#SJYALit May 4, 1970: The Day the Vietnam War Came Home, a guest post by Sabrina Fedel
On May 4th, 1970, tragedy struck the campus of Kent State University when National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed student protestors. The Guard fired 67 rounds over thirteen seconds into a crowd of several thousand. M1 bullets struck trees, shattered windshields, and lodged in two separate dormitories where, moments before, students had been crowding windows to watch the protest. Four students lay dead and nine more were seriously injured, one of them paralyzed.
The nation was shocked, but also deeply divided over the Guard’s use of force. President Nixon said that night on television that he was sorry about the dead and injured students, but that “tragedy is invited when dissent turns to violence.” The National Student Association called for a nationwide strike to protest the “appalling use of force,” while news outlets interviewed average citizens who said things like “they should have shot them all.”
Kent, Ohio, was a typical college town in 1970. It had a robust bar reputation thanks to a vibrant music scene. There had been small protests in Kent, but the major clashes were happening at schools like UC Berkeley and Ohio University. No one predicted that the penultimate clash between citizen protestors and the Nixon Administration would occur in sleepy Kent.
On Thursday, April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced that American troops had invaded Cambodia to drive the North Vietnamese out of that country. Young people across the U.S. saw this as a blatant escalation in Vietnam and another broken promise to end the war.
On Friday afternoon, a group of about 500 students gathered near the Victory Bell on the KSU campus. Two graduate students who were Vietnam veterans burned their draft cards and buried a copy of the constitution because, they said, Nixon had killed it.
That night, students gathered downtown for their usual bar hopping. Some stopped cars to ask drivers what they thought of the invasion. A couple of trash can bonfires were lit. The police moved in and shut the bars down, pushing a large, drunk crowd into the street. A small riot ensued as beer bottles were thrown through store windows and at police cruisers. Police drove the crowd back to campus, but Main Street was a disaster.
On Saturday morning, rumors flew as people gathered to clean up downtown. Many residents believed that outside communist agitators, the kind they had been hearing about for months in the news, were waiting to descend on Kent to poison the water and plant bombs. These fears were not totally without foundation. The country had suffered a series of domestic terrorism attacks that leant an air of possibility to these fears. Kent’s mayor wasn’t taking chances. He requested National Guard support from Governor Jim Rhodes.
Governor Rhodes was in a tight senate race with a member of the popular Taft family and eager to establish his reputation as a “law and order” official. By late afternoon, National Guard troops had moved into Kent.
The students were ordered to stay on campus that night. This led to an impromptu protest and the burning of the ROTC building on campus. Bayoneted Guardsmen clashed with students as they struggled to regain order and lock up the dorms for the night.
By Sunday, the campus was calm again. Students mingled in the warm weather checking out the damage to the ROTC building and even taking photo ops with the Guardsmen. But there was growing unrest at the idea of being treated like naughty children. The students wanted the Guard to leave. They wanted the curfew lifted and their rights to move freely restored.
Their anger was becoming as much about authoritarian rule as it was about Vietnam.
On Monday, May 4th, students gathered to protest. The crowd of several hundred quickly swelled as kids walked through the commons on their way to noon classes. Many stopped to watch the guard march around and demand the students disperse. A small number of protesters heckled the guard or threw rocks. Chants of “One, Two, Three, Four, We Don’t Want Your Fucking War,” and “Pigs Off Campus,” echoed over the hillside. The Guard responded with tear gas, but the day was windy and it had little effect. The Guard, apparently in a show of force, marched down the hill to a practice field and became trapped between a fence and the protestors. “We have you surrounded,” they announced and a roar of laughter erupted.
The Guardsmen huddled on the field before walking back up the hill toward Taylor Hall. Many students thought the protest was over and began to head to class. When the Guard reached the top of the hill, however, they turned in one motion and began firing into the crowd. Not a single student was close enough to be a danger to the Guardsmen.
The Vietnam War, with all its ugliness and social injustice, had come home. Despite massive inquiries in the ensuing decade, no definitive evidence has surfaced to explain the Guard’s attack. Several Guardsmen claimed they feared for their lives, but no Guardsman involved has ever been able to explain why they believed that. An FBI investigation found the force used was “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.” Slowly, the massacre at Kent became the final straw in America’s tolerance for the war, leaving us with a legacy of questions, but also a clear sense of the unacceptable use of deadly force to counter unarmed civil protest.
Sabrina Fedel’s debut Young Adult novel, Leaving Kent State, was recently released from Harvard Square Editions. Her YA short story, Honor’s Justice, was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize, as well as a 2016 storySouth Million Writers Award and a Sundress Publications Best of the Net ’16 award. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. You can find Sabrina at her website, www.sabrinafedel.com, or on twitter (@writeawhile) or Instagram.
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About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
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