Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming: Was the Kent State shooting justified?

Recently had a conversation with a friend whose father was in the Ohio National Guard during the 1970s. The feeling within the Guard is that the May 4, 1970 actions were wholly justified, that there was no peaceful student demonstration against Nixon’s planned venture into Cambodia, but rather a violent, riotous crowd of rabble-rousers looking for something to burn or break. Some say that tension was heightened due to the presence of a motorcycle gang that successfully found things on campus to burn and break the night before. In any case, Guard veterans insist that the corps members present were under an immediate threat and rightfully feared for their lives.

The version I had always heard was that Guardsmen were pressed upon by a group of protesters who believed in the antiwar cause, but they were not in imminent danger, and eventually fired into the crowd from a safe distance. I’ve heard conflicting reports that either there was an order to shoot or the young, inexperienced soldiers unloaded their weapons in a panic.

Was the shooting justified?

Justified? Considering two of the four people killed were just students on their way to class who just happened to pass by…justified?

The Kent State incident never fails to make me sick. Neil Young was right.
It was a disgusting chapter in American history. Yes, I did hear that some students may have thrown things-but why does that justify hurting people? One man is in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. One girl didn’t even mean to be violent-she was only protesting and expressing her beliefs. Seriously, I think it’s vile that one can be killed on a college campus but the NATIONAL GUARD, of all things.

Kent State was a repeat of the Boston Massacre. Poorly trained troops overreacting to a hostile mob. Basically it was simply a tragedy. Kids with rocks meet kids with guns and lose.

I generally do not favor looking to punish the shooters. Despite the claims (never substantiated) that a group of grunts muttered among themselves and plotted to “teach those kids a lesson,” the best information that we seem to have is that a bunch of scared kids with weapons, never trained in riot procedures, broke under pressure and shot into the crowd. (They also demonstrated incredibly bad training, as they tended not to hit the actual people bearing rocks, but, rather, passing students and photographers.)

The governor and the Guard Commander (who nagged the governor into removing the Highway Patrol (who did have riot experience) to “let his boys show their stuff”) should burn in hell, both for their decisions and for their utter lack of remorse after the fact.

On the other hand, I have no use for guys who make absurd claims that the guardsmen shot because they were actually in danger. This sounds more like some guy establishing solidarity with his buddies than someone who has actually looked at the evidence of the event. The guardsmen all claimed that no order to fire was given–meaning they were out of control when they shot. At the time of the shooting, very few kids were actually within rock-throwing distance (although they were following the platoon as it marched around the area). “Wholly justified” to shoot without orders at a crowd that is just outside a threatening distance, hitting uninvolved bystanders?

It’s already been said, but there is NEVER justification for shooting unarmed protesters. Never. If there had been anyone in the croud brandishing a deadly weapon (rocks and bottles are not deadly to a national guardsmen in full riot gear), there may have been reason to shoot that one person, but randomly firing into a croud is wrong no matter how you slice it.
I don’t think they feared for their lives, I think they were afraid, but I’m sure they all know their lives were never in danger.

I graduated from Kent St. in the 1980’s, and had an English professor who took the time to examine the incident in detail. What he stressed were that the Guard was operating on almost no sleep, having served to keep the peace on a picket line before coming to Kent, and that the Guardsmen were not supposed to have been given live ammunition, as live ammo was not standard crowd control ordinance.

James Michener wrote an exhaustive non-fiction recounting of the events at Kent State. I’m not sure of Michener’s political leanings (his books never struck me as presenting a liberal line, but he did graduate from Swarthmore :D), and he did not present the students in a very favorable light, but he did conclude that the shooting was unjustified.

His basic conclusions were that the tension on campus was extremely high, and that violence was in the air. The ROTC building had been torched earlier in the weekend, etc. However, at the time the shooting began, the National Guard soldiers were not in danger, and indeed were at a safe distance from the protestors. He believes that the reason the shooting occurred was that the troops ill-advisedly marched across a field that was essentially a bowl. Students were on the hills surrounding the bowl, and filled in on the hill from where the soldiers began their march.
The soldiers felt they were trapped and panicked.

Given the conduct of the students earlier in the weekend (they were occasionally hostile to the National Guard and occasionally went into “stick flowers in the gun barrels” mode, but they were never violent towards the soldiers), Michener concluded that if the soldiers had simply marched back the way they had come, the students would have gotten out of their way.


There are several web sights (I don’t care what anybody says, I think that this is the correct usage) on the Kent State shootings/riot/massacre. This one is pretty complete and reasonably balanced: http://www.emerson.edu/acadepts/cs/comm/kent.html.
It includes an appendix with a couple of good items. Note especially the Justice Dept.’s summary of FBI reports. When reading the grand jury report, remember that the Ohio Atty. Gen. was involved from the beginning, as was the local prosecutor. Remember also the adage that a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich if the prosecutor wants it to.

I was on active duty and overseas at the time Kent State (and a fair number of other campuses) went up over Nixon’s revelation that the war in Vet Nahm had been expanded into Cambodia. My information at the time came mostly from Stars and Stripes, the armed forces’ official newspaper, and the Paris edition of The Herald-Tribune. Even the S&S had a hard time putting a positive spin on the Ohio National Guard. When photos were published even the most radical of the “shoot all them draft dodging little pinkos” faction had a tough time defending the National Guard’s action. At the time it looked as if an ill-trained and badly disciplined and poorly lead mob of vigilantes, equipped and armed at public expense, was turned loose in a situation where a catastrophe was likely to result. That view was informed by the fact that among the junior officers and enlisted people there was not much respect for the National Guard, mostly because the junior officers and enlisted people lacked the influence to get in to the NG. With the passage of 30+ years, the situation doesn’t look much better than it did at the time.

Look at the web sight, it’s pretty complete.

OK, looks like the Guard vet’s opinion was horribly slanted against the facts. Before posting I checked out many sites with timelines and generally accepted historical information, but most only referenced the versions in defense of the Guardsmen as side notes or parenthetical remarks.

I’ll stick with my initial view that the shooting was definitely not justified (even if the victims had not been innocent bystanders), and that the troops shot in a deadly combination of panic and inadequate training.

Sp. Gelding’s post reminded me of another aspect of the Viet Nam era, might as well ask here… Once heard (no sight of a cite to a site) that at some time in the early 1970s, Westmoreland set forth his intent to send at least 1 million more men into the conflict. COINTELPRO responded that such an action would be Bad News in terms of peace at home, and Hoover signed a document stating that he could not guarantee the rule of law if the event of a massive conscription.

Was such a document actually signed? And, was the U.S. really that close to revolutionary chaos?

The U.S. was not that close to revolution. When the war was being protested by freaky kids and nutty professors and churchmen, the “Silent Majority” simply ignored them. When it had been brought into enough homes by Walter Cronkite with no end in sight, the “Silent Majority” shifted grumpily in their easy chairs, Nixon got the word, and decided to pull the plug on U.S. involvement.

Ma and Pa Middle America were not going to go to the streets to stop the war and nearly every kid who would take to the streets had taken to the streets. I don’t know who your out-of-sight, uncited site thinks was going to man the barricades, but I have a hard time believing any part of that story.

(When people talk as if the boomers were monolithically opposed to the war, they fail to remember that 95% or more of the names engraved on the memorial wall are of boomers.)


anyone have a stat on how many of those on the wall were drafted?

According to http://members.aol.com/warlibrary/vwc8.htm

16,964 draftees into the Army were killed in Vietnam. That was 50.5% of all Army casualties. However there were a lot of volunteers in Vietnam. Overall, 63.3% of all the enlisted men who died in Vietnam were volunteers.

And even the draftees were guys who did not become teachers or pharmacists or go to Canada or Sweden or play games with Big Casino or finding other ways avoid military service. By 1968, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that if you accepted the draft, you would spend a year in Southeast Asia. (If you enlisted, you had to stay in for an extra year, but you would likely spend your entire enlistment in Germany or Texas or somewhere.)

I believe that tomndebb pegged this one correctly. Any time you have a riot control situation the potential exists for tragic misuse of the force required to manage the riot. The failure at Kent State was in the decision making process of how best deploy the forces in the attempt to maintain order. The Kent State Massacre should be the text book example of how not to handle a riot situation!

Here is an excellent link outlining current law enforcement thought concerning crowd control and the gradations of force necessary to maintain order in these situations…


James Rhodes will be remembered for this tragedy.

Look at how far away the kids that were killed were and then ask yourself again if it might have been justified.

I don’t think any human could throw a rock like 250 yards.