Nationwide protests against U.S. involvement in military actions in Vietnam reached a climax on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970, as members of the Ohio National Guards opened fire on student protesters, resulting in the death of four students and wounding of nine others. Kent State students Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder were killed during the shooting. Those injured included Joseph Lewis, Thomas Grace, John Cleary, Alan Canfora, Dean Kahler, Douglas Wrentmore, James Russell, Robert Stamps, and Donald Mackenzie. The actual shooting lasted only 13 seconds. However, this event marked the culmination of escalating tensions between Kent State students, the surrounding community of Kent, Ohio, and members of the Ohio National Guard, who were dispatched to the area to assist local authorities after a state of emergency was declared on May 1, 1970. The events of these four days in Kent had national ramifications, and today are viewed historically as a watershed event reflecting widespread sociocultural discontent during the Vietnam era.
The events leading up to the Kent State shootings are located within the larger context of the national anti-war movement of the 1960s, which was initiated in protest of U.S. military operations across Southeast Asia, the federal military draft system, and post-World War II expansion of U.S. military presence around the globe. In the event that triggered the Kent State protests and subsequent shootings, President Richard Nixon ordered U.S. troops to invade Cambodia in April 1970, effectively expanding the Vietnam conflict. This action was viewed by many as a direct contradiction of Nixon’s 1968 campaign promise to deescalate and eventually conclude U.S. involvement in Vietnam. On April 30, 1970, before a live television audience, President Nixon advised the American public of his decision to invade Cambodia. The president explained the action as necessary to attack the headquarters of the Viet Cong, which was then located across the Vietnamese-Cambodian border.
Across the United States, reaction to Nixon’s speech was immediate, taking the form of anti-war protests and demonstrations on many college campuses. At Kent State, a rally was quickly organized by students for noon on Friday, May 1. That day, students gathered on the University Commons, located at the center of the Kent State campus, to proclaim dissatisfaction with the Nixon administration and the further escalation of an undeclared war. During this protest, the students buried a copy of the U.S. Constitution to symbolically memorialize their view that the Constitution had been “killed” along with tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers who lost their lives in what was described as a military police action. Another rally was scheduled for noon on Monday, May 4.
Friday nights in Kent characteristically found students leaving campus and gathering in downtown bars and restaurants. The weekend of May 1-3, 1970, began in typical fashion, but soon mounting tensions between students and local police erupted in violent encounters. Although many specific details of the evening remain in doubt, certain actions on the part of both students and law enforcement have been clearly documented. A crowd of students gathered in the downtown area and an impromptu demonstration ensued. A bonfire was built in the street, bottles were thrown at police cars, and many buildings in the downtown area had windows broken out. The crowd grew larger as more students left the bars along “the strip” in downtown Kent and joined the demonstration. As the crowd grew, the demonstration moved to the center of town. Shouting anti-war slogans, the students directed their aggression toward businesses and institutions viewed as representing the sociopolitical establishment (e.g., law enforcement, banks and other financial institutions, utility companies). The crowd blocked traffic in the area for more than an hour, and Kent Mayor Leroy Sartrom called for assistance from county and surrounding municipal law enforcement agencies. Mayor Sartrom contacted Ohio Governor James Rhodes’ office asking for further assistance and declared a state of emergency. He ordered the immediate closing of all bars, which caused even more students to be turned out onto the streets of Kent. The police, led by Sartrom, then confronted the students and ordered them back to the Kent State campus. Law enforcement officials finally succeeded in forcing the crowd to return to the campus with the use of teargas and nightsticks. Before the night was over, representatives from the Ohio National Guard were on their way to Kent.
The next day, Saturday, May 2, Sartrom met with other city officials and a representative of the Ohio National Guard. It was decided that Sartrom would make an official request to Governor Rhodes and that members of the Ohio National Guard would be dispatched to Kent. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was put in place, and students were restricted to the Kent Sate campus. Tension continued to mount as city officials assessed damages from the Friday night demonstration. Rumors continued to swirl that radical activists on the Kent State campus were planning further hostile acts. Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs on many college campuses had become prime targets for violence over the years during the Vietnam anti-war movement, and Kent officials feared the same on the campus of Kent State.
On Saturday evening, students again gathered on the University Commons. By 10 o’clock, the Ohio National Guard had arrived to confront the more than 1,000 students at the demonstration. At this time, the ROTC building, adjacent to the Commons, was engulfed in flames and would eventually burn to the ground. Confrontations between students and Guardsmen continued throughout the night. Students cheered the burning of the ROTC building as Guardsmen attempted to disperse the crowd with teargas. In the mayhem, fire fighters were unable to reach the burning building, numerous students were arrested, and the campus was rapidly turning into a war-zone-like atmosphere.
Sunday morning (May 3, 1970) dawned with the campus of Kent State University under full occupation by the Ohio National Guard. Although there were reports of instances between students and Guardsmen engaging in small pleasantries, the overall campus atmosphere was charged with hostility amid anxious tension. City and state officials took advantage of the quiet day to speak with media. Ohio Governor Rhodes, who was also campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat on a platform of “law and order,” came to Kent. During a news conference, he stated that the violence experienced that weekend in Kent was the handiwork of radical, highly organized revolutionists who were determined to “destroy higher education in Ohio.” Rhodes also called the campus protesters the “worst type of people in America” and warned that “whatever force necessary” would be used against them.
During this press conference, Rhodes stated that he would seek a court order declaring a state of emergency. This step was never taken. Nevertheless, Rhodes’ statement provided the platform for city officials, along with University officials, to presume a state of martial law had been declared, so that the Ohio National Guard was in lawful control of the campus. Such martial control would prohibit further free assemblies on campus.
On Sunday evening, tensions escalated once again, with students gathering on the Commons near the Victory Bell. Guard officials announced an immediate curfew and demanded that the crowd disperse. Around nine o’clock, the Ohio Riot Act was read to the students as helicopters dropped teargas into the crowd. Throughout the night, helicopters equipped with searchlights monitored student movements as teargas filtered throughout the campus. Students not honoring the new curfew were arrested.
On the morning of Monday, May 4, students moved forward with plans to hold the previously announced anti-war rally, scheduled for noon on the Commons. University officials attempted to stop this demonstration by distributing 12,000 leaflets to students explaining that all rallies were banned as long as the Ohio National Guard was in control of the campus. In defiance of this order, students started to gather on the Commons as early as 11 a.m. By noon, an estimated 3,000 Kent State students filled the Commons, now mostly in protest of the Ohio National Guard occupation of their university. The landscape of the Kent State campus that morning is generally considered as follows: approximately 500 students gathered on the Commons near the Victory Bell, another 1,000 students gathered in support of the active demonstrators, 1,500 additional students gathered around the perimeter of the Commons, and across the Commons, at the burned-out ROTC building, approximately 100 Ohio National Guardsmen armed with M-1 rifles.
The Guardsmen were under the command of General Robert Canterbury, who made the decision shortly before noon to order the students to disperse. A Kent State police officer made the announcement to the crowd using a bullhorn while standing by the Guard. The announcement had no effect on the crowd. The Kent State officer was then driven across the Commons, in a Jeep and under Guard escort, announcing the rally was illegal and demanding that the students leave immediately. The crowd grew openly angry and the military jeep retreated. General Canterbury ordered his men to lock and load their weapons, and teargas was fired into the crowd assembled closest to the Victory Bell. Guardsmen then began a march across the Commons to disperse the crowd. The crowd moved off the Commons and up the steep hill known as Blanket Hill and down the other side toward Prentice Hall. Prentice Hall is adjacent to the football practice field, which is surrounded by a fence. Soon, the Guardsmen following the students found themselves more or less trapped by the fence. Hostilities between students and Guard members (e.g., rock throwing, shouting, and name calling) continued to escalate. After approximately 10 minutes, the Guard began to retrace their forward movement back up Blanket Hill. As they reached the top, 28 Guardsmen turned and opened fire on the protestors. Some shot into the air, while others shot directly into the crowd of students: 61 to 67 shots were fired in 13 seconds. In the end, four Kent State students lay dead, with nine more students wounded.
In the aftermath of the Kent State shootings, the university was immediately ordered closed by Kent State President Robert White and classes did not resume until the summer of 1970. Students and faculty members worked together to fulfill the semester class requirements for those enrolled in the university during the spring of 1970. The legal aftermath did not conclude until 1979, when an out-of-court settlement was reached between 28 defendants and the families of the dead and wounded. Part of this settlement included a letter of regret signed by the defendants in the case.
The question remains today: Why did the Guardsmen fire live ammunition into the crowd of students? Two different and competing conclusions have been reached: (1) The Guardsmen fired in self-defense, and (2) the Guardsmen were not in immediate danger and, therefore, were unjustified in discharging their weapons. Numerous studies and analyses of the shootings have been conducted over the years, and many books, articles, and collections of personal accounts have been published. In retrospect, scholars of the Kent State tragedy have identified several main themes associated with this incident. First, Kent State has come to symbolize a great sociocultural divide within the United States throughout the time known as the Vietnam era. Second, the United States has not completely healed from the wounds created during this period in its history.
Ideally, we can learn from the past, including painful incidents such as the Kent State shootings. As we seek better resolutions for conflict in the future, the lessons learned from Kent State can lead to better outcomes. In this case, the lives lost by four Kent State students will not have been in vain.
- Bills, S. (1988). Kent State/May 4: Echoes through a decade. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.
- Lewis, J., & Hensley, T. (1998, Summer). The May 4 shootings at Kent State University: The search for historical accuracy. Also published in revised form by the Ohio Council for Social Studies Review, 34(1), 9-21.
- Report of the President’s Commission of Campus Unrest. (1970). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Reprint Edition by Arno Press.