Kids Growing Up Too Soon

67 Shots: Kent State and the End
of American Innocence
Howard Means

The first unsupervised business trip I ever went on with a client took me from New York to Tampa, Florida. But I went by way of Ohio to pick up Larry so we could work on the plane.

You’re riveted, aren’t you?

Here’s what I discovered at dinner that night. The mild-mannered man sitting across from me, deacon in his church, had been at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Not just on campus. As I recall he said his legs appeared in a photo that ran in the nation’s newspapers the next day.

That helped me better understand his quietude. And it justified the wine bill we ran up that evening.

For those who don’t recall or weren’t yet born here’s why that date and locale matter. A little past noon that day, on a campus in a Midwestern town, four students were shot dead by members of the Ohio National Guard. That’s as uninflected as I can make the facts. The story and its meaning are a different matter.

1969 was a wild year to be a kid. Or just to be alive.

The backdrop for everything that happened that Spring was the Vietnam War. In 1968, amid increasing dissatisfaction with the War, Richard Nixon was elected 37th President of the United States. An almost detail-free promise to end the war in Vietnam was a major plank in his platform but the war continued, and even ramped up, in 1969.

This being the 60s so did the contradictions. If 1969 did not see the end of the war it did see the first man on the moon,  New York teams winning the Super Bowl, World Series and  the start of the season that would end with the Knicks winning the NBA championship in 1970. And even as the war ground on there was this little party in the Catskills called Woodstock that once and for all secured a myth about the era that never had a shred of truth behind it.

You might, to borrow a lyric, say  it was a ball of confusion.

Downtown Kent, Ohio today. This is what small town America is supposed to look like.

If states have jobs Ohio’s job is to not be confused. Ohio is supposed to be bedrock America. It gets up and goes to work. Pays the bills on time. Not too extreme in any direction.  High in the middle and round at both ends as the 6-year olds’ joke has it. So no one would have expected that when trouble came it would be in a corner of the state that barely registered in the public mind.

Then, President Nixon found his solution to the problem of the Vietnam War. As he put it in an address to the nation on April 30, 1970, the South Vietnamese needed time to build up their self-defense capabilities. And so, US troops would be going after North Vietnamese troops and staging areas in Cambodia.  Without taking sides it’s easy to see how you could interpret this as the opposite of winding down the war and maybe even expanding it.

The nation’s campuses exploded in protest. If you were so inclined you could shop for the protestable action of your choice. Usurpation of Congress’ war-declaring authority? We’ve got that. Invasion of a sovereign nation? Right this way. Lying to the nation? Did you see the display on your way in?  You could even choose to protest the whole megillah for one low admission.

Protests in the streets of Kent, OH the night of May 1, 1970.

Some students at Kent State University went on a shopping spree. It’s important, though, to be fair to the facts. The school’s enrollment was over 20,000 and a portion of it commuted. It’s doubtful that most, let alone all, of those students would be involved in what transpired over the next four days.

Means does a fine job retelling a tale that’s been told before. The trouble started on Friday when a protest march through the streets of town got out of hand. It was a warm evening, spring was coming , the bars were full and calmer heads were missing among the local authorities.  Tear gas was called in, shop windows were broken and the riot was on.

Students protesting at KSU May 4, 1970. Even en masse it’s hard to see a threat to life and limb.

Politics made it all worse. The Governor of Ohio, Jim Rhodes, was running in the Republican primary election for US Senator. His opponent was Republican, especially Ohio Republican, royalty: Bob Taft, Jr. A law-and-order man who Rudy Giuliani could love, Rhodes called in the National Guard. That’s where the trouble really started.

Over the course of the weekend there were a number of protests. On Saturday the ROTC building on campus was burnt down. Despite the presence of troops and police on campus that was more or less allowed to happen. Sunday saw more protest and the literal reading of the riot act. Gatherings of more than three people were prohibited as they constituted a group, if not a proto-mob. A rally was called for noon Monday  on the common.

The Guard moves out just past noon, bayonets fixed and live rounds chambered. You decide if that’s an appropriate response to the threat students posed .

The rest is history and the author and nearby photos tell the story better than I can. But a few things leaped out at me that  I hope are worth noting. The first is what is what always catches my attention: like most disasters involving human beings this one is rooted in poor communications.  I’ve said that about the financial crisis and found it lies at the root of much corporate misadventure. It’s here in abundance.

At the time of the shootings the Guard was in control of the campus. They had learned of the planned Noon rally at 10 AM. There was no email or Twitter to call off the demonstration. The University President and his senior staff left campus for a previously scheduled working lunch. The campus police and Ohio Highway Patrol, who typically had campus responsibility and even had a plan, were cut out of the loop.  The windowless communication center was manned by a grad student who worked in the President’s office and held a little-used walkie-talkie.

The Guard fires. 12:24 PM, Monday, May 4, 1970.

Someone ordered the Guard troops to ‘lock and load‘ with live ammunition. We know General Canterbury ordered the skirmish line. Presumably he knew of the plan that had the troops march themselves into a cul de sac. Someone may have yelled fire. What is clear is that troops marching in one direction wheeled and fired live rounds at students whose most harmful armaments were rocks.

Seconds later 4 students lay dead or dying and another 9 were wounded.

I’m not going to pass judgement because it’s always been a muddle. But there are some truly unacceptable aspects of this tale that will never sit right with me.  That a military commander whose troops’ actions resulted in the deaths of unarmed civilians could file an after action report that contained but a single word–‘none’–in the ‘Lessons Learned’ and ‘Recommendations’ sections (p. 171) is inexplicable. Yet Robert Canterbury did so.

The iconic photo of the aftermath of the Kent State tragedy. I’ve often wondered if any of those legs belong to Larry.

I also don’t understand the people of the area. The most gut wrenching part of this book was when students left the campus–which was closed almost immediately–and were told point-blank by neighbors and townspeople that more of their  schoolmates should have been killed. Are these our true colors?

Perhaps. In a recent post I noted the paranoia of people in places highly unlikely to see trouble. Despite that, they seem convinced of the threat. That was true in Kent, too. Public officials, campus administrators, the Guard’s officers and many townspeople genuinely believed they had been targeted by a vast conspiracy to undermine American life. It seems like we’ve learned nothing since.

I’ll end with a lengthy quote from Robert White, president of the university. The words strike me, sadly, as still relevant. You decide if we’ve learned anything in last 47 years:

“I hear lunacy on one side and frightening oppression on the other, and I don’t hear from that traditional center position that says, “Let us discuss fully and without limits, let us study fully and without limits, and let us come to a decision and conclusion within orderly processes, which themselves are subject to orderly change.’ What I hear instead are those who say, “Let’s have such and such without order’ and those who say ‘Let us have order with out discussion…if I’m frustrated over something I am justified in taking extreme steps. If I don’t like what I hear, I’m justified in stifling that person.””

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One thought on “Kids Growing Up Too Soon

  1. Pingback: Dancin’ in a Ring Around the Sun | An Honest Con

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