on our own), or were we motivated by less altruistic obligations? Is Obamacare really an attempt to make sure every American has medical insurance or is it just another excuse to get the government more involved in our personal lives, perhaps even abusing the Interstate Commerce clause so badly to force participation that the Constitution may as well be printed on toilet paper?
The historical effects of events cannot be determined until well after the sound and fury has settled. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves but it didn’t make them citizens and protect their rights, and thus doomed an entire race of people to a century of political limbo. If Lincoln had known how that would turn out, would he have still forced the issue in the same way? If Lyndon Johnson had seen the destructive effect of welfare on the structure of the family – and its resultant denigration of the society as whole – would he still have supported it so avidly? If the United Nations had had the prescience to see what carving Israel out of Palestine would do to world geopolitics, would they have found another way to make reparations for the Holocaust? If then Ohio Governor Rhoades had known the repercussions of calling out the troops forty-one years ago this May, might he have opted for another path?
We’ll never know, and arguing all the ‘what if’s’, while a great head game, is ultimately meaningless. These things happened. Kent State happened, and because of it we have to play the hand we’ve been dealt. We may win, and we may lose……but, we will never forget who the dealer was.
(Vincent R. Vurchio is a freelance writer who lives in Waterbury)