Responding to widespread campus protests against the Vietnam War, Gov. Ronald Reagan of California offered an easy solution. “If it takes a bloodbath” to end it, he suggested on April 8, 1970, “let’s get it over with, no more appeasement.”
Less than one month later, Reagan got his wish, thanks to another law-and-order governor, James Rhodes of Ohio, calling on the National Guard to quell student unrest at Kent State. Vilifying student protesters as “worse than the Brown Shirts,” Rhodes vowed “we are going to eradicate the problem. We are not going to treat the symptoms.”
The following day, those soldiers killed four unarmed Kent State students and wounded nine more, inspiring the impassioned Neil Young song Ohio — and, now, Howard Means’ 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence — in which Means tries to understand what happened and why.
Means draws upon scores of interviews and a rich archival record to dispel numerous myths that have grown up around the events culminating on May 4, 1970, with four dead in Ohio. The Kent State protests — initially triggered by President Richard Nixon’s April 30 speech announcing that Washington was expanding the Vietnam War into Cambodia — weren’t orchestrated by outside agitators. Or by what Nixon, on May 1, castigated as “bums blowing up campuses.”
There were no snipers, as some of the Guard would later claim. Nor were the soldiers’ lives ever endangered by the bricks, stones and human waste being hurled their way. The U.S. Department of Justice concluded that the students were farther from the soldiers than alleged and weren’t advancing; nine of the 13 casualties were shot in the side or back.
So why did the Guard shoot at all? Means is dispassionate and fair in noting that most of them were young, sleep deprived, inexperienced, badly trained, poorly led, angry and scared. He is less interested in blaming the soldiers than the leaders — civilian and military — who failed them by creating an impossible situation in the first place.
His gallery includes a laissez-faire university president who let things drift; a mayor who panicked in calling for the Guard after an initial night of rioting that was less about Cambodia than beer; an overly zealous law-and-order governor in a tough election campaign; and Guard commanders who didn’t have a clear sense of what they were trying to accomplish.
Means also spends time providing the context within which these specific mistakes were made: a country as badly polarized as the one we live in now, which left little room for the sort of reasoned dialogue that might have averted a bloodbath. One sees this most clearly through Means’ chronicle of the aftermath.
Numerous residents of Kent, Ohio, and parents of students responded with variations on the wish that soldiers had finished the job by killing all the protesters. Parents of one of the dead — a ROTC student and athlete in the wrong place at the wrong time — received a letter calling their boy a “destructive, riot-making communist” and advising the parents to “be thankful he is gone.”
Vandals slashed a black ribbon that one professor had tied around a tree in his yard to mourn the dead; his kids were stoned by their playmates.
Having described the inconclusive trials that resulted in no convictions of the firing soldiers, Means wonders whether there will ever be closure regarding what happened. He concludes by hoping instead that even if we never forget — and he rightly suggests we shouldn’t — we at least try to understand and learn to forgive.
Mike Fischer reviewed this book for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.