May 4, 1970 – four college students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio during a protest against the decision by President Nixon to invade Cambodia.
By the late 1960’s, protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War had reached a fevered pitch on college campuses across the country. President Richard Nixon, who had been narrowly elected in 1968 with a promise to bring the war to a close, had not delivered on that promise; in fact, the opposite appeared to be happening. In late 1969, two events further fueled the university anti-war movement. One was the release of evidence that U.S. troops had committed a massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at the village of My Lai. Second was the introduction of the draft lottery in December which allowed for the drafting of college students, who had previously been exempt from the draft.
On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced that U.S. troops had invaded Cambodia, a neighbor of Vietnam, in an effort to contain North Vietnamese forces. On May 1, 1970, protests of this invasion were planned on many college campuses, including Kent State University in Ohio. At around noon on May 1, about 500 students gathered at the “Commons” at the center of the Kent State campus at rally against the war. Although the mood of the crowd was angry, the protest remained peaceful, and a further rally was scheduled to be held three days later, on May 4.
Later that night, however, the mood turned uglier in the town, when a crowd that included students and locals engaged in acts of vandalism, including the breaking of storefront windows. When the local police arrived, some in the crowd of over 100 people threw beer bottles at the police, and the scene turned ugly. The Mayor declared a state of emergency and ordered the bars to be closed early, which did not go over well with the crowd. Police eventually fired tear gas at the crowd, forcing it to disperse.
The next day, May 2, rumors of more violence swirled through town. Depending on who one asked, the students were planning to blow up the local ROTC building, recruiting station and post office, spike the town water supply with LSD, had dug a tunnel under the town’s main store to blow it up, and had stored a cache of arms. Because of the rumors, mayor LeRoy Satrum contacted the governor’s office and asked that National Guard troops be sent to protect the town. That request was granted late in the afternoon; however, before the troops arrived that evening, the campus ROTC building had been set on fire (it was eventually put out).
May 3rd saw more rioting. Ohio governor Jim Rhodes came to Kent State to survey the damage and issue a strong condemnation against the rioters, who he called “revolutionaries” bent on destroying Ohio’s education system. Rhodes promised to use all force at his disposal to “eradicate the problem.” Rhodes’ speech did not stop the protestors, however; that night, another rally was held at the campus Commons, which the National Guard dispersed with tear gas. At 11:00 that night the Guard announced that a curfew was in effect and began forcing students back to their dorms at bayonet-point (some students claimed to have been actually cut by these bayonets).
The military actions of the Guard only served to turn up the heat. At noon on May 4, several thousand protesters gathered on the campus Commons as had been planned back on the 1st, despite the University’s efforts to have the rally cancelled. Several National Guard unites tried to get the crowd to disperse by threatening arrest; when this failed, the Guard fired teargas into the crowd. Due to the wind, however, this also proved ineffective, and students began throwing rocks and teargas canisters back at the Guardsmen.
After that, a group of over 75 Guardsmen, with bayonets affixed to their rifles, began to advance towards the protestors. In the face of these armed soldiers, the crowd dispersed, scattering across the campus but remaining in the area. The group of Guardsmen, unfamiliar with the campus layout, ended up at a practice field surrounded by a chain link fence, which blocked their advance. As a result, they retreated back towards the Commons; as they did, students began to follow them back towards the Commons as well.
For some unknown reason, one of the Guardsmen suddenly turned and began firing at the crowd of students with his pistol; instinctively, several other Guardsmen began firing their rifles into the crowd as well. The shooting lasted only a few seconds; in that time, however, about 70 rounds were fired, killing four students and wounding nine others. Two of the students shot – Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller – were involved in the protests. The two others – Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder – were simply walking between classes.
In the immediate aftermath many students wanted to attack the Guardsmen but dispersed after the pleading of a number of faculty members that they leave to prevent more deaths. Ambulances arrived to take care of the wounded, and the Guard left the area. Everyone, needless to say, was in shock.
The shootings led to massive protests on college campuses across the nation, as well as a large, violent protest was held in Washington D.C. Eventually, President Nixon appointed a commission to study the Kent State shootings. When the Commission on Campus Unrest issued its report in September, it blamed the National Guard for the shootings, concluding that “the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
Eight of the Guardsmen were eventually charged in federal court with felony violation of the victims’ civil rights; that case, however, was dismissed before it ever reached a jury. Families of the victims also filed civil lawsuits against the Guard, the state of Ohio and the University; those cases eventually settled for a small sum of money and a public statement of regret by the defendants.
Today, memorials on the Kent State campus mark the spots where the four students – Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder – were killed.