Thirty six years ago today, Ohio National Guardsmen shot 13 college
students at Kent State University who were protesting US incursions into Cambodia
as part of the Vietnam War. Nine victims survived, including one who is confined
to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Four students -- Jeffrey Miller, Allison
Krause, Bill Schroeder, and Sandy Scheuer -- were killed.
The students were unarmed, and the closest was more than 60 feet away from
the Guard at the time of the shooting. There was no warning shot; the National
Guard never issued an apology; and no one ever spent a day in jail for the killings
despite the fact that the President's Commission on Campus Unrest, appointed
by President Nixon in 1970, found the shootings to be ''unwarranted and inexcusable."
Yearly, since the tragedy, Kent State students, alumni, and others have met
on the anniversary of the shooting to reflect and remember. Alan Canfora, who
was shot by the Guard, says, ''The students today act as the conscience of the
college, and the country . . . just like the students did in 1970."
This year's memorial will come, as the last three have, in the midst of a war
that has become increasingly divisive. While the memory of Kent State and other
violent clashes from that time between protesters and authorities did not deter
the incumbent president from leading the country into another unpopular war,
it is important to honor Kent State's spirit of dissent and what it taught about
the bloody consequences of intense division.
Halfway across the country, the lessons of Kent State are taught each semester
in debate classes at Emerson College. J. Gregory Payne, associate professor
of organizational and political communication and a Kent State historian, has
been teaching students about history, advocacy, and rhetoric through the lens
of Kent State for decades.
According to Payne, remembering this tragedy is important because ''Kent State
is not about the past -- it's about the future."
Consider the similarities: In 1970, just as today, we had an unpopular president
carrying out an unpopular war for questionable reasons.
Richard Nixon and George W. Bush embody many of the same divisive characteristics.
Bush tells the world: ''You are with us or you are with the terrorists."
Nixon's public statement after the shootings blamed the students: ''When dissent
turns to violence it invites tragedy."
Again our civil liberties are being threatened. Bush has ordered the wiretapping
of US citizens without a warrant and holds detainees indefinitely without trial;
Nixon was spying on student activists and what he called ''domestic radicals."
But, perhaps the most telling comparison is the sharp division within the nation,
both then and now. Americans are now, as we were then, split to the core on
matters of war and peace, life and death, and cultural values. The President's
Commission concluded it was ''the most divisive time in American history since
the civil war." Bill Schroeder's parents received signed letters after
the shooting saying, among other things, that their ''riot-making, communist
son" deserved to die.
Today antiwar protesters are unfairly discredited by the administration as
they were in 1970. When Cindy Sheehan took antiwar positions after her 24-year-old
son, Casey Sheehan, died in Iraq, she was smeared by pundits like Bill O'Reilly,
who said she was a pawn of ''far-left elements that are using her" and
that Sheehan was ''dumb" enough to let them do it.
Of course, the absence of a draft now and its presence then may explain why
the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War had a greater intensity then it
does now. Still, as the protests in New York City last week indicate, the longer
the war in Iraq drags on, the more vehement the opposition seems to get.
Musicians, once again, are singing songs of dissent. Last Friday Neil Young,
who in 1970 wrote ''Ohio" in reaction to the shootings, began streaming
a new antiwar album ''Living with War" for free on his website. Days later,
Pearl Jam also released an album made up entirely of protest music.
My generation can't ignore the lessons of Kent State. The same mindset and
failure in leadership that led National Guardsmen to fire at students of the
same age and from the same Ohio hometowns is similar to what led US soldiers
to torture detainees in Iraq.
Kent State should remind us of what happens when a grossly misguided war divides
a country. If we can speak candidly and openly about our history and our present
-- even the worst elements of it -- then we can ensure that the lives lost on
May 4, 1970, were not in vain.
Michael Corcoran is a journalism major at Emerson College.
Published on Thursday, May 4, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
4 Dead in Ohio, 2,000+ Dead in Iraq: Can America do
by Henry Marchand
On May 4, 1970, four students at Ohio’s Kent State University
were shot dead by Ohio National Guardsmen, sent to their campus by Governor
James Rhodes. The campus ROTC building had been burned, and the phrase “outside
agitators” was being invoked to explain the eruption of a quiet Midwestern
university into a center of anti-war outrage. The shootings became, of course,
a defining event of the Vietnam War era. The United States was waging an unnecessary
war and had turned its people upon each other with fatal results. Many in Kent
and around the nation were appalled by the shootings; many others were grimly
pleased, their attitude captured in Neil Young’s “Ohio” lyrics:
“Shoulda been done long ago.” It was a low point in our national
We’re surely at another low point now. Mired in another unnecessary war,
we’ve lost well over 2,000 of our country’s men and women (most
very young, like those four dead in Ohio and the 57,000 killed in the Vietnam
war) to bombs and bullets and assorted mayhem that never had to happen. This
time, though, we can’t seem to rouse ourselves in sufficient numbers to
shame our national government to end the war. It may be that our Republican-controlled
Congress is simply not capable of shame, that our Senators and erstwhile Representatives
are so besotted with Cheney-like arrogance that they’re immune to conscience.
But the fact is, we haven’t really tested them as we should. The campuses
and streets of the nation should be regularly filled with angry, shouting citizens,
but they’re not. While we’ve thankfully not seen National Guardsmen
shooting college students protesting the Cheney/Bush war on Iraq (which may
have already begun to expand covertly into Iran, as the Vietnam war expanded
into Laos and Cambodia), we have seen other horrors: government officials declaring
that criticism of their actions is disloyalty to the nation; secret wiretapping
of citizens; an unprecedented power grab by the Executive branch, which has
proclaimed itself above at least 257 of our laws, according to a recent estimate
(thank you, Patrick Leahy, et al). Why, then, are we on our asses and not on
the streets? Why is Congress not besieged by Americans demanding that they rein
in the White House?
Maybe it’s because nearly four decades separate us from the ghastly events
at Kent State, and because it’s been more than thirty years since the
end of our nation’s war in Vietnam. We’ve endured Watergate and
Nicaragua, El Salvador and Iran-Contra, a dispiriting succession of scandals
and alliances with dictators and killers lightened only occasionally by a peace
deal in the Middle East (which never lasts) or a period of relatively peaceful
economic growth (unlikely to be repeated anytime soon). And more damagingly,
we have lived through decades of a national dumbing down, most evident in the
ongoing campaign to transform our public schools into virtual job training centers,
rather than educational institutions. We’ve seen the triumph of the view
that our children exist to be shaped for the needs of business, rather than
to become informed, critically thinking, self-determining, and ethically conscious
adults – the very citizens a democracy needs to survive. We’ve seen
the potential for large scale domestic political revolt defused by the simple
expedient of starving schools for funds and burying teachers and school administrators
beneath a government bureaucracy that in effect mandates paralysis. Leave no
child behind, but for the love of god don’t get them looking ahead. Teach
to standardized tests. Color between the lines. To borrow a phrase from Ron
Shelton’s “Bull Durham” screenplay, “Don’t think,
kid. It’ll only hurt the ballclub.”
A population that is not educated is easily led. Read Frederick Douglass about
learning to read, or Malcolm X. Read Ernest J. Gaines’ short story, “The
Sky is Gray,” or his novel, “A Lesson Before Dying.” Withholding
real education is the surest way to keep people down, to neuter opposition and
mute dissent, to keep a foot on their necks. There’s a very real connection
between what happens in our schools and what happens in our government: if we
train our children for nothing more than lives of service to the very interests
that benefit from unnecessary wars and partnerships with dictators, what can
we expect of the future but more of the same?
What happened at Kent State thirty-six years ago was a terrible demonstration
of the truth George Washington saw when he considered an American future in
which the interests of government and business leaders were identical: the lives
and freedoms of the people would be devalued, and the survival of democracy
imperiled. Shooting students, or depriving them of real education in favor of
standardization and job training, or sending them to foreign lands to needlessly
kill and die, changes the American future for the worse.
We don’t need another May 4, 1970. But maybe the focus of our vocationally-inclined
education czars on improving children’s math skills can be used against
them, to make that date important in a new way. Maybe soon we’ll be able
to see that if 4 dead young Americans on May 4 equals cause for outrage and
reason to demand a change in national policy, more than 2,000 dead equals cause
for even more. Maybe America will do the math at last, and all who recoil at
the numbers will act to reclaim the future. We can start by voting out this
woeful Congress in November. Then we can demand of their replacements that the
Cheney/Bush wars be stopped and that our public schools at all levels get the
funding and support they need to actually educate their students, to teach true
American values like “government by the people,” the inherent worth
of the individual, the rule of law, the right of dissent… All those things
this nation should be about. All those things too many young Americans have
died for in places like Vietnam, Ohio, and Iraq, while their nation’s
leaders had, as Dick Cheney has said, “other priorities.”
Henry Marchand (email@example.com)
is an Assistant Professor of English in the Humanities Department at Cedar
Crest College in Allentown, PA.