The War Comes Home: The Kent State Shooting at 50

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The War Comes Home: The Kent State Shooting at 50

The final lesson from Kent State is also the most critical: any war in which the United States engages must have a foundation of truth and that truth must be acceptable to the American public.

Multiple failures of command provoked the calamity that came next. The troops were untrained for riot control operations. With only tear gas canisters and M-1 rifles with bayonets affixed and eight or nine live rounds each, the Guardsmen were inappropriately equipped, trained or led to safely control a large, frenzied crowd with anything short of deadly force. The troops were hobbled by poor guidance from all levels, unclear instructions and confusing rules of engagement. 

Compounding those failures, Brig. Gen. Robert Canterbury, the mission commander and senior Ohio Guardsman, marched his troops into a cul-de-sac fenced in on two sides. (Many histories of the event report that the Guardsmen were "surrounded," though that is not true; beyond and adjacent to the fencing were wide open areas.) Lieutenant Colonel Charles Fassinger, the senior commander closest to the troops at the commons, told his pinned-down troops to disperse the crowds, but provided no real guidance on how to do this short of deadly force.

The crowd, frenzied by the anarchy raging around them, grew emboldened. The situation rapidly became chaotic. Some students, believing the Guardsmen only carried blank rounds, began taunting the troops. A small group of students began throwing rocks and concrete at the National Guardsmen, pinning some of them against a wire fence. The students stood roughly the length of a football field away from the Guardsman. Many of the troops faced away from the mob. Suddenly, twenty-eight Guardsmen turned and fired indiscriminately. The origin of the decision to fire remains an unsettled matter. At least one of the Guardsmen incorrectly believed a sniper fired at him.

The numbers speak to the dizzying speed at which scared men turn bestial: sixty-seven rounds, thirteen seconds, nine wounded, four dead.

Protests Mobilized: The Aftermath

In the months preceding Kent State, reduced draft calls and the withdrawal of thousands of troops dampened the fervor of the anti-war movement. By the end of 1969, the anti-war movement waned outside of college campuses. After May 4, it roared back to life.

That afternoon, rather than offer a healing sentiment, Nixon issued a decidedly cold statement on the matter, placing blame on the students. The president’s words caused further grief among those shocked by the seemingly random firing upon unarmed Americans.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, nearly 450 college campuses across the country were closed due to student walkouts and for fear of copycat riots. Kent State closed for the remainder of the semester. Many universities removed all ROTC activities from campus and massive protests erupted in major American cities. More than 100,000 Americans marched on Washington, DC on May 10 to register disgust with the shooting. Sixteen states mobilized the National Guard to restore order within their boundaries. 

Within weeks, the famous folk group Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young released a protest song, "Ohio," in response to the shooting. The call to end the war grew louder across the country. More significantly, a joint amendment by Republican Senator John Sherman Cooper from Kentucky and Democratic Senator Frank Church from Idaho limited Nixon’s power to go after NVA forces in Laos with either ground or air assets.

American troops withdrew from Cambodia at the end of June 1970. The White House trumpeted the incursion as an operational triumph, claiming that conditions were now set for a reasonable peace agreement. The raids had been tactically successful but of no real strategic value. Nonetheless, MAC-V had done little to prepare the government of President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu to defend the South without significant American forces and resources.

There remained a gap between MACV’s military strategy and Nixon’s strategic objective of exiting while ensuring South Vietnam would remain independent. The ARVN were unable to defend the South without Americans. North Vietnamese official Le Duc Tho’s question to Kissinger in February 1970 remained without answer: “If the United States could not win with half a million of its own troops, how can you succeed when you let your puppet troops do the fighting?” Nonetheless, the president continued to gradually withdraw troops while searching for a face-saving way out of Vietnam. By this time, he had no real choice.

In the months that followed, the rift between the Silent Majority and the anti-war protestors expanded. Nixon, convinced Hanoi had a hand in the protest movement, grew paranoid and bitter. As a result, he unleashed the Linebacker bombing campaign, specifically designed to punish the north by striking previously off-limits targets such as power plants. The anti-war movement surged again. The Silent Majority dug in. Fueled by a frozen moment from the catastrophe at Kent State, captured and displayed across the nation, America grew more polarized.

Horror in the Heartland: An Image That Defined A War

Every war has its memories, songs, and moments that define a conflict to its fighters and citizenry. Newspaper and television coverage of the war in Vietnam sent many images into American living rooms that slowly turned American public support against the war. U.S. involvement in that conflict, widely supported across the country when initially deepened by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, began to turn as the unsettling scenes shocked the American public. 

General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan's extended arm, his bullet exiting the skull of Viet Cong operative Nguyễn Văn Lém. The horrific scene of seven-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked to escape the ravages of a napalm attack. The Associated Press photograph that needs no caption: a gathering of wounded, muddy paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, desperate to leave the battlefield, one of them trying to guide a medical evacuation helicopter. That soldier, arms extended as if in prayer, defining the utter hopelessness of U.S. policy. These scenes combined came to turn the public against the war. In Filo’s photograph, taken not on a foreign battlefield, but in a little-known state college in northeast Ohio, our war in this strange Indochinese country had at long last come home.

It was not so much the event itself, as the image that spoke for it, that became a rallying cry in the weeks and months that followed. In particular, John Paul Filo's picture of a horrified young woman kneeling over the body of student Jeffrey Miller captured the shocking moment. The photo ran in every major American newspaper the next day and served as the cover of the May 18, 1970 edition of Newsweek.

The stark photograph was distinct from images of American soldiers on stretchers and more disturbing than the images of GIs pointing rifles at terrified elderly south Vietnamese women. Filo's photograph was different.

These images came to define the war for Americans. At the time, they created a collective experience of a conflict somehow dirtier and less honorable than World War II. Today, long after the fall of Saigon, these photos speak to us through the souls of the countless Vietnamese, American, Laotian, and Cambodian dead.

For a moment in 1970, the photograph defined the way American citizens felt about their military and government, galvanizing domestic pressure to end the war. It also shaped the character of the domestic reporting of Nixon's handling of the war. The American public no longer cared about winning or losing, it just wanted the war over. By June of 1970, for the first time, a majority of Americans felt the war in Vietnam was a mistake.

Why did this image resonate so vividly? There is a certain exaggerated sense of lost innocence in the vision of a young, terrified white woman in the American Midwest. In May of 1970, the average American could see herself or her son or daughter as the dead college student or the horrified white woman.

A mere eleven days after the deadly shooting in Ohio, police killed two young, unarmed African-Americans, freely firing hundreds of rounds of bullets on protesters gathered at Mississippi's predominantly black Jackson State College. The police officers did not call ambulances until they picked up all shell casings (police later denied firing at all). This incident remains mostly forgotten; there are no iconic photographs and no protest songs. School cancellations did not follow. The nation is unlikely to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Jackson State shooting in the coming weeks.

Myths, Inaccuracies, and Overlooked Details: Clarifying Kent State

The image of the distressed young woman is now representative of the antiwar movement. However, curiously, her name, Mary Ann Vecchio, is largely unknown. Most news outlets, and the original Associated Press caption, identified Vecchio as a Kent State student and protestor. She was neither; Vecchio was a fourteen-year-old runaway passing through campus at the time of the protest. 

Another myth of Kent State is that all four Americans killed were protestors. This is not the case. William K. Schroeder, nineteen-year-old sophomore and ROTC cadet, was walking to class when a bullet entered his chest, pierced his left lung, and exited his left shoulder. Likewise, Sandra Lee Scheuer, who did not participate in the day’s protests, was walking across the school grounds when a bullet pierced her jugular vein, causing her to bleed to death.