Kent State Massacre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Students at Kent State University rallied to protest the invasion of Cambodia. Ohio National Guards—called in to restore order—unexpectedly opened fire on the students, killing four and wounding nine others.

Summary of Event

The shooting at Kent State University left in its wake a complex controversy that may never be fully resolved, even though some of the facts are simple and relatively undisputed. On May 4, after dispersing a peaceful rally on the commons of the Kent State campus, the Ohio National Guard unexpectedly opened fire on students. Four were killed and nine others were wounded, some seriously. Kent State massacre (1970) Massacres Student protest movement Vietnam War (1959-1975);Kent State massacre Civil unrest;United States Activism Cambodia;U.S. invasion of Ohio National Guard Military force, domestic deployment of [kw]Kent State Massacre (May 4, 1970) [kw]Massacre, Kent State (May 4, 1970) Kent State massacre (1970) Massacres Student protest movement Vietnam War (1959-1975);Kent State massacre Civil unrest;United States Activism Cambodia;U.S. invasion of Ohio National Guard Military force, domestic deployment of [g]North America;May 4, 1970: Kent State Massacre[10820] [g]United States;May 4, 1970: Kent State Massacre[10820] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 4, 1970: Kent State Massacre[10820] [c]Vietnam War;May 4, 1970: Kent State Massacre[10820] [c]Social issues and reform;May 4, 1970: Kent State Massacre[10820] Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;Vietnam War Rhodes, James A. White, Robert I. Del Corso, Sylvester Canterbury, Robert Mitchell, John

No one was convicted of any crime associated with the incident, and no satisfactory explanation was ever given as to why the Guard opened fire. Many theories have been put forward, all of which have some bearing on the appropriateness of the Guard’s actions. Like the Kennedy assassination, the incident was photographed and filmed from several angles and was also recorded on audio tape. The accumulated evidence refutes some theories, but fundamental questions remain unanswered.

Growing opposition to the war had resulted in massive demonstrations nationwide in 1969. The government eventually responded to public pressure, and the war appeared to be winding down. Public opinion on the United States’ involvement in the war in Vietnam was still divided in early 1970, and public resentment of the protest movement, which was strongest on college campuses, was high. Shortly before the Kent State shootings, President Nixon had made public statements which were highly critical of those who opposed his Vietnam policy.

On Thursday, April 30, President Nixon announced that U.S. forces had invaded Cambodian territory to search out and destroy enemy bases. The announcement triggered huge demonstrations on college campuses across the country the following day. At Kent State, campus unrest coincided with the first warm night of the season (Friday, May 1) and the arrival of an out-of-town motorcycle gang. Rioting occurred in the streets downtown, and some property was damaged. On Saturday, the protests continued, and the University’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building was burned down. This incident precipitated the calling of the Ohio National Guard to Kent.

A peaceful demonstration the following day (Sunday, May 3) was dispersed by the Guard, which used tear gas against the students. Several students were beaten and some were bayoneted by Guards, although no fatalities resulted. The confrontation on Monday began with the dispersal of the students on the commons and ended forty minutes later with a thirteen-second sustained volley in which at least sixty-seven rounds were fired.

Officials claimed at the time that the retreating Guards had fired in self-defense while being attacked by hundreds of students who had charged to within three or four yards of the Guard’s position. Eyewitness accounts and analyses of films and photographs showed that this was not the case. The nearest shooting victim was sixty feet from the Guards who did most of the shooting. A photograph taken just an instant after the Guard opened fire clearly shows the victim standing with his middle finger upraised in an obscene gesture, for which he was shot twice (according to the Guard who shot him) and seriously wounded. The majority of the dead and wounded students were standing one hundred or more yards away. At least one of the fatally wounded students had not participated in the demonstration, and one was an ROTC student.

According to many observers and participants, the focus of the students’ anger at the Monday rally was actually the presence of the Guard itself, not the Cambodian invasion that had initially triggered the demonstrations. The students were outraged over the use of tear gas, the beatings, and the bayoneting that had taken place the previous evening. Furthermore, students believed that their noon rally was legal and that the Guard was violating their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Brigadier General Robert Canterbury, the senior officer in charge of the Guards, believed that the assembly was illegal and that he had the authority to disperse it. Governor James A. Rhodes, however, did not actually sign the martial law decree banning assemblies until May 5, and he then declared it retroactive to April 30. A federal court later ruled that the demonstration was illegal.

Because of the highly charged emotional atmosphere on campus, Guards were subjected to extreme verbal abuse by students after dispersing the rally on the commons. Military experts testified later that tactical orders issued during the confrontation had placed the Guards in an unnecessarily vulnerable position. Some rocks were thrown at them, and some of the tear gas canisters they fired into the crowd were thrown back. Moreover, they had just come from riot duty in Cleveland, where they had been shot at while trying to contain violence during a truckers’ strike. They had neither eaten properly nor had much sleep during the several days preceding the incident.

A Justice Department Department of Justice, U.S. study, parts of which were disclosed by the Akron Beacon Journal, found that the shootings were unnecessary and urged the filing of criminal charges against the Guards. The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest President’s Commission on Campus Unrest[Presidents Commission on Campus Unrest] (the Scranton Commission Scranton Commission ) also concluded that the shootings were “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”

Despite the fact that two federal investigations found the Ohio National Guard to be at fault, public opinion in Ohio ran strongly against any form of punishment for soldiers who had participated in the shootings. A special state grand jury convened by Governor Rhodes exonerated the Guards but indicted twenty-five other individuals, most of whom were students, for various offenses before the shootings. The judge in that proceeding had refused to admit testimony given earlier by Sylvester Del Corso, adjutant general of the Ohio National Guard, in the Justice Department investigation. In that testimony, in response to questions, General Del Corso stated no less than sixteen times that the Guard had no reason to use lethal force.

Substantial evidence indicates that the Nixon administration attempted to obstruct investigation of the case and prosecution of the Guards, apparently for political reasons. It was later disclosed that the Nixon administration had authorized a covert policy of taking illegal measures against antiwar and civil rights groups. In 1971, Attorney General John Mitchell officially closed the case. The Watergate scandal Watergate scandal (1973) of 1973 weakened Nixon’s control of the Justice Department, and Elliot Richardson Richardson, Elliot , who succeeded Mitchell as attorney general, reopened the Kent State case. The reopening of the case in 1973 was at least partially prompted by a 1971 report by Peter Davies Davies, Peter , in which Davies alleged that several Guards had decided in advance of the shooting to “punish” the students. Photographs lend plausibility to the Davies theory, but none of the Guards was ever questioned on the point.

In March of 1974, a federal grand jury indicted eight Guards on charges that they violated Section 242 of the United States Code, depriving the rights of the students to due process by summarily executing them. In November, a federal judge dismissed the charges, saying that prosecutors had failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. After a three-month-long civil trial in 1975, a jury decided not to award damages to victims and survivors, but that decision was set aside in 1977. The victims settled out of court shortly after the beginning of the second civil trial in 1979. The out-of-court settlement included a statement of regret signed by the defendants. Some of the victims regarded the statement as an apology, but the defendants and their lawyers disagreed.

Significance

A Gallup poll published in Newsweek a few weeks after the incident at Kent State showed that 58 percent of the American public thought that the shootings were justifiable and that the Guard was not at fault. This may reflect the success of early efforts by officials to manage the news and to portray the demonstrators as a violent mob. The Scranton Commission, which interviewed many Kent State students as part of its investigation, reported that many parents had supported the shootings, even to the point of hypothetically condoning the shooting of their own children if the children had participated in the demonstrations.

In a public statement made the day before the shootings, Governor Rhodes had characterized the protesters as “the worst type of people that we harbor in America. . . . I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant revolutionary group that has ever been assembled in America. . . . We are going to eradicate the problem, we’re not going to treat the symptoms.”

The governor’s statement, in retrospect, seems out of line in reference to the comparatively staid student body of Kent State. Even though Kent State had been a fairly conservative campus, however, its students were substantially radicalized by the shootings, as demonstrated by their subsequent public statements and writings.

The search for a “larger meaning” to the tragedy has proved inconclusive for most of those who were involved. Some believe that it marked the beginning of the end for the war in Southeast Asia. In this view, the event marked a climax of repressive tendencies in the government and so appalled the public that it generated a strong momentum for change. To others, this view not only is erroneous but also represents a kind of romantic idealism. For the idealists, the gunfire brought an end to the belief that one could stand up to one’s government in dissent and ultimately prevail against injustice. In support of this interpretation, they cite the virtual end to campus protest that followed. Still others claim that the decline of campus protests is more properly associated with the end of the draft in 1973. This perspective sees student protest as a matter of self-interest that became unnecessary when the Selective Service stopped conscripting students.

At the very least, the shootings marked a rare historical case in which American soldiers killed American civilians engaged in protest of government policy. The shootings also touched off an unprecedented student strike, which shut down more than two hundred colleges and universities nationwide and disrupted classes in hundreds more. Although the strike was also partially in response to shootings at Jackson State University, in which two students were killed on May 12, the Jackson State incident never resulted in the same degree of controversy and litigation. Many observers have since pointed out that the Jackson State students were African American and the victims at Kent State were white. Thus, the Kent State incident indirectly may have shed light into another dark corner of American life. Kent State massacre (1970) Massacres Student protest movement Vietnam War (1959-1975);Kent State massacre Civil unrest;United States Activism Cambodia;U.S. invasion of Ohio National Guard Military force, domestic deployment of

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, William A. Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State? Laguna Hills, Calif.: North Ridge Books, 1995. Well-researched and documented account of the cover-ups that followed the tragedy at Kent State.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Fourth of May: Killings and Coverups at Kent State. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990. Good photo section, extensive source notes, chronology, and annotated bibliography. A very even-handed treatment of the event, the participants, and the subsequent coverage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hensley, Thomas R. Kent State and May 4th: A Social Science Perspective. 2d ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 2000. The author presents and analyzes social science research conducted upon the May 4 incident at Kent State.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelner, Joseph, and James Munves. The Kent State Coverup. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. Kelner represented the plaintiffs in the court case demanding damages. Includes a detailed chronology, May 1 through May 4, and itemized details of charges and litigants. Appendix includes pertinent information about the Ohio National Guard and logs of the legal proceedings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reeves, Richard. President Nixon: Alone in the White House. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. A definitive, authoritative biography of this most intriguing president. Highly recommended.

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