The War Comes Home: The Kent State Shooting at 50

National Archives

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.

However, perhaps the most glaring inaccuracy about the Kent State shooting involves the match that lit the fuse to the explosion at the small campus on May 4. Most histories of the incident claim that the protests formed in response to Nixon's invasion into a neutral country. This claim is only made true by stretching the words "invasion" and "neutral" to their widest application.

Nixon's Cambodia operation was an expansion, not an invasion, and by 1970 Cambodia was hardly neutral. North Vietnamese regulars occupied the border state. The Cambodian government could no longer control its borders. The right-wing Prime Minister Lon Nol asked for American forces to clear out North Vietnamese base camps. Cambodia had long been a theater within the war between North and South Vietnam. Nonetheless, the anti-Nixon media narrative stuck and remains reported to this day.

Several histories of the 1960s campus protest movement claim that the reaction to the Kent State shootings forced Nixon to withdraw from Vietnam. This is grossly untrue; that decision had already been made. Pressure was building on Nixon to end U.S. commitment to the war from the moment he took office in January 1969. That pressure gained strength with the New York Times' publication of front-page articles on the Pentagon Papers in January 1971. Nixon’s base was unmoved by the news out of Ohio. The Silent Majority largely placed sole blame on the students

Many accounts claim that an anti-war sentiment, grown dormant by the ceaseless American combat effort, roared back to life on May 4, 1970. This is unsupported by the volume of mass protests around the country in early 1970

The Kent State shooting did not, in fact, define a pivotal moment in the American view of the war. The country’s heart had long been gashed. The carnage of the surprise Tet Offensive, two years prior, was much more damaging to domestic support for America’s entanglement. This was, after all, the primary reason that President Lyndon Johnson did not seek reelection in 1968.

It is certainly the case that a nation already weary of images of American boys dying in jungles, farms, and rice paddies was horrified by this vision of hell in Ohio and paid attention to the news of the war with renewed interest. Filo’s photograph was shocking. It offended the sensibility of the nation. It did not, however, mobilize a long-term groundswell of demand for withdrawal.

While Kent State served to escalate, for about a year, an antiwar movement on college campuses, U.S. forces remained in Vietnam for thirty-two months after shots rang out in Ohio. Nixon, Kissinger, and Abrams tried pounding the NVA into submission from the air, blockading the North, and mining major ports, all in an attempt to pressure the North Vietnamese into an agreeable peace deal. An agreeable peace deal for Nixon meant one that would give the U.S. breathing space before the inevitable Northern victory. 

Lost in much of the history about the Kent State incident is one of the great ironies regarding American involvement in Vietnam: the Ohio National Guard, composed of many young Americans who avoided the draft and terrors of combat in the war, fired on young Americans protesting combat in the war. Young Americans firing on young Americans in the American heartland. We had come to this—the confusion, contradiction, and agony of American policy in Vietnam and its effect on the American psyche. 

Also lost to history, but important to mention is the coincidence that at almost the same time as the shooting at Kent State, seven paratroopers from the U.S. Army's 101st Assault Helicopter Battalion died in the mid-air collision of a Huey UH-1H and a Cobra AH-1G in the Thua Thien province of South Vietnam. Another seventeen American Soldiers were killed in combat in Vietnam the same day. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of their death as well.

A Hero and A Villain: Leadership Lessons from May 4, 1970

Such an emotionally-wrought situation does not adhere to binaries of right and wrong. Many parties, including the feckless school administrations, and the local government, deserve some measure of blame for escalating the situation. Certainly, the Ohio National Guard acquitted itself poorly. Both a presidential commission and an FBI investigation later determined that the troops were never in real danger.

While the shooting resulted from multiple points of failure, the reckless actions of Governor Jim Rhodes stand out. In an attempt to advance his political fortunes, Rhodes stirred emotions on both sides when he should have served as a calming influence.

On the other hand, the compassion of Glenn Frank, a geology professor, likely prevented additional carnage. In the minutes after the shooting, the Guardsmen moved forward to disperse the bewildered crowd. Frank pleaded with the students, begging them to leave. He also attempted to calm the National Guard leadership. Were it not for his humanity, a second altercation seemed likely.

Beyond the controversy and blame, today it is important to remember the names of the four unarmed Americans gunned down before the age of twenty-one in the United States by representatives of their government: Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Allison B. Krause, William Knox Schroeder, and Sandra Lee Scheuer.

Frozen in Time: The Legacy of Kent State

233 years after delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered to build a nation based on self-rule, the ideas at the heart of the American experiment are manifest in the events of May 4, 1970. The respect for nationhood, the golden notion of individual liberties, and the hostility against a tyrannous standing Army and an oppressive government, are all speaking to us from that haunting photograph. So, too, are lessons about leading and organizing young men and women, the manner in which passions evolve over time, and the concept of history itself

In troubled, polarized times, Kent State has much to say to the country. The United States has seen division at home before. It has lived through turmoil, uncertainty, and political polarization. The country has come through all such moments with a mature understanding of who its citizens are. Today, fifty years on, the image of that horrific event stands as a symbol of what degree of separation can exist between a government and its people. 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.

Joe Buccino is a U.S. Army Soldier and the author of the forthcoming book Burn the Village to Save It, about the 1968 Tet Offensive. Views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Army.

Image: National Archives