Q. Let’s cut to the chase. What happened on May 4, 1970, at Kent State?
A. There are various ways to look at it. One is that all the violent, dissonant, discordant forces of the 1960s arrived at the same time on one university campus in northeast Ohio. Another is that the May 4 shootings were, in a sense, collateral damage to the political ambitions of then Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes. Either way or whatever way you look at it, the bottom line is the same: four dead, nine wounded, and a lot of other lives, Guardsmen and students, scarred for years to come.
Q. How about the triggers? What brought this on?
A. Richard Nixon’s April 30 announcement that the Vietnam War was being extended into Cambodia. The first warm weekend of the year on a college campus that had been wrapped in winter dreariness for far too long. Youthful spirits. Rising sap. Bursting hormones. Cheap beer. Townspeople increasingly shocked by and distrustful of the neighboring college campus that was their economic lifeblood. Rumor mongering. Criminal acts by a relative fistful of students. A burned-down ROTC building. National Guardsmen ill-trained and ill-equipped for the job they were called to do. Weak leadership all around. It’s not a take-your-pick situation. They all played a role in the horror to follow.
Q. But if you had to pick one factor over all the others?
A. If I absolutely had to pick, I would lay the greatest share of the blame at the feet of Jim Rhodes. He couldn’t succeed himself as governor, so he set his sites instead on the US Senate seat being vacated by Stephen Young. The Friday before the shootings, Rhodes was trailing Robert Taft Jr. by roughly 70,000 votes in the Republican Senate primary. Saturday night, when the ROTC building burned and Rhodes sent the National Guard into Kent, the two candidates had their last debate, and Rhodes pressed his law-and-order credentials hard, as Ronald Reagan had been doing so successfully in California. Sunday morning, at a press conference in Kent, Rhodes promised to “eradicate the problem, not treat the symptoms,” irresponsible rhetoric that came horribly to life on Monday when the Guardsmen opened fire and Kent State found itself splashed all over the national headlines. And by Tuesday, when the primary vote was held, Rhodes had made up 65,000 votes of that 70,000 deficit. The weekend riots at Kent State were a godsend to Jim Rhodes. He did everything he could to exploit the situation, and the strategy damn near worked for him.
Q. How about President Nixon?
A. Nixon, the White House, the Vietnam War — they are all the background music to May 4. For that matter, so are Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But that soundtrack had been playing for a long time by the spring of May 1970, and nothing close to this had ever happened before. Besides, by the morning of May 4, Vietnam itself was the background music to something far more personal to Kent State students — the complete takeover of their campus by the Ohio National Guard.
Q. One last question, why write about Kent State now, going on 46 years after the fact?
A. That’s a good question. Believe me, I asked myself that many times as I was starting into writing this book. But if we don’t learn from the past, we are condemned to repeat it, and I think the evidence that we haven’t adequately processed Kent State into the national dialogue and memory is everywhere around us. What happened at Kent State? A civilian disruption — rioting (or semi-rioting, to be more exact) students — was coupled to a military solution — M1 battle rifles, bayonets, tear gas — with disastrous results. The equipment is far more advanced these days, but that same scenario keeps getting played out in Ferguson, Missouri, in Baltimore, and in so many other national hotspots.
This book was in many ways a tour through sorrow — the sorrow of the 120-plus oral histories I drew upon, the sorrow of the dozens of people I interviewed in my effort to understand the events of May 4, 1970 — but to me the greatest sorrow of all can be found in the after-action report filed by the National Guard’s ranking officer at Kent State, Brig. Gen. Robert Canterbury. “Problems Faced and Lessons Learned?” the questionnaire asks, along with “Recommendations.” Beside both, Canterbury had penned in “None.” We need to learn that with civilian dissent, more firepower is seldom if ever the answer. That’s what Kent State should have but failed to teach us.
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