The Shootings of May 4th At Kent State University

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During the Vietnam War, President Richard M. Nixon announced that the American troops would be joining the South Vietnamese troops in the military offensive into Cambodia. After this statement was released new protests on college campuses began going against the Vietnam War. This was especially was happening at Kent State University.

On Monday, May 4, 1970, events at Kent State University would make history. The actions conducted by the National Guard at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 are not justified because the Guardsmen were not in immediate danger, other methods could have resolved the problem, and four people were killed. Richard M. Nixon was elected as president of the United States in 1968. The main reason Nixon was elected was because he made a promise to end the war in Vietnam during his presidency.

Prior to Nixon’s presidency, in 1965 U.S. combat troops had been sent to Vietnam to help aid South Vietnam against the Communist North Vietnam (Roberts 21). By the beginning of 1970, 38,000 Americans had been killed in the war (Roberts 21). America’s involvement appeared to be winding down during Nixon’s 1st year of presidency, but by his 2nd year, things started to change. On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced on national TV and radio that the U.S. had invaded Cambodia with the South Vietnamese troops (Lewis).

President Nixon explained that the invasion of Cambodia was designed to attack the headquarters of the Viet Cong, which is where the North Vietnamese was using Cambodia territory as a sanctuary (Lewis). The Vietnam War was becoming progressively unpopular, specifically with college students being at the leading edge of the anti-war protest movement. Immediately the next day on May 1, 1970, protests began to occur across U.S. college campuses.

At Kent State University, an anti-war rally was held at 12 pm on the commons at the school. The commons is a large grassy area in the middle of the campus which had usually been the site for various types of rallies and demonstrations at Kent State (Lewis). Many fiery speeches about being against the war and the Nixon administration were given. Some students at the rally even went as far as to bury a copy of the Constitution to symbolize the death of the Constitution itself (Lewis). This was because Congress had never officially declared war on North Vietnam or Cambodia. Another rally was then called at noon on Monday, May 4th.

On the Morning of May 4th, the university officials of Kent State attempted to inform the campus that the rally was prohibited, but this did not stop students. A crowd began to gather as early as 11 am and by noon the entire commons area contained about 3,000 people (Lewis). The estimates are not exact but about 500 core protesters were around the Victory Bell at one end of the commons, and another 1,000 people were “cheerleaders” at the rally (Lewis). An additional 1,500 people were spectators around the perimeter of the commons as well (Lewis).

Across the commons stood about 100 Ohio National Guardsmen carrying lethal M-1 military rifles (Lewis). Before noon, General Canterbury ordered the protesters to disperse from the commons and announced it by using a bullhorn. It had no effect on the protesters. After the protesters would not leave, General Canterbury ordered his men to lock and load their weapons and prepare the tear gas canisters. The tear gas canisters were fired into the crowds around Victory Bell and the Guardsmen began to march their way to the commons to disperse the rally.

The protesters then started to move up the steep hill known as Blanket Hill and travel down to the other side (Lewis). On the other side was a parking lot and a practice football field. Majority of the Guardsmen followed the students and got themselves somewhat trapped on the practice football field since it was surrounded by a fence. Several of those Guardsmen could be seen huddling together while some knelt and pointed their guns. The Guardsmen then began to travel back up Blanket Hill, but once they reached the top 28 out of more than 70 Guardsmen turned and suddenly fired their guns at the students (Lewis). Between 61-67 shots were fired in a 13 second period. Nine Kent State students were injured and four other students were killed by the Guard. The shootings on May 4, 1970 were shocking and tragic and forever left an impact on history.

As soon as the shooting ended, Guardsmen retreated back to the commons, facing a large and hostile crowd that now knew the Guard had live ammunition. In the protester’s intense anger, many became willing to risk their own lives and attacked the Guardsmen. Ambulances had started to arrive at that point and emergency medical attention was given to students who had not died immediately. Hours after the shootings, Kent State University closed and was not open for six weeks as a viable university (Lewis). President Nixon also issued a statement regarding the shootings and described the deaths as “tragic and unfortunate”, but placed some blamed onto the protesters saying, “This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy” (Roberts 21).

After about two months, the U.S. troops withdrew from Cambodia, having accomplished very little (Norton 898) Many events led up to the day of shootings. For example, on Friday, May 1st during the evening in downtown Kent on North Water Street, a normal night with socializing in the bars was to be expected (Mirman). Things ended up escalating quickly when protesters and local police got into a violent confrontation. The exact causes of what started the confrontation are still up for debate to this day, but bonfires were built in the street, cars were stopped, police cars were hit with bottles, and some store windows were broken (Lewis).

The entire Kent police force was called out to duty, along with some officers from the county and surrounding communities. The Mayor of Kent, Leroy Satrom, declared a state of emergency and called Governor James Rhodes office to seek help (Lewis). Mayor Satrom also ordered all bars to close, but that only seemed to increase the size of the angry crowd. Police eventually used tear gas to help disperse the crowd from downtown, which forced the crowd to move several blocks back to campus. On Saturday, May 2nd, Mayor Satrom met with city officials and a representative from the Ohio National Guard who was dispatched to Kent (Lewis).

At this meeting, Mayor Satrom made the decision to ask Governor Rhodes to send the Ohio National Guard to Kent. Mayor Satrom was mainly worried about local forces being unable to handle the potential disturbances by the protesters, and so around 5 pm, Mayor Satrom called the Governor’s office to make an official request for assistance from the Ohio National Guard (Lewis). Members of the Ohio National Guard were already on duty in Northeast Ohio, thus they were able to make it to Kent quickly and arrived at around 10 pm. When the Guard arrived, the wooden ROTC building adjacent to the commons was set on fire. It eventually burned to the ground that evening with over 1,000 protesters surrounding the building (Lewis). The next day, Sunday, May 3rd, nearly 1,000 Guardsmen occupied the campus grounds, making it appear like a military war zone (Lewis).

More confrontations between the protesters and guardsmen occurred that evening. Rocks were thrown, tear gas, and arrests characterized a tense campus. The days leading up to the scheduled rally on May 4th were tense to say the least and only increased the pressure on both sides. The most crucial and important question surrounded by the shootings on May 4th is why did the Guardsmen fire into a crowd of unarmed students? In court, the Guardsmen claim that they fired because they were in fear of their lives (Lewis). They also said that they felt the protesters were advancing on them in such a way as to pose a serious and immediate threat to their safety.

Therefore claimed that they had to fire in self-defense (Lewis). More initial reports from the Guardsmen also say that they believed they were responding to a sniper fire, but no evidence of a sniper was ever found (Roberts 21). In 1974 during a federal criminal trial, District Judge Frank Battisti completely dismissed the case against eight of the Guardsmen because they were indicted by a federal grand jury who ruled at mid-trail that the government’s case against the Guardsmen was so weak that the defense did not have to present its case (Lewis). In 1975, in the complex federal civil trial, a jury voted 9-3 that none of the Guardsmen were legally responsible for the shootings.

This decision was eventually appealed and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a new trial had to be held because of the improper handling of a threat to a jury member (Lewis). Things ended in January of 1979 with an out-of-court settlement involving a statement signed by 28 defendants, along with a monetary settlement as well (Lewis). The Guardsmen and their supports view this as a final vindication of their position. The financial settlement provides $675,000 to the wounded students and parents of the students who had been killed (Lewis). This money was not from any of the Guardsmen but was from the state of Ohio. The statement that was signed by the Ohio National Guard was viewed to them as a declaration of regret, not an apology or an admission of any wrongdoing.

The actions of the Ohio Guardsmen are not justified. The Guard had the upper hand in the events of the shooting on May 4th. They had guns, specially M-1 rifles when the protesters had no lethal weapons at hand. Other methods to contain the crowd at the rally could have been used also. Methods like detaining and arresting protesters could have been used to de-escalate the situation. They could have also used tear gas to disperse the crowds like they did days before the rally. Not only did they kill four unarmed students, but they also injured nine more. Thirteen unarmed students, who were protesting for what they believed was right.

Some authors (like I.F. Stone, Phillip K. Tompkins, and Elaine Vanden Bout Anderson) argue that there was evidence that showed certain members of the Guard conspiring on the practice football field to fire when they reached the top of Blanket Hill (Lewis). Regardless, four lives were taken on May 4th and the Guardsmen took them without evening thinking. The shootings that occurred at Kent State University will always be remembered throughout history. Its impact continues on to this day and has affected antiwar movements nationwide.

The actions of the Guardsmen will never be forgotten and those who lost their lives that day will always be remembered. This shooting symbolizes a great American tragedy at the height of the Vietnam War, which was a time where the U.S. struggled to stay together and divided politically and culturally. At Kent State University, the Guardsmen’s actions are not justified because they were not in immediate danger, other methods could have been used to diffuse the problem, and four lives were taken that day.


Cite this paper

The Shootings of May 4th At Kent State University. (2021, Apr 27). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-shootings-of-may-4th-at-kent-state-university/

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