67 SHOTS: KENT STATE AND THE END OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE by Howard Means

(Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970-the most iconic photo of the tragedy)

On May 4th, 1970, 28 people died in actions related to the war in Vietnam; 24 on the actual battlefield, and 4 on the campus of Kent State University.  My memories of that day are quite clear as I was a student at Pace University in New York City.  A day or two later I joined a demonstration against the war as Mayor John Lindsay ordered the flag at City Hall Park to be flown at half-staff in remembrance of the 4 student who died at Kent State.  Almost immediately construction workers who were working on the World Trade Center site marched up Broadway beating anyone who seemed to be against the war, while New York City’s finest did nothing to stop them.  The next day my US Army Reserve unit was activated on the St. John’s University campus in Queens to deal with demonstrations.  My experience reflects the split in American society at the time and the total deterioration that existed between generations, and the attitude of many toward the Nixon administration.  Howard Means’ new book 67 SHOTS: KENT STATE AND THE END OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE captures that time period as he reevaluates events leading up to the shootings, the actual shootings themselves, and how people reacted and moved forward following the resulting casualties.

(National Guard use of tear gas on May 4, 1970 at Kent State)

The climate at Kent State was heated long before President Richard Nixon went on television on April 30, 1970 to announce the American “incursion” into Cambodia to root out North Vietnamese sanctuaries that were used to attack American troops.  This announcement exacerbated tensions between the administration and the anti-war movement that was labeled as “bums” by Nixon and his Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.  Means was able to reconstruct events at Kent State through numerous interviews of many of the actual participants as well as conducting research at Kent State’s archive.  This allowed Means to weave his narrative encompassing the actions of students and members of the National Guard and try and determine whether the Guardsmen were under enough of a threat to open fire on the students, or did the climate that existed on campus from May 1-4 make the tragedy inevitable.

Tension on campus was brought to a head when students burned down the ROTC building on May 2nd, and later that day the National Guard was summoned by Governor James Rhodes and deployed on campus.  One of the most important questions that Means explores was why was the Guard was called upon when it lacked the training in crowd control, and the use of M1 rifles, when the Ohio Highway Patrol was trained and ready to intervene.  Means places a great deal of the blame for events on Governor James Rhodes who was running for the US Senate against Congressman Robert Taft, Jr. and wanted to strike a tough persona to enhance his election bid as he stated on the morning of 5/3 when things seemed to be calming down, that he “would eradicate the disease of student unrest, not merely treat the symptoms.”

(National Guard shoot a Kent State student, May 4, 1970)

The inevitability of a crisis at Kent State resulted from disparate forces-the high spirits of the student body (about 4,000 of 21,000 students who participated in the demonstrations), the spring like weather, the war in Vietnam, Nixon’s Cambodia speech, campus radicalism (about 300 students), the exhortations of Jerry Rubin, local anxiety, the generational divide, and growing tensions between the town and the university.  Means argues effectively that outside agitators were not responsible for May 4th, as events were fostered by Kent State’s student body.  Supporters of the National Guard argue that SDS was responsible for organizing students which was not true.  Means presents a frame by frame picture of May 4th and concludes that the shootings did not have to take place.  The National Guard spokespersons argued that there was a snipper who threatened the soldiers, but there was no evidence that one existed.  Further, the students did not rush the soldiers who claimed their lives were in danger.  The problem throughout the crisis was the lack of communication and coordination between the National Guard, the university, and town officials.  Means based his conclusions on evaluating the statements of the main participants and the interviews he conducted over many years.  For Means it is clear that the National Guard was not protecting itself from “imminent danger, instead, there seems to have been a strange mix of intentionality, horrific judgement, terrible luck, preventability and inevitability.”  The generation gap, the Age of Aquarius, all came together on May 4, 1970.

(The 4 students killed at Kent State)

Means describes the moods of students and guardsmen and the shock and outrage that followed the shootings.  He points to the heroes, like Major Don Manley of the Ohio Highway Patrol who convinced the National Guard commander, General Robert Canterbury to allow faculty marshals additional time to convince students to disperse, before further damage could be done.  Other heroes include Geology professor Glenn Frank, a former marine who convinced students to leave when the National Guard reformed and were getting ready to fire again.  However, most townspeople and guardsmen felt that the students brought the shootings on themselves and they got what they deserved.  It is amazing that the actual firing took 13 seconds to unleash 67 bullets!

Means does an excellent job describing the actions and statements of the Nixon administration as well as taking the reader into the White House.  He argues that Nixon became unmoored by events at Kent State that led to his famous 2:00am visit to the Lincoln Memorial to engage young people.  Means also examines the culpability of all the major players in this drama; from university president, Robert White; Kent mayor, Leroy Satron; Governor James Rhodes, and National Guard Commander Robert Canterbury and his officers.  Means explores the legal actions that followed and the Scranton Commission that investigated the shootings.  What emerges is that the death of 4 students and 9 wounded should not have occurred.  It was due to poor training, a lack of communication, and a political climate that was on edge.  Means has written a well-documented account of events and for anyone interested in one of the most iconic tragedies of the Vietnam era, this book is well worth consulting.

(Mary Ann Vecchio leaning over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970)

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