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In May 1970, students protesting the bombing of Cambodia by United States military forces, clashed with Ohio National Guardsmen on the Kent State University campus. When the Guardsmen shot and killed four students on May 4, the Kent State Shootings became the focal point of a nation deeply divided by the Vietnam War.
By 1970, thousands of Americans were actively protesting the Vietnam War. There were numerous reasons why these protests took place. Some of the prominent ones included revelations that former President Lyndon Baines Johnson had misled the American people about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which led to the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam in late 1964. The ending of college deferments, which previously had exempted most college students from the draft and service in Vietnam, further contributed to the protests. Finally, revelations that the United States military was bombing and sending troops into Cambodia, a country neighboring North and South Vietnam, and the increasing number of American casualties further angered many Americans.
Numerous people protested the Vietnam War for these and other reasons as well. These protests usually were peaceful and included such things as burning draft cards, fleeing to Canada or some other country to escape the draft, protest rallies and marches, or simply remaining enrolled in college to avoid the draft. However, even peaceful protests sometimes turned violent, as United States involvement in the Vietnam War divided the American people.
The most well-known protest involving the Vietnam War occurred at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970. On May 1, Kent State students held an anti-war protest. That evening several incidents occurred, including rocks and bottles being thrown at police officers, the closure of bars by authorities before normal closing time to reduce alcohol consumption, and the lighting of bonfires. Eventually students, other anti-war activists, and common criminals began to break windows and loot stores.
The mayor of Kent, Leroy Satrom, declared a state of emergency on May 2. He requested that Governor James A. Rhodes send the Ohio National Guard to Kent to help maintain order. Rhodes agreed, and the National Guard members began to arrive the evening of May 2. As the soldiers arrived, they found the Reserve Officer Training Corps building at Kent State University in flames. It is unclear who set the building on fire. It may have been anti-war protestors, but it also could have been someone seeking to have the protestors blamed. Interestingly, Kent State officials had already boarded up the ROTC building and were planning to raze it. Protestors were celebrating the buildings destruction as fire fighters arrived. The protestors, which included both students and non students, jeered the fire fighters and even sliced the hoses that the fire fighters were using to extinguish the flames. National Guard members arrived to reestablish order and resorted to tear gas to disperse the protestors.
On May 3, approximately one thousand National Guard soldiers were on the Kent State campus. Tensions remained high, and Governor Rhodes further escalated them by accusing the protestors of being un-American. He proclaimed, "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." Some Kent State students assisted local businesses and the city in cleaning up damage from the previous night's activities, but other students and non students continued to hold protests, further exacerbating the situation. The National Guard continued to break up these demonstrations, including threatening students with bayonets.
On May 4, a Monday, classes resumed at Kent State. Anti-war protestors scheduled a rally for noon at the campus. University officials attempted to ban the gathering but proved unsuccessful in their efforts. As the protest began, National Guard members fired tear gas at the demonstrators. Due to wind, the tear gas proved ineffective. Some of the protestors threw the canisters, along with rocks, back at the soldiers. Some of the demonstrators yelled slogans, such as "Pigs off campus!", at the soldiers.
Eventually seventy-seven guardsmen advanced on the protestors with armed rifles and bayonets. Protestors continued to throw things at the soldiers. Twenty-nine of the soldiers, purportedly fearing for their lives, eventually opened fire. The gunfire lasted just thirteen seconds, although some witnesses contended that it lasted more than one minute. The troops fired a total of sixty-seven shots. When the firing ended, nine students lay wounded, and four other students had been killed. Two of the students who died actually had not participated in the protests.
These shootings helped convince Americans that the anti-war protestors were not just hippies, drug addicts, or promoters of free love. They also included middle and upper-class people, as well as educated Americans. Rather than causing a decline in protests, the Kent State Shootings actually escalated protests. Many colleges and universities across the United States cancelled classes and actually closed their doors for the remainder of the academic year in fear of violent protests erupting on their campuses. In 1970, The Ohio State University dismissed its Spring Quarter classes in early May rather than in June because of protests at this institution. Other Ohio institutions followed suit. Kent State University immediately closed with the shootings on May 4, and did not offer classes again for six weeks, when the summer term began.
The various protests drew to an end as President Richard Nixon, who served from 1969-1974, began to withdraw American soldiers from North and South Vietnam. With the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, which basically ended American involvement in the Vietnam War, the protests drew to a formal close. Still, the Kent State Shootings continue to reverberate through American society and culture. An example of this is Neil Young's song, "Ohio," which commemorated the shootings.