On 4 May 1970, a thirteen second volley of gunfire ended the lives of four Kent State University students and wounded nine others. The tragic event became known simply as "Kent State" or the May 4th Shootings. Some popular culture historians consider the events and aftermath of Kent State as the figurative death of the 1960s counter-culture movement.
The Kent State shootings certainly had a chilling effect on domestic opposition to the Vietnam War. For some, Kent State became a rallying cry against government oppression, while others saw it as an attempt to re-establish a sense of law and order. It seems the truth lies somewhere in-between.
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In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president based partially on a campaign promise to end the war in Vietnam as quickly as possible. Nixon not only failed to reduce the number of troops in Vietnam, but also approved a covert plan to invade neighboring countries such as Cambodia and Laos. When news of this secret expansion of the war reached the United States, a number of protests broke out on college campuses, including Kent State University in the small city of Kent, Ohio. A group of students at Kent State, aided by out-of-state protest organizers, decided to hold a demonstration against the Cambodian invasion during the long weekend of 1 through 4 May. The plan was to hold a noon rally on 4 May near Blanket Hill, a vast expanse of green space between the student center and other campus buildings.
A series of unfortunate events both on and off campus soon created a volatile and confrontational atmosphere, however. Rowdy patrons of several downtown bars went on a destructive spree on 1 May, causing local business owners to demand immediate action against the college students they believed were responsible. Although much of the damage was actually caused by bikers and other non-students, the mayor of Kent agreed to enforce a curfew.
Angered by the city's actions, a small number of students decided to vent their frustrations by burning down an abandoned ROTC building located on campus. When firefighters arrived to put out the blaze, they were attacked with rocks and had their hoses slashed. News of a potential riot on the Kent State campus reached the mayor of Kent, who immediately petitioned Ohio governor James Rhodes for deployment of the National Guard.
The arrival of the National Guard, which had already been dealing with a tense union strike, marked the beginning of a tragic series of misunderstandings. The Guardsmen were originally ordered to restore a sense of order after the ROTC incident. Once this was accomplished, their mission became a little less clear. Word of an impending protest rally had reached the offices of the mayor of Kent and Governor Rhodes.
There were also rumors of more sinister participants, such as the militant Weather Underground. Undercover FBI agents also reported the presence of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Youth International Party (YIP), or Yippies. In short, the noon rally on 4 May was not going to be the peaceful demonstration organizers had advertised.
As the relatively small crowds formed for the protest rally, other students continued to change classes or simply watch the spectacle from afar. During one such class change, the crowd began to move towards the Guardsmen in an effort to force them out of the assembly area. The Guardsmen fired tear gas canisters, which were thrown back by protesters.
During a confused retreat towards a Japanese Pagoda on higher ground, some Guardsmen believed an order to fire into the crowd had been ordered. Thirteen seconds of gunfire from M-16 rifles erupted, killing four students and wounding nine others. Two of the dead students were not part of the protest, but were simply in the wrong place as they changed classes.
Years of litigation against individual Guardsmen followed after the Kent State shootings, but most were exonerated. Essentially, a commanding officer believed a sniper had fired at the troops and he made an ambiguous arm gesture which some Guardsmen had interpreted as an order to fire. No evidence of a sniper was found, but the courts were sympathetic to the Guardsmen who believed they were following lawful orders. Meanwhile, the term Kent State entered popular culture as shorthand for unchecked governmental control over domestic protest movements.