Inside the heartbreak of the Kent State shootings

Historian Howard Means, author of  ‘67 Shots,’ explores the myths and realities of the 1970 Kent State shootings.

Historian Howard Means says that writing his book, '67 Shots,' about the Kent State shootings in 1970, was 'a tour through sorrow.'

Forty-six years ago this month, the National Guard occupied Ohio’s Kent State University amid Vietnam War protests. But the campus did not close, classes did not halt, and chaos did not end. 

The governor was in a tight primary race for a US Senate seat, and the last thing he wanted was a perception that the law in his state had failed to keep order. Campus officials could have tried to take action, but they were out to lunch – literally – when tensions rose around noon on Monday, May 4, 1970.

Kent State students had to make decisions. Some rallied against the occupation, while others went to classes as usual. For two protesters and two non-protesters, their choices were fatal as bullets from guardsmen tore through them. Another nine students were wounded, some seriously.

These basic facts are familiar to many Americans, especially those who lived through the horrific years of the Vietnam War. Many observers, then and now, know just whom to blame.

While the issue of responsibility is crucial, there’s much more to the story of the Kent State tragedy. In his extraordinary new book 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, historian Howard Means pays tribute to the dead, the injured, and the witnesses by seeking the fullest version of the truth.

This isn’t history writing at a distance. Means interviewed many of the players, major and minor, in this tragedy. Their personal stories give “67 Shots” a deeply human feel and turn it into one of the most heartbreaking books in memory.

But while Means describes writing the book as “a tour through sorrow,” readers will also find heroes too. And there are lessons about leadership, survival, and sacrifice.

In an interview with the Monitor from his home in Virginia, Means describes where he was on that deadly day. He also talks about responsibility, risk, and resilience.

“This is one of those things that cry out for forgiveness and getting on with life,” he says. “I’ve been impressed with the number of people who’ve been able to do that.”

Q: Where were you in May 1970?

I was 24 years old, a high school English teacher at St. Albans School in Washington D.C. I could tell it shocked my students, and it further radicalized me.

The kids I was teaching were 17 and 18 years old, sons of powerful people. Those who were shot were right in the middle of that group, and any of them could have been killed.

I can’t say I was leading any protest movement. But when they had the demonstrations the following Saturday, I walked down to the National Mall.  Especially around Scott Circle, there were military jeeps at those radial intersections. People were carrying semiautomatics, scowling straight ahead. It was terrifying walking down there, and that stuck in my mind.

Now I’m in my early 70s, and I’m trying to figure out my own history.

 Q: What inspired you to write about Kent State specifically?

Through my previous books, about Andrew Johnson and Johnny Appleseed, I’ve been trying to rescue people and events from the myths that surround and encapsulate them.

I went to the 45th reunion of Kent State, and it seems to be received truth that Richard Nixon played a key role in this somehow. Nixon played no role whatsoever other than delivering an address on April 30 about the war being expanded in Cambodia. You can blame so many things on Richard Nixon, but you can’t blame this on him.

And it’s not as simple as rogue guardsmen shooting on innocent students. In fact, on Saturday night, some of the students committed a federal crime by burning the campus ROTC building down to the ground.

Q: What was the military occupation like at the university?

Governor Jim Rhodes wanted to keep the campus open while running in the Republican primary for Senate. The guard had to keep the campus open for his purpose, and out of his political ambition, four people died and nine were wounded. 

They brought in 1,300 troops, declared martial law in the town and college, took over the college. They had an enormous amount of firepower: helicopters, armored carriers, equipment used to bust through jungles in Vietnam. They were doing crowd control with battle rifles.

By overwhelming the campus, they managed to turn the protest from the Vietnam War to the guard itself. By Monday, it was about the guard. It wasn’t about Vietnam. I don’t think the guard leaders ever got that, how it changed the whole tenor.

Q: What did you learn about the confrontation itself?

The inevitability is like the Titanic and the iceberg moving together.

You have students doing their thing, and the guard waiting for this confrontation to take place. Meanwhile, the administration goes off at noon to have lunch a half mile off campus. They leave a graduate student in charge of communications.

There was a failure at so many levels: The failure to adjust to reality that the students won’t disperse, the failure of the students to do anything but provoke, and the failure of Jim Rhodes being locked into his position.

Q: What responsibility do the protesters have?

They did pursue the guardsmen and throw rocks at them, but the guardsmen were never in the danger that people sometimes thought they were in.

But I think most of the guardsmen who fired their rifles at the students honestly thought they were in a riot situation.

They were honestly scared inside their gas masks and thought they were in danger. They believed they were in danger of being overrun, of being stoned by the students and having their rifles taken away.

They were not in danger. They weren’t 30 feet away; they were 30 yards away. You can’t throw a rock at 30 yards and hit anyone, at least I can’t.

Q: What was it like for the guardsmen?

They were extraordinary tired. They’d had three hours of sleep, they were miserably led, and the leadership was appallingly irresponsible and unprepared.

And they were equipped with the wrong tools to do an impossible job. They had their bayonets and battle rifles lethal to half a mile in their hands, and they had no other means to defend themselves. There was some tear gas, but there was a 17 mph wind which made it ineffective.

Q: What do the guardsmen say?

Many of them are still suffering from what happened. But they were put in an impossible situation thanks to terrible leadership, the wrong equipment.

One said in an interview about 15 years ago that it was almost as if they were put on this hill to fail. That broke my heart.

Q: Is there a hero in this story?

There are many heroes. Geology professor Glenn Frank is obviously a hero, and he paid a heavy price for his heroism.

Q: What he did do in the moments after the shootings?

You’ve got 1,000 students gathered, and the guard was about to start moving forward to disperse the crowd. They have about 800 rounds left, and you’re got a hard core of 20-30 students with Xs painted on their chests and foreheads. They’re so angry that they’re feeling invulnerable, and they’re about to charge the guard position. They would have been mowed down immediately.

Frank looked up, saw the guard and understood the perilousness of this position. Looking like the ex-Marine he was, he pleads, cries, and begs, does everything he can do. Finally the students listen, and they disperse. He might have saved his own son’s life since his son, a student, was also there.

He paid a heavy psychological and physical price. It was just really rough.

There’s no monument to him on campus. The university afterward simply wanted this incident to disappear and forget about it, although they’ve done an admirable job in the past 10 years of rectifying that.

Q: What should we understand about the era when Kent State happened?

You have to look at it in the context of May 1970 and the decade that preceded it. People forget about how wide the generational divide was. There were kids who were there on the hill at that moment and went home to their parents, who said they wished they’d shot more of them. One student replied: Don’t you realize that I could have been one of them?

You have to remember, a lot of these kids were born in 1950, 1948. Their fathers had served in military in World War II, and they had a completely different view of rightness of going to war and serving.

It was as huge of clash of cultures as America has ever experienced, and also against the backdrop of the assassinations. It was an amazingly and upsetting and perilous time.

Q: What is the legacy of Kent State?

Part of the legacy is the understanding that the militarization of civilian problems is rarely successful.

We see it in places like Ferguson and Baltimore: These police forces have been so equipped by the Pentagon that they end up responding with equipment developed for clearing streets in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That happened at Kent State. It moves the conflict to another level of response, and gives the military more reason to use the heavy equipment they brought with them. That’s part of the lesson.

Another lesson is that town-gown  gown relationships really matter. Had the university and the city of Kent had better relationships, the mayor would never have called the governor and given him this hole to run through before the election.

Also, there’s a lesson for universities: Know your students. Part of the problem was an expectation that outsiders were going to take over this event. This was an inherently local event that got treated like the front edge of the revolution. There was overplay and literal overkill.

Q: What did you learn about how people fared after Kent State?

Dean Kahler was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. When I saw him at the 45th reunion, he seemed comfortable and at peace with himself.

I asked him: Do you think it was intentional? Yes. So how can you be so at peace? He said he’s happy to be alive, and you can’t live your life steeped in resentment.

One of the lessons is the power of forgiveness. You have to get beyond and accept that it happened, and accept that it happened for a multiplicity of reasons, probably for reasons more nuanced than you realized.

This is one of those things that cry out for forgiveness and getting on with life. I’ve been impressed with the number of people who’ve been able to do that.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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