In so many ways, May 4, 1970, seemed like a fairly typical spring day.
Then as now, young people were preparing for the end of the school year. On college campuses, students were anticipating final exams. Those who were about to graduate were thinking about their lives after school. Some were polishing their resumes and their references. Others — who had no well–placed connections or lacked the resources for graduate school to rescue them from the draft — expected to soon be on their way to the jungles of Southeast Asia.
I was a mere child at the time, looking forward to summer vacation, but I was well aware of what was happening on the other side of the globe. Like everyone else, I knew about the war in Vietnam. I saw reports about it every night on the evening news. I saw articles about it in the morning paper, whether I read them or not as I made my way to the comics.
And I heard the adults in my world talk about it. My father was a professor at a small college in Arkansas. He and his colleagues often spoke about what was happening. Sometimes their conversations turned to young people who had been in their classrooms and wound up dying in combat.
As I was growing up, I became friendly with several of my father's students. We lived in the country, and my father's students often came to perform odd jobs for him when he was landscaping our property. I came to regard them as surrogate older siblings, and it was through them that I came to appreciate the divisions of the day, even if I didn't always understand the issues.
There were many things tearing at the fabric of American society in those days, but the war in Vietnam, in which hundreds of Americans were dying every week, was the great demarcation line between the generations in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were exceptions, of course, but, in general, young people were against the war and older people supported it.
That, however, was based on the assumption that everyone knew where and how the war was being waged. Americans had been lied to many times about the progress of the war effort during the Johnson presidency, but, until that time, the belief was that the hostilities were confined to North and South Vietnam.
But that changed in late April 1970. On April 30, President Nixon went on national television to announce the "Cambodian campaign," which came as a shock to many, regardless of whether they supported or opposed the war.
Less than two weeks earlier, Nixon had announced the planned withdrawal of 150,000 troops during that year. Although Nixon never actually said so, this withdrawal suggested that there would be no military action in Cambodia or other nearby countries like Laos and Thailand. His secretary of state had even assured the House Appropriations subcommittee that there were no plans to escalate the war.
But that assurance disappeared like a puff of smoke in a gust of wind when Nixon announced the Cambodian campaign.
An agonized outcry arose from college campuses across the nation, and angry demonstrations followed. As I recall, the National Guard was summoned to many campuses. That was hardly news. Guardsmen had been called out to restore the peace in many places in recent years as public opinion began to turn against the war in Vietnam. They had even been called upon to break up riots, and there had been times when their tactics were far from genteel. Thus, their presence on college campuses that weekend may have been unsettling to some, but it was hardly surprising.
In fact, there were even some opponents of the war who felt it was necessary for someone to restore order. Demonstrations that were sparked by Nixon's announcement turned violent in many places, including Kent, Ohio, the day after Nixon's speech. The wrath of the antiwar protesters soon turned on the ROTC building on the Kent State University campus.
Now, most people had never heard of Kent, Ohio, in early May 1970. Fewer were aware of the existence of Kent State. But that soon changed.
On Monday, May 4, 1970, the Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of protesters on the Kent State campus. Four students were killed, including a fellow named Jeffrey Miller, over whose body a young runaway knelt, her face contorted in anguish, as a photojournalism student named John Filo snapped a picture that later won a Pulitzer Prize.
That photo may have been the most prominent of many images that came to symbolize the Vietnam era for millions.
The events of May 4 — in only 13 seconds, 67 bullets were fired — had a profound influence on the people of the day. For many, I suppose, it was a loss of innocence — if much innocence was left to lose.
For me, I would have to say it was perhaps the strangest moment of my childhood.
I was in elementary school, and I have no memory of anything that was said there, by anyone, in the aftermath of that bloody confrontation. I don't remember any of the teachers mentioning it, nor do I remember talking about it with my classmates.
But I vividly remember watching the news reports and being aware of the fact that young people, the same age as the people who were enrolled in my father's classes, had been shot down while trying to exercise their rights. I had seen many disturbing images in my brief life, but Kent State was the most disturbing for me.
Perhaps the most disturbing part was what came after the four students had died and nine others had been treated for their wounds. I guess the only appropriate word for it would be "ghoulish."
Apparently, many people — presumably supporters of both Nixon and the war effort — found it necessary to malign the dead.
For example, two of the four dead students were female — and one wasn't even a participant in the protest, just happened to be walking to class when a bullet struck her in the neck. Their families probably hadn't had time to claim their remains before completely unsubstantiated rumors were circulating about all four victims but especially the girls.
The girls were filthy, infested with lice, the rumors said. Neither wore underwear — which probably surprised no one since other rumors contended they were sexually promiscuous and even pregnant with illegitimate progeny. One of the girls was said to have been sick with syphilis and would have died soon, anyway.
In fact, the rumors indicated that all four victims were dirty (in keeping with the popular image of the time of unclean "hippies"), even though photos from that day and in the months prior showed four young people who appeared to be clean and well groomed.
As outrageous as the stories were, there were those who believed them, and, in 40 years, I have been able to reach only one conclusion. Those who died were guiltless. It was necessary to vilify them as much as possible to justify their deaths because, if their deaths could not be justified, the blame for those deaths rested with society.
And there were many in American society who simply would not accept that blame. It was easier for them to accept the idea that the four young people had brought their deaths on themselves.
It was a confusing time. It was often difficult to know who — or what — to believe. But the vitriolic nature of the rumors was reprehensible.
Nixon often spoke of unidentified "agitators" who, supposedly, were intent upon undermining the war effort — but, in hindsight, it seems more likely that Nixon feared that antiwar demonstrations undermined him.
The governor of Ohio didn't help matters by insisting that the protesters were "worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes." In hindsight, that seems to have been part of the campaign of character assassination against the victims, to equate them with the worst figures of history.
I get the sense, looking back on that event, that a certain amount of radicalization occurred and continued to occur in an ever–expanding wave, the way that ripples from a tiny stone in a pond grow ever wider as they move away from Point Zero.
The extent of radicalization varied from one individual to the next, but I think it was the point where the younger generation of Americans began to realize that they had not always been told the truth by their elders, that there were some things in American life that were wrong and always would be wrong and that, if there was to be a change, it truly had to start with them.
Maybe they had inklings about that before, but most managed to rationalize some things that they could no longer rationalize after four people were killed by National Guardsmen at a place where young people believed they were safe.
If that wasn't true, what else had they been told that wasn't true?
Young white people of that time had been told that, all visible evidence to the contrary, things really were "separate but equal" for black citizens. Young males began to acknowledge that females of their own age were not being paid the same for doing the same job.
I think, on that day 40 years ago, the seeds were planted that made it possible for a black man and a white woman to battle for the presidential nomination in 2008.
The maturation process took awhile, but, perhaps, on May 4, 1970, young Americans began their journey to realizing what Thomas Jefferson really meant when he wrote, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Maybe that is the legacy of Kent State.