50 years ago today, four students at Kent State University were murdered and nine injured when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a nonviolent protest opposing the Vietnam War.
The protests had begun on campus on May 1, and by the afternoon of May 3, one thousand Ohio National Guardsmen were at the school. On the day of the massacre, three thousand protestors and spectators had gathered by 11 A.M., then Ohio National Guard General Robert Canterbury ordered for the crowds to disperse, and the students refused. Upon their refusal, the Ohio National Guard fired tear gas at the protesters, then began to retreat up Blanket Hill, a hill between the protesters and a football field. Once they reached the top, 28 guards fired into the crowd for 13 seconds. 70 shots, four deaths, nine injuries, and lifelong trauma.
“No one knew the national guard had real bullets. We were completely shocked. It just never occurred to anyone that they would actually have bullets to shoot people. It may sound naive but we talked about that for years afterwards,” said then student Lou Capecci.
The massacre had not even been a thought on the horizon for students at Kent State. There was a sense of trust established between the National Guard and the students — a general understanding that they had been called to keep the protests under control, but were mostly there as a sense of intimidation. On this day, 50 years ago, the Ohio National Guard shattered this trust.
Today, and every day, Americans honor the memory of Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer — four students who were proud to be standing up against a war they felt was unjust. Miller, before his death, wrote a poem about the Vietnam War entitled “The War Without End”. The last lines read, “But all the frightened parents who still have their sons / fear that / the end is not in sight”. That day, Miller’s parents lost their son to the very violence he condemned. That day, the nation failed him.
Following the massacre, the majority of Americans threw their support behind the National Guard. Those who protested the Vietnam War had been deemed un-American by the U.S. government as officials fed propaganda into citizens’ homes. Due to this, the public believed the National Guard was doing their job effectively and keeping peace when they murdered the four students. Following the massacre, a civil suit was filed by the injured students and their families, which was settled by the National Guard for $675,000 nine years later.
The National Guard then released this statement, “In retrospect, the tragedy… should not have occurred. The students may have believed that they were right in continuing their mass protest in response to the Cambodian invasion, even though this protest followed the posting and reading by the university of an order to ban rallies and an order to disperse. Some of the Guardsmen on Blanket Hill, fearful and anxious from prior events, may have believed in their own minds that their lives were in danger. Hindsight suggests that another method would have resolved the confrontation,”.
An order to ban rallies and disperse goes directly against the first amendment, which grants citizens the freedom to assemble. It does not matter that the university had ordered otherwise, due to the fact that this was a nonviolent protest and the students were well within their constitutional rights when they decided to assemble. There was also no reason to justify Guardsmen being fearful for their lives. They were the ones armed, whereas the students were staging a peaceful, unarmed, protest. This is something that will never be forgiven, and the Guardsmen should have been prosecuted following this brutal day. Yet, they were not.
5o years have passed since this dark day in history, and to be quite frank, America hasn’t come very far. March 2020 was the first March without a school shooting since 2002 due to schools currently being closed, and police brutality occurs frequently in our nation. America continues to involve itself in unjust wars, having never learned from Vietnam. Recently, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Kent State massacre survivor Joe Walsh stated, “It was a long time ago but the reason it is so important and should be remembered is because history repeats itself — and we are as divided as a country now as we were then”. Though the nation is not currently divided over a war as detrimental as Vietnam, there are a multitude of political issues that demand individuals choose a side. It seems that the “grey area” we once found our morality residing, no longer exists — everything must be black and white or your opinion will be deemed irrelevant. Progress can only be achieved through unity, and Americans must come together to create the peace many have been advocating for throughout their lives.
As Jeffrey Miller stated so powerfully in his poem, “The War Without a Purpose marches on relentlessly”. While this was written to describe the war in Vietnam, it can be applied to America’s unhesitant violence present today. It is time Americans bring this violence to an end, and encourage the nation to examine the principles it was founded on —life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.