, with Response from President Nixon Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Campus protests against the Vietnam War had been growing in size and militancy since 1965. In the spring of 1970, it appeared that campus unrest might have been dying down as a result of President Richard M. Nixon's “Vietnamization” policy, which began a gradual reduction in US troops in South Vietnam. On April 30, 1970, Nixon announced an invasion into Cambodia to wipe out communist bases near South Vietnam's border. The Cambodian incursion set off the largest wave of student protest of the Vietnam War. The campus unrest that followed included a national student strike and shooting deaths of students at Kent State and Jackson State universities. In response, President Nixon established “The President's Commission on Campus Unrest,” chaired by former Pennsylvania governor William W. Scranton (Republican), to investigate the student protests and authorities' responses to them. The commission issued its Report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest the following fall.

Summary Overview

Campus protests against the Vietnam War had been growing in size and militancy since 1965. In the spring of 1970, it appeared that campus unrest might have been dying down as a result of President Richard M. Nixon's “Vietnamization” policy, which began a gradual reduction in US troops in South Vietnam. On April 30, 1970, Nixon announced an invasion into Cambodia to wipe out communist bases near South Vietnam's border. The Cambodian incursion set off the largest wave of student protest of the Vietnam War. The campus unrest that followed included a national student strike and shooting deaths of students at Kent State and Jackson State universities. In response, President Nixon established “The President's Commission on Campus Unrest,” chaired by former Pennsylvania governor William W. Scranton (Republican), to investigate the student protests and authorities' responses to them. The commission issued its Report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest the following fall.

Defining Moment

By the spring of 1970, the phased-withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam was proceeding on schedule and antiwar protests appeared to dwindle. On April 30, 1970, however, President Nixon announced the incursion of US and South Vietnamese troops into Cambodia to wipe out North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong military “sanctuaries.” The expansion of the war into an officially neutral nation at a time when many believed the war was winding down unleashed a torrent of criticism and an eruption of campus protest, both peaceful and violent.

On Friday, May 1, Kent State students in downtown Kent, Ohio, engaged in widespread acts of vandalism in response to the Cambodian invasion, including breaking shop windows, setting bonfires in the streets, and throwing bottles at police cars. The next evening, a group of campus radicals set fire to the ROTC building, which they saw as a symbol of the war. A detachment of the Ohio National Guard, exhausted from extended duty due to a violent Teamsters strike, was called in and occupied the Kent State campus. Ohio governor James Rhodes gave a press conference from Kent on May 3 in which he denounced the students as “worse than the brown shirts [Nazis] and the communist element and also the night riders [KKK] …”

On Monday, May 4, the National Guard attempted to break up a peaceful rally scheduled for noon, which provoked rock throwing from a group of students. Many students remained peaceful or were mere spectators, while others simply made their way to class. However, more militant students engaged in running battles with the Guardsmen, each group tossing tear-gas canisters back and forth. Eventually, the besieged Guard unit took position on a hill and fired into a crowd of students, killing four and wounding nine.

Following the Kent State shootings, many local residents said that they regretted the National Guard did not shoot more students, and Nixon referred to student protestors as “the bums blowing up the campuses.” The nation's polarization over the war and the antiwar protests hardened. On May 9, New York City was the scene of the “Hard Hat Riot,” in which hundreds of American, flag-waving construction workers attacked peaceful antiwar protestors in front of City Hall.

The killings at Kent State triggered a nationwide student strike, the largest in US history, in which more than 500 campuses were shut down. Then, on May 14, at Jackson State, a mostly African American university, Mississippi State Police responded to violent protests over Cambodia and local racial issues by firing a barrage of over sixty rounds into a female dormitory, killing two black male students who had retreated there.

In response to the campus uprisings, President Nixon appointed a commission headed by former Pennsylvania governor William W. Scranton, to investigate the protests and especially the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. The commission conducted numerous interviews, reviewed police and FBI reports, and examined photographs and film pertaining to the killings. The following October, it issued The Report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest. The report described the war as the main source of student anger, condemned students who resorted to violence, and strongly criticized the use of live ammunition at Kent State and Jackson State.

Author Biography

William Warren Scranton was born on July 19, 1917 in Madison, Connecticut, to a wealthy Pennsylvania family. He graduated from Yale in 1939 and attended Yale Law School. Scranton served in a non-combat role in the Army Air Force (USAAF) during World War II. Scranton practiced law in Pennsylvania until being appointed briefly as an assistant to Secretary of State Christian Herter by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959. He was elected to Congress from a Pennsylvania district in 1960 and went on to win the Pennsylvania governorship in 1962 as a moderate Republic, serving until 1967. Scranton made a brief run for the Republican nomination for president in 1964. Scranton undertook several diplomatic missions for different presidents over his life time and served as United Nations ambassador under President Gerald R. Ford in 1976–7. Scranton passed away at the age of 96 on July 28, 2013.

Historical Document

The conduct of many students and nonstudent protesters at Kent State on the first four days of May 1970 was plainly intolerable. We have said in our report, and we repeat: Violence by students on or off the campus can never be justified by any grievance, philosophy, or political idea. There can be no sanctuary or immunity from prosecution on the campus. Criminal acts by students must be treated as such wherever they occur and whatever their purpose. Those who wrought havoc on the town of Kent, those who burned the ROTC building, those who attacked and stoned National Guardsmen, and all those who urged them on and applauded their deeds share the responsibility for the deaths and injuries of May 4.

The widespread student opposition to the Cambodian action and their general resentment of the National Guardsmen's presence on the campus cannot justify the violent and irresponsible actions of many students during the long weekend. The Cambodian invasion defined a watershed in the attitude of Kent students toward American policy in the Indochina war.

Kent State had experienced no major turmoil during the preceding year, and no disturbances comparable in scope to the events of May had ever occurred on the campus. Some students thought the Cambodian action was an unacceptable contradiction of the announced policy of gradual withdrawal from Vietnam, or that the action constituted invasion of a neutral country, or that it would prolong rather than shorten the war. Opposition to the war appears to have been the principal issue around which students rallied during the first two days of May.

Thereafter, the presence of the National Guard on campus was the focus of discontent. The Guard's presence appears to have been the main attraction and the main issue for most students who came to the May 4 rally. For students deeply opposed to the war, the Guard was a living symbol of the military system they opposed. For other students, the Guard was an outsider on their campus, prohibiting all their rallies, even peaceful ones, ordering them about, and tear gassing them when they refused to obey.

The May 4 rally began as a peaceful assembly on the Commons—the traditional site of student assemblies. Even if the Guard had authority to prohibit a peaceful gathering—a question that is at least debatable—the decision to disperse the noon rally was a serious error. The timing and manner of the dispersal were disastrous. Many students were legitimately in the area as they went to and from class. The rally was held during the crowded noontime luncheon period. The rally was peaceful, and there was no apparent impending violence. Only when the Guard attempted to disperse the rally did some students react violently.

Under these circumstances, the Guard's decision to march through the crowd for hundreds of yards up and down a hill was highly questionable. The crowd simply swirled around them and reformed again after they had passed. The Guard found itself on a football practice field far removed from its supply base and running out of tear gas. Guardsmen had been subjected to harassment and assault, were hot and tired, and felt dangerously vulnerable by the time they returned to the top of Blanket Hill. When they confronted the students, it was only too easy for a single shot to trigger a general fusillade.

Many students considered the Guard's march from the ROTC ruins across the Commons up Blanket Hill, down to the football practice field, and back to Blanket Hill as a kind of charade. Tear gas canisters were tossed back and forth to the cheers of the crowd, many of whom acted as if they were watching a game.

Lt. Alexander D. Stevenson, a platoon leader of Troop G, described the crowd in these words:

“At the time of the firing, the crowd was acting like this whole thing was a circus. The crowd must have thought that the National Guard was harmless. They were having fun with the Guard. The circus was in town.”

The actions of some students were violent and criminal and those of some others were dangerous, reckless, and irresponsible. The indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.

The National Guardsmen on the Kent State campus were armed with loaded M-l rifles, high-velocity weapons with a horizontal range of almost two miles. As they confronted the students, all that stood between a guardsman and firing was the flick of a thumb on the safety mechanism, and the pull of an index finger on the trigger. When firing began, the toll taken by these lethal weapons was disastrous.

The Guard fired amidst great turmoil and confusion, engendered in part by their own activities. But the guardsmen should not have been able to kill so easily in the first place. The general issuance of loaded weapons to law enforcement officers engaged in controlling disorders is never justified except in the case of armed resistance that trained sniper teams are unable to handle. This was not the case at Kent State, yet each guardsman carried a loaded M-l rifle.

This lesson is not new. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and the guidelines of the Department of the Army set it out explicitly.

No one would have died at Kent State if this lesson had been learned by the Ohio National Guard. Even if the guardsmen faced danger, it was not a danger that called for lethal force. The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified. Apparently, no order to fire was given, and there was inadequate fire control discipline on Blanket Hill. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators. Our entire report attempts to define the lessons of Kent State, lessons that the Guard, police, students, faculty, administrators, government at all levels, and the American people must learn-and begin, at once, to act upon. We commend it to their attention.

* * *

Pres. Richard Nixon's Letter to the Chairman, President's Commission on Campus Unrest, on the Commission's Report.

December 12, 1970

Dear Bill:

As you will recall, when you submitted the major report of the Commission on Campus Unrest on September 26, I was leaving for Europe. Even though I did not have time to study the document then, I wanted it released. For it is as much or more addressed to students, professors and academic administrators, and to the public generally, as to the Federal Government. The new academic year was beginning, and there was good reason to hope your report could help set the tone for the year.

I have now had the opportunity to study the report, along with your other findings, including the survey results released November 5. I should like to state formally at this time what I stated informally in September. You, the members of the Commission, and its staff have my personal thanks for the considerable time and energy you invested in this task.

Publication of the document causes us to reflect again on the importance of higher education in our national life. A greater proportion of Americans now enjoy the opportunity for advanced education than has ever been reached by any people in history.

At the same time that we have asked our colleges and universities to educate increasing numbers of Americans, we have asked them to assume other burdens along the frontiers of our society's endeavors. Our entire society benefits from their free pursuit of the truth. As our colleges and universities celebrate the life of the mind and the advancement of knowledge, they simultaneously provide invaluable assistance to the countless tasks which our people undertake. Because we entrust our institutions of higher learning with all these tasks, we are immeasurably in their debt.

Yet today these institutions are in danger of losing their health and vitality as centers of learning. Thus, your emphatic condemnation and rejection of the use of violence as a means of effecting change—on or off campus is welcome.

Your firm position that the Government itself cannot, and should not, assume responsibility for maintaining order on campus is also welcome. In my ninth week in office, I wrote that the policy of this administration was to avoid direct involvement of the Federal Government in the institutional affairs of a college campus. Academic freedom is the cornerstone of the American educational system. Consistent with that belief, I have opposed Federal legislation that would terminate institutional aid to colleges where disruption or violence occurs. Nothing would deliver greater power into the hands of the militant few than Federal attempts to punish institutions for the deeds of a minority.

Responsibility for maintaining a peaceful and open climate for learning in an academic community does not rest with the Federal Government it rests squarely with the members of that academic community themselves.

In your report you have clearly avoided the cliché that the only way to end campus violence is to solve once and for all the social problems that beset our nation. That thought parallels my own—expressed last September—in a speech at Kansas State University: To attempt to blame Government for all the woes of the university is rather the fashion these days. But, really, it is to seek an excuse, not a reason, for their troubles.

… If the war were to end today, if the environment were cleaned up tomorrow morning, and all the other problems for which Government has the responsibility were solved tomorrow afternoon—the moral and spiritual crisis in the universities would still exist.

Removing the causes of legitimate dissent has in my lifetime been one of the constant endeavors of the American Government. It remains the business of this administration. Though optimistic about our capacities to redress just grievances, I am not so utopian as to believe all will be redressed in this administration, or even in our lifetime. And so, in this democratic society, we shall always have and shall always need dissent.

Because the American college is the seedbed of so much of that dissent; because the American university has such a vital role to play in educating future leaders to find the answers we did not—the universities must be protected; they must be preserved.

As high officials in this administration have already noted, your studies of the history of student protest provide us with a valuable perspective. First, they reflect the complex nature of the causes of student unrest. Secondly, they remind us that student disruption is not a problem confined to this administration, or to this past decade, or even to this society alone. Every free society on earth—to one degree or another—faces similar crises on its campuses.

One point of departure I would draw to your analysis of the “youth culture.” I have seen personally thousands, indeed tens of thousands, of young people who do not in the slightest conform to the predominant description of students and young people in this report. I believe your survey corroborates my observation.

Perhaps there is considerable truth in the contention that just as the “youth culture” you describe has adherents in our generation, so also, the traditional culture of American life has millions of adherents within the younger generation—and neither generation is monolithic. The new generation contains alienated young men of passion and idealism who march in protest against our efforts in southeast Asia; it also contains young men of passion and idealism willing to risk their lives in an effort to rescue a handful of comrades-in-arms in a North Vietnamese prison camp.

One cannot draw up an indictment of an entire generation—young or old just as one cannot draw an indictment of one segment or race of our diverse people. History has surely taught us the falseness and injustice of that.

This younger generation which contains the tiny minority of violence prone that you rightly condemn, contains as well millions of others; students, soldiers and workers, the vast majority of whom represent the hope of this country.

The call for tolerance expressed in your report echoes sentiments of my own; again expressed at Kansas State:

Those decencies, those self-restraints, those patterns of mutual respect for the rights and feelings of one another, the willingness to listen to somebody else, without trying to shout him down, those patterns of mutual respect for the rights and the feelings of one another—these are what we must preserve if freedom itself is to be preserved.

The ideas of the younger generation, the individuals within the younger generation, must not be condemned by anyone out of hand on the irrelevant grounds of the cut of their clothes or the length of their hair. But also, young people must make corresponding efforts to recognize that the achievements of their parents' generation—the ending of the depression without resort to the odious alternative of dictatorship, the defeat of totalitarian imperialism across two oceans, the tremendous strides of the last two decades toward full citizenship for all Americans; the containment of new aggression abroad, and the provision of more abundance and more freedom for more people than in any other society on Earth—these are not the achievements of a generation of men and women lacking either in idealism or courage, or greatness.

Too often, age is made an artificial barrier between Americans. When it is, it should be ignored or swept aside. No generation holds a monopoly on wisdom or virtue—and each generation has made or will make historic contributions to the greatness and goodness of America.

In these times, one cannot often enough emphasize the need for individual responsibility and individual accountability. That is one of the basic underpinnings of a democratic system. And society cannot abide, cannot accept, the cynical contention of those who absolve themselves of responsibility for disruptive and violent actions—on the grounds that society somehow has not measured up to their ideals.

Responsibility for disruption of a university campus rests squarely on the shoulders of the disrupters—and those among their elders in the faculty and the larger community who encourage or condone disruption.

Students must indeed accept responsibility for presenting valid ideas in a reasonable and persuasive manner. By being self-critical, responsive to legitimate grievances, and ready to change, colleges and universities can remove conditions that give rise to student protest• Law enforcement officers should use only the minimum force necessary in dealing with disorders when they arise. A human life—the life of a student, soldier, or police officer—is a precious thing, and the taking of a life can be justified only as a necessary and last resort.

The recommendations you make for university reform are properly the concern of the campus community, and I will comment on them only to this extent.

Your reassertion of the truth that colleges and universities are first and foremost centers of teaching and learning, research and scholarship—not political instrumentalities—is timely. A thought drawn from the writings of Professor Kenneth Keniston is worth repeating: The main task of the university is to maintain a climate in which, among other things, the critical spirit can flourish. If individual universities as organizations were to align themselves officially with specifically political positions, their ability to defend the critical function would be undermined. Acting as a lobby or pressure group for some particular judgment or proposal, a university in effect closes its doors to those whose critical sense leads them to disagree.

On the other hand, political involvement of the members of the university community is quite another matter. They enjoy the identical rights of political action as all Americans; and, like other Americans they should be encouraged to exercise those rights.

Students comprise four percent of the national population. They have the right to be heard—both collectively and as individuals.

Yet, no single group within a democratic society has a superior right to be heeded; and no single group has the fight to use physical coercion, disruption or violence to achieve its political end or social objectives. The legitimacy and justice of causes should be judged on forcefulness of the reason and logic and evidence marshalled in its behalf not on the forcefulness of the tactics employed to advance it. As often as not, the raucous voice of dissent can be wrong—and the quiet voice of disagreement can be right.

If there is an area in which I would wish that the report could be expanded, it would be through addition of an analysis of that great majority of colleges and universities-subject to identical internal pressures, subject to the same outside cultural and political forces—where students, faculties and administrators have guided their institutions, with the maintenance of academic freedom and a minimum of disruption and disorder, through the troubled times of the last decade. There is much to be praised and emulated in these private and public institutions. There is much we can learn from these educators and their successes.

The recommendations you make to universities for controlling disorders will have value for them but they are properly the concern of the campus community and I will not comment on them here.

Your call for responsiveness in our colleges and universities needs constantly to be underscored. Just as they should be responsive to legitimate demands and grievances of students and faculties; so also, they have an obligation to be responsive to the hard-working men and women, who may never have had an opportunity for a college education—but whose tax dollars helped enable them to become the great institutions they are today.

You point out the enormous influence the Federal Government has on higher education. As I stated in my Message on Higher Education sent to the Congress in March, 1970:

For three decades now the Federal Government has been hiring universities to do work it wanted done. In far the greatest measure, this work has been in the national interest, and the Nation is in the debt of those universities that have so brilliantly performed it. But the time has come for the Federal Government to help academic communities to pursue excellence and reform in fields of their own choosing as well, and by means of their own choice.

I take it your analysis would very much support the establishment of a National Foundation for Higher Education which I have proposed for the purpose of moving away from narrowly defined categorical aid programs which, whatever their original intent, have increasingly come to be seen as restrictive and undesirable.

I welcome the Commission's support of the student aid provisions of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 1970, which was proposed in my message. If enacted, this proposal would profoundly change the access of low-income students to higher education. It is a fundamental social reform long past due. Again, I refer to the March 1970 Message: No qualified student who wants to go to college should be barred by lack of money. That has long been a great American goal; I propose that we achieve it now.

Something is basically unequal about opportunity for higher education when a young person whose family earns more than $15,000 a year is nine times more likely to attend college than a young person whose family earns less than $3,000.

The chapter on the Black Student Movement is a useful statement in this context; and one I read with interest. You point out that while Black College enrollment has doubled in recent years, contrary to widespread impressions, the proportion of Black students to white students who attend college has not substantially increased. I share the Commission's concern over this. Our student assistance proposals will provide benefits to cover one million additional students besides those now receiving aid, and many of these will be Black and Spanish-surnamed. In addition, before the start of this academic year, we directed an additional $30 million to the traditionally Black colleges, bringing their share of Federal aid to education to 3 percent where they enroll but 2 percent of the nation's college students.

You have made a number of specific recommendations to the Federal Government. I have asked my cabinet to review these recommendations and to report their views directly to me. Secretary Laird is reviewing the suggestions and recommendations pertaining to the National Guard and the Reserve Officer Training Corps. Attorney General Mitchell is reviewing the many suggestions pertaining to law enforcement activities within his jurisdiction and the special reports on Kent State and Jackson State. Secretaries Hodgson and Richardson are reviewing the recommendations for expanding opportunities for youth employment and social participation.

In the final section on the role of the Government in relation to campus unrest you have addressed yourself to the proper role of the Presidency in attempting to heal the divisive wounds which have from time to time been visible in this nation. Both of us, I am sure, regret the distorted press accounts of this section of the report.

Throughout my public life I have come to know the immense moral authority of the Presidency. During these past twenty-two months I have tried to exercise that authority to bring an end to violence and bitterness; and I have sought to use the power of this office to advance the cause of peace abroad and social justice at home. These are matters upon which every President answers daily to his conscience and quadrennially to his judge—the American people.

On the matter of campus disorders, I have already addressed myself at length and in depth to this critical subject—as a private citizen and as President. Few domestic issues have consumed more of my attention, interest and concern while in office. The appointment of this Presidential commission to study the matter is but one measure of that concern.

In dealing with the issues of importance to students enumerated by the Commission, this administration has sought to terminate poverty through a national Family Assistance Program; we have sought to expand educational opportunity for all our young people through a revised student assistance program; we are seeking to equalize—and one day remove—the burdens of the draft upon young people; we are making strides in equal employment opportunity; we have made new advances against America's ancient injustice—discrimination. We have reordered the nation's priorities. We have redirected American foreign policy. We have diminished America's involvement in the Asian war and sought to end that war in a way that will justify the sacrifices of this generation of young Americans, and prevent similar sacrifices by their younger brothers of the next generation.

We have sought to bring Americans together in national agreements, by a national commitment to the basic underlying principles of a free society—to new recognition of the fundamental truth that the preservation of a democratic system of government is far more important than any single immediate reform that could conceivably issue from that system.

The task of the Presidency is to respect the opinions of the electorate, to seek the truth, and to lead the nation. Thus, for example, I would have to say that an effort “to convince all Americans of the need to confront candidly the serious and continuing problems of the nation,” is a matter far more complex than might at first seem the case. That complexity begins with the fact that there are widely divergent views within our society as to just what our problems are. The views implicit in the Commission's report range from observations that would doubtless be accepted by a great portion of the nation to conclusions that may be shared by only a small minority. This does not make any of them wrong, or right. Nor should the Commission have refrained from expressing them. To the contrary: I said on the occasion of receiving the report that I was sure it would be controversial given the moment and importance of the issue.

Every President in our lifetime has taken office with large segments of our people in vigorous opposition to his person, his policies, and his programs. That opposition is an inevitable but natural barrier to the capacity of a President to lead all the people in the direction and to the goals he deems right and fitting for the nation.

Those in opposition to a President's foreign or domestic policies have a right to make that opposition known through every legitimate means in a democratic system. But no minority, no matter how united, how vocal, or how articulate, has veto power over a President's decision to do what he believes is right in the nation's interest.

With regard to the setting of national priorities, and the allocation of national resources, the views of students and all citizens, and the suggestions of your Commission are welcome—but final determination in these matters must rightly rest with the elected representatives of all the American people. The thought of Dr. Sidney Hook is here appropriate: The history of American higher education is a history of change. Violence has never played an appreciable role in that history. It need not play a role today if it is recognized that the primary function of higher education is the quest for knowledge, wisdom and vision, not the conquest of political power; that the university is not responsible for the existence of war, poverty and other evils; and that the solution of these and allied problems lies in the hands of the democratic citizenry and not of a privileged elite.

Moral authority in a great and diverse nation such as ours does not reside in the Presidency alone. There are thousands upon thousands of individuals—clergy, teachers, public officials, scholars, writers—to whom segments of the nation look for moral, intellectual and political leadership.

Over the decade of disorders just ended some of these leaders of the national community have spoken or acted with forthrightness and courage, on and off the campus, unequivocally condemning violence and disruption as instruments of change and reaffirming the principles upon which continuance of a free society depends.

High in that category I would place the Vice President of the United States. History will look favorably I believe upon these men and women. It may well look severely upon those others—-on and off campus—who for whatever reason refused or failed to speak out forthrightly against the inequities visited upon the academic community.

Yet I think we can all agree that the task of the nation, no less than that of the higher education community, is to regain its strength and its confidence, and to retain its independence. There is no higher priority in the concerns of the national government.

The work of the Commission has expanded our understanding of what has been happening. Other individuals have also thought deeply on the same subject. I have received reports and letters from many of them and I expect to consider these informed views and to share them with others who share our concern for higher education. As the survival and strength of our public and private educational institutions is so critical to our national future, necessary public and political discussion of the issue will surely continue—and indeed be advanced by your report.

I commend it particularly to the consideration of the White House Conference on Youth, because the report is the concern of all young people, not just students alone.

Quite beyond our agreements and differences, I write to assure you that the report is now receiving and will continue to receive the closest attention within the administration. I trust this will be true in the nation at large.

With personal regards,

Sincerely,

RICHARD NIXON

[Honorable William W. Scranton, 704 Northeastern National Bank Building, Scranton, Pennsylvania 18503]

Document Analysis

The “President's Commission on Campus Unrest Conclusions regarding Kent State University 1970” seeks to give a balanced report that attributes some blame to the provocations of violent protestors, but places more blame on tactical errors and the use of live ammunition by the National Guard. The report states categorically, “Violence by students on or off the campus can never be justified by any grievance, philosophy, or political idea.” On the other hand, it declares that the National Guard's “decision to disperse the [peaceful] noon rally was a serious error.” The report is especially critical of the Guardsmen having live ammunition in their rifles, stating, “The general issuance of loaded weapons to law enforcement officers engaged in controlling disorders is never justified except in the case of armed resistance….”

Although Scranton and his fellow commissioners condemn student violence, they defend peaceful protest and show sympathy for the students' concerns. Scranton writes, “For students deeply opposed to the war, the Guard was a living symbol of the military system they opposed. For other students, the Guard was an outsider on their campus, prohibiting all their rallies, even peaceful ones, ordering them about, and tear gassing them when they refused to obey.”

The written response of President Richard Nixon to William Scranton's report is marked by its single-minded focus on “youth culture” and what was often described at the time as “the generation gap.” Nixon praises Scranton for criticizing student radicals, stating, “your emphatic condemnation and rejection of the use of violence as a means of effecting change—on or off campus is welcome.” Biographers often depict Nixon as particularly concerned with the growing number of young people in revolt against traditional American culture and institutions. This is evident in Nixon's defensive, but accurate, assertion that “the traditional culture of American life has millions of adherents within the younger generation.”

What is most notable in the president's response is what it does not mention. There is little mention of the war or the decision to send troops into Cambodia. And there is practically no acknowledgement of one of the commission's main conclusions: namely, that the National Guard should not have had loaded weapons and that, as a national policy, neither the police nor the National Guard should respond to campus unrest with bullets. For Nixon, the main issue is not lethal failures by the authorities, but rather the generational tensions that were so palpable in 1970.

Essential Themes

The President's Commission on Campus Unrest was one of four major commissions in the decade ending in 1970. The first was “The President's Commission on the Status of Women,” chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, which documented major gender discrimination in American society in its 1963 report. The second and most controversial was the “President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy,” headed by Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. The Warren Report of 1964 famously concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone, a conclusion that would be challenged by numerous conspiracy theorists over the decades.

The third was the “The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders” on the urban riots/rebellions during the 1967 “Long Hot Summer” and headed by Illinois governor Otto Kerner (Democrat). The Kerner Report's conclusion that America had moved toward “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” is often cited even today.

The last was the Scranton Commission's investigation of campus unrest. Each of these commissions was headed by a respected, mainstream political figure and sought to include representatives of different groups. In the case of the Scranton Commission, these included representatives of universities, law enforcement, and a student member.

Of the three commissions, the President's Commission on Campus Unrest is the least remembered today. Nevertheless, the Scranton Report is a significant examination of a divisive time in American history and its conclusions represent a generally thoughtful appraisal of the May 1970 campus unrest that some historians consider the final paroxysm of national protest against the war in Vietnam.

Bibliography and Additional Readings
  • Kent State: The Day the War Came Home. Dir. Chris Triffo. Single Spark Pictures, 2000. Documentary.
  • Michener, James. Kent State: What Happened and Why. New York: Random House, 1971. Print.
  • Perlstein, Rick. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. New York: Scribner, 2008. Print.
  • Report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest (“Scranton Commission”). Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1970. Print and Web.
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