Wanted: The Truth About The Kent State Killings

Americans of a certain age may remember the murder of students on the Kent State University campus 34 years ago and the anger it once aroused. On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen killed four college students and wounded nine others – one of them, Dean Kahler, is still paralyzed. He was, reported the FBI, 95–100 yards from the riflemen when he was wounded. Yet no one was ever found responsible nor have the questions surrounding the calamity ever been stilled.

Antiwar protests in Kent had erupted following President Nixon’s TV speech on April 30 that U.S. forces had invaded Cambodia, thus enlarging a war he had once pledged to end. The next day Nixon derided antiwar students everywhere as “bums.” Protests on the campus and in the neighboring town of Kent had erupted resulting in some vandalism and property damage. The college ROTC was set ablaze on May 2nd. No one has ever determined who set the fire, though students were falsely blamed. On May 3, Ohio Governor James Rhodes, a Republican conservative running for the Senate (he lost) called antiwar students “worse than brownshirts and the Communist element and also the night riders and vigilantes. They are the worst type people that we harbor in America.”

On May 4th, then, Ohio guardsmen fired their M-1 semiautomatic rifles, a .45 pistol and a shotgun for 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others.

We do know that, according to a government memo dated October 9, 1973, “undercover federal narcotics agents were present on the Kent State University campus on May 4, 1970.” Also an armed federal agent was present on that day though no one was able to prove that his weapon was ever fired. It has never been shown that the agents were tied to the shootings, though there have been allegations of a government conspiracy. But still, rumors were rampant. Students were said to be armed with weapons but none were found. Another tale had it that a student sniper had fired and that too was shown to be a lie. In fact, we do not know why the National Guard – the Vietnam era’s haven for men dodging the draft – was called in and who ordered the men of Troop G to open fire.

After the shootings began, Glenn Frank (now deceased), a conservative KSU geology professor, courageously sought to persuade Guard officers to stand down and then made a successful plea to students to disband, less they too be shot. In 2000 I spoke with his son, Alan, a former KSU student who estimated he was 50-75 feet from the guardsmen. He was working on his father’s papers and believed that his father had become increasingly dubious that justice had been served.

Even so, for most Americans today, there is only historical amnesia.

Two years ago, on the 30th anniversary of this avoidable tragedy, I wrote that without the discovery of a “smoking gun,” or a deathbed confession, or the release of all local, state and federal documents and court records (some have complained that not all relevant documents have been released) plus a thorough examination of the papers of then Governor James Rhodes and the Ohio National Guard and the Nixon archives, we may never know the truth. All the same, I remain convinced that a serious historian can help tell us if war in Southeast Asia and the bitterness it caused at home, led directly to a college campus in small-town Ohio alive with antiwar activity.

To this day, the definitive book about that terrible day has not been written. Certainly, some informative works have been published but they have concentrated only on some aspects. What we need is a book that fairly examines all the events. “And yes, there are new materials” to be found, especially in the invaluable and extensive May 4 collection at the Kent State library, says Nancy Birk, its Curator and University Archivist, citing as examples the US Department of Justice and Charles Thomas papers.

Charles A. Thomas worked for twelve years at the National Archives and was selected to study films of the shooting. He concluded that, “none of the available footage showing dead and wounded students following the lethal volley had been used in assembling the compilation film shown at the public hearings” of the Scranton presidential commission in August 1970. In Kent State/May 4, edited by Scott L. Bills (KSU Press) Thomas wrote, “it looked very much as if someone had doctored the evidence to minimize any impression of the Guard’s brutality and to plant the spurious notion that the soldiers had been confronted with a raging student mob.”

Still, the Scranton Commission’s 1970 verdict, “Report of the Presidential Commission on Campus Unrest,” which, while liberally casting responsibility on all parties in the days leading to May 4th, decided that “The indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable.”

In its summary of the FBI investigation, the Justice Department concluded that “the few moments immediately prior to the firing by the National Guard are shrouded in confusion and highly conflicting statements.” But “the claim by the National Guard that their lives were endangered by the students was fabricated subsequent to the event.” Yet in spite of more than 1000 pages of FBI reports, eyewitnesses and other investigations, in the end the courts placed the essential burden of guilt on student antiwar demonstrators. After a federal grand jury in 1974 indicted eight guardsmen a federal judged dismissed all charges against the eight men. From the start, a majority of citizens, according to a Gallup poll conducted by phone, took the side of the National Guard, many respondents apparently willing to believe that “radical” students on college campuses threatened the war effort. Finally, in 1975, a civil suit brought by the parents found for the defendants, but an appellate court overturned the verdict. But after so many years defending their dead and wounded sons and daughters the exhausted families chose to settle with Ohio for the very modest amount of $675,000 and a statement signed by Rhodes and the guardsmen saying, “We deeply regret those events and are profoundly saddened by the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others which resulted.”

My hope is that a fair-minded historian can tell us what happened and why and whether justice was truly served.

So is there a historian willing to undertake this necessary study?

Author: Murray Polner

Murray Polner has written for The New York Times, Washington Monthly, Commonweal, The Nation, The American Conservative, Columbia Journalism Review, Newsday, and other publications.