Remembering Kent State

Nixon: I still think we ought to take the North Vietnamese dikes out now. Will that drown people?
Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.

Nixon: No, no, no, I'd rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
Nixon: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you?...I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes.
In conversation with Henry Kissinger regarding Vietnam, as quoted in Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. (2002) by Daniel Ellsberg

Every May fourth for forty years I have remembered Kent State. For those who were not alive then they may not understand the significance of that event. Sending children to a foreign land to kill other people's kids is something nations have done for millennia. But Kent State was purely internal, like a mini-momentary civil war, Americans killing Americans. But not soldier on soldier but soldier on student. Armed against unarmed.

It was the volcanic culmination of frustration on both sides. On the one side were America's youth outraged that their nation could force them to kill strangers in a strange land for a strange reason. A few days before President Richard Nixon had announced that the Viet Nam War was expanding into Cambodia.
Cambodia would become "the most heavily bombed country in history." We dropped more bombs on that nation than all the bombs in WWII including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings are blamed for the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the eventual genocide of nearly 2 million people in that poor country.
On the other side was the state outraged that their young people were not slavishly obedient to their authoritarian demands. For the students it was no different than what had happened on numerous other campuses around the nation. They were expressing their anger freely and openly as they had been taught was their right as Americans. For Ohio Governor James Rhodes, this was unacceptable as he sent the Ohio National Guard to the campus as if they were facing an armed assault.
The day before the shooting Rhodes talked about the students. He said, "They're worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I think that we're up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America."
It only took 13 seconds to kill four young people, two of whom, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder, were not participating in the protest but were just walking to class. Nine were wounded including one who would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, unable to forget a day most Americans long ago let go. "Of those killed, the nearest was 265 feet away, and their average distance from the guardsmen was 345 feet," exceeding the length of a football field.
I was only 14 at the time but I remember the years of investigations that came to nothing. I remember my grandfather, who would be 110 today were he still alive, reading about a trial of the Guardsman in the newspaper expressing his anger that we were not just moving on and forgetting it all. We are good at that. Forgetting. No one was ever held accountable for this tragedy including Governor Rhodes.
The President's Commission on Campus Unrest would later conclude that "the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable." And that was that.
Seven years after the shooting I was 21 when my girlfriend and I stopped by the Kent State campus to try to understand the moment that changed our generation. We stumbled upon a meeting in a lecture hall of students who wanted to erect a memorial to the slain students. I gathered that the administration was strongly opposed and just wanted to move on and forget it all. As far as I know they did.
And then today I read that "a new analysis of a 40-year-old audio recording" from that day in Kent "reveals that someone ordered National Guard troops to prepare to fire on students." That fact had always been disputed. Now we know.
It is interesting to me that some Americans get outraged over Ruby Ridge and Waco but could care less about Kent State. I don't know what that means but it makes me sad somehow.

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