May 9, 2010
No Blanks: Kent State 40 Years LaterBy Avi Davis
The student antiwar movement of the late '60s and early '70s lives on in American consciousness as a symbol of high-minded idealism. Some like to point to the altruism and innocence of the movement and the way it stirred students out of their apathy, creating a generation of activists. Such a view conveniently ignores the movement's essential self-centeredness, its denunciation of patriotism, its rejection of authority, and its penchant for violence. Yet all of those things were clearly on display in the events leading up to the afternoon on May 4, 1970, perhaps the very apogee of student protest in this country.
Much of what we know about the event popularly referred to as the Kent State Massacre has come down to us only in history's shorthand -- that the military sought to kill innocent, unarmed students and bystanders in an effort to subvert dissent. But the backstory does not always conform to the heroic narrative of this tragic event.
Perhaps the first thing to appreciate about the events at Kent State is the highly charged political atmosphere of the time. The escalation of the U.S. bombing campaign into Cambodia and the perceived expansion of the Vietnam War galvanized an antiwar movement that was beginning to lapse into dormancy. As a result of a number of incendiary campus incidents in the month of April 1970, there were widespread fears that student protests had become generalized riots, associated with attacks on private property, threats to life, and unsavory elements such as bikers and criminals joining in the general havoc.
The decision of Ohio governor James A. Rhodes to send the National Guard to the city of Kent, Ohio on May 2 was sparked by a request from the city's mayor, Leroy Satrom, who had earlier urged the declaration of a state of emergency after a riot in Kent's downtown on May 1. At that time, a bonfire had been lit in the main street, and the crowd seemed to be a mix of students, bikers, and itinerants who frequented Kent's bars. Beer bottles had been thrown at police as they tried to restore order, and shop fronts were damaged.
On May 1, arsonists had also set the ROTC building at Kent State on fire, and a large crowd of students, nearly a thousand, had applauded as it burned. Moreover, the students did their best to interfere with firefighters' efforts to extinguish the flames.
On Monday, May 4, the Kent State University administration, fearing the same kind of violence that had broken out only a few days earlier, sought to cancel a protest rally set for noon that day. Nevertheless, two thousand students showed up for the rally on the University Common, and they began to throw rocks and other projectiles at the soldiers of the National Guard within minutes of the latter's appearance. The National Guard, with bayonets fixed, ordered the rally to disperse and, when there was no response, lobbed gas canisters at the students. When this had no effect, the Guard advanced, forcing the students to flee the Common.
That's where it should have ended. But the Guard pursued the students from the Common, over what was known as Blanket Hill and on to a practice field. What happened then was eerily reminiscent of the events on Boston Common almost exactly two hundred years before. Soldiers, feeling trapped and perhaps fearing for the lives, let loose several volleys designed to frighten the crowd, only to result in injury and death instead. Much like the earlier historical event, three people died almost instantly -- two of them bystanders who were merely walking to class. A fourth victim died in hospital a short while later.
Much has been made of Rhodes' decision to send the National Guard to the university and the legality of the university's right to disperse the crowd. But a decision of the United States Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit found, in an action subsequently brought against the university and the State of Ohio, that the university did have such a right, given the threats to the peace and the provocations of earlier in the month.
Why the National Guard was armed with live bullets and not blanks, how the level of command collapsed to allow American soldiers to fire on unarmed American civilians, and why the Nixon administration was so slow to condemn the shootings remain some of the imponderables of history.
But what is not so imponderable is the fact of the students' motivations. David Horowitz, one of the editors of the New Left Magazine Ramparts in the 1960s, has written extensively about the student antiwar movement and its descent into radicalism and violence. He pays particular attention to the discrepancy between the attendance at a rally in Washington, D.C. in June 1970, which drew nearly one million people, and another in May 1971, which drew only thirty thousand.
What had happened in between? Nixon had ended the draft.
"When the fact registered on me," Horowitz concludes in Radical Son, "the effect was devastating. The driving force behind the massive anti-war movement on America's campuses had been the desire to avoid military service."
This seems to put the burning of the ROTC building on the Kent State University campus on May 1 and the Kent riots of the next day in rather stark perspective. The students were not antiwar as much as they were anti-draft -- far more focused on self-preservation than on idealism. The bombing of Cambodia in April 1970 made it appear to students that Nixon intended to widen the war rather than end it -- a manifest betrayal.
Since the 1960s and early '70s, a number of the antiwar movement's erstwhile leaders came to regret their involvement in a campaign that reeked of self-indulgence and narcissism. But by then it was too late. Resistance to any form of militarism had become a sine qua non of student life, as a generation who participated in the movement gradually assumed positions of authority on our college campuses. Today these same people feel relatively at ease in educating our students about the evils of American imperialism, the absence of any nobility in American enterprise, and contempt for government.
Kent State became a rallying cry and slogan for these disaffected Americans. While most of the '60s generation moved on to productive lives in American society, these stalwart peace activists, men such as Noam Chomsky and Bill Ayers, have remained fixated on the events of May 4, 1970 and have used the tragic event to denounce the United States as a locus of repression and terror.
Kent State was no doubt an affliction that could and should have been avoided. But the far greater tragedy was the continued insistence by a small but influential lobby that the events of that day somehow reflected the true nature of the United States. In this way the student protesters of May 4, 1970 are wreaking their continued vengeance on America. The lethality of their attack is just as focused as the National Guard's was forty years ago. And like the young National Guard soldiers, they are certainly not firing blanks.