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The Kent State University Shooting of 1970

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Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming
We're finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio

- From 'Ohio' by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

By 1970, United States President  Richard Nixon was putting into action his plan of 'Vietnamisation' with regards to the Vietnam War. US troops were being sent home, and the nation was generally satisfied with the manner in which Nixon was handling the war, though he was widely unpopular among young people.

Suddenly, however, it was reported that Nixon had ordered an attack on North Vietnamese centres in Cambodia, a neighbour of Vietnam. Nixon insisted it was necessary to prevent loss of life and to delay US enemies, but critics thought it was expanding the conflict and not following up on Nixon's promise to end the US role in the war. This would be an excuse for the young and liberal of the nation to protest against their President.

Throughout the country there were many peaceful mass protests over the Cambodia attacks. Many of these protests were at university and college campuses.

One of these protests was planned at 11am on Monday 4 May, 1970 in the relatively obscure Kent State University of Kent, Ohio. In this town there was a strained relationship between the liberal students on campus and more conservative residents. Just before the protest, there were incidents of looting and vandalism which involved the university students in the town, and a curfew was imposed. Ohio governor James Rhodes sent in the national guard to Kent to stop violence. None of this was really connected to the planned Cambodia protest, but rather a general energy that resulted from the college year coming to an end.

Soon, students set fire to the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) building on the Kent State campus. The police and firemen at the scene were hit by rocks thrown by students. Shortly after this, the national guard began to guard the campus as well as the city. The governor of Ohio also travelled to Kent to ensure that the national guard would keep order. All prepared for the possibly volatile rally as the students first noticed the guardsmen patrolling the university. Some students taunted the guardsmen.

The crowd for the protest grew in the commons area; some were there to participate but some were present simply to watch. The crowd became big enough to intimidate the guards, who wore gas masks and were unprepared for the situation. The gas masks obscured sight and made it difficult for the guardsmen to communicate. They went up a hill, backing into a Japanese pagoda. There, they shot teargas canisters at the students, who in turn threw them back. The crowd began to disperse, thinking that the conflict had ended, as the guardsmen backed away.

Then, something happened. What is known is that the guardsmen fired 67 bullets from M-1 rifles into the crowd for 13 seconds. What is not known is why they did this. The protest had not yet become serious enough to warrant shooting, especially as they fired just before they were about to be at a safe distance from the abuse of the crowd. Some think that a policeman accidentally signalled some to shoot by swinging his right arm to the crowd. Four students were killed, only two of whom were participating in the rally. Nine were injured. Chaos ensued after this, and the guards stood down.

There was also an undercover FBI agent named Terry Norman in the crowd. It is not clear whether he fired his gun during the shooting. Many think this agent, or a sniper or policeman, fired first, starting a chain reaction from the guardsmen.

The four victims killed in the shootings were:

  • Jeffrey Miller, a protester, was shot in the head and killed. He had recently transferred to Kent State from Michigan State University.

  • Allison Krause, the other killed protester, was an artist at Kent State, who received honours. Bullets went through her chest and arm.

  • Bill Schroeder was killed with a shot in the back. He was not taking a part in the protest, but simply going from one class to the next. Ironically, he was a member of the ROTC, whose building burned down on Kent State and indirectly caused the shooting.

  • Sandy Scheuer was shot through the throat, also simply walking from one class to the next and not participating in the protest.

The wounded students were Alan Canfora, John Cleary, Tom Grace, Dean Kahler, Joe Lewis, Scott Mackenzie, Jim Russell, Robby Stamps and Doug Wrentmore.

The Effects

The Kent State shooting was one of the signals of the cultural end of the 1960s. Most people were horrified by it, but some obviously more than others. Depending on who you asked, it could be seen as a symbol of how the protesters' civil rights were violated, or as a symbol of keeping order.

Even more protests and riots happened across the country as a result of the Kent State massacre. It became a symbol of the violation of rights of protesters and of the 'hippie' community.

There is now a monument in Kent State University for the students shot, next to where the event occurred.


The investigation was far from thorough. No guns were analysed for ballistic evidence. No-one ever admitted to firing first, though some admitted that they fired into the crowd because others were firing. The investigation was watched by the public, but it was not adequate enough to satisfy most people.

Many conservatives1, apparently including President Nixon himself (according to some of his private conversations), silently thought that the protesters deserved it. However, much of the nation was outraged by the shootings and were further outraged by the lack of investigation and the stalling of the trial.

When the guardsmen were finally brought to trial, each was acquitted of any crimes.

1Famously termed the 'silent majority' by Nixon.

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