Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the governing of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”     Thomas Jefferson,    First Inaugural Address

May 4, 2010

This Day in History: 40th Anniversary of the Kent State Massacre

by Stephen Littau

From the Progressive/Left-wing DemocracyNow.org’s coverage:

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Kent State Shootings. On May 4th, 1970, National Guardsmen opened fire on hundreds of unarmed students at an antiwar rally at Kent State University in Ohio. The guardsmen fired off at least 67 shots in roughly 13 seconds. Four students were killed and nine others wounded.

The events of May 4, 1970 at Kent State were certainly tragic but the notion that the Nation Guardsmen fired at “unarmed” students engaging in peaceful demonstrations is plainly untrue. In fact these “peace” protesters failed to practice what they preached as they set fires, looted, vandalized cars and buildings, and threw rocks and bottles at the police/National Guardsmen who tried to restore order. These anti-war protesters certainly didn’t practice the Libertarian “non-initiation of force” principle as they, like the U.S. government initiated force to attempt to accomplish a political goal.*

However, sending in the National Guard complete with semiautomatic M1 Garand rifles (.30-06 FMJ rounds) with fixed bayonets to suppress these riots seems to be a bit of an overreaction on the part of the governor.** The methods used to suppress these violent protests were very different from the less lethal methods police use today (which some say is a direct result of this event).

Were the National Guardsmen’s deadly actions justified self-defense? A full 40 years later, this is still a subject of great debate.

One thing which isn’t debatable is that this event was tragic and preventable.


*In the case of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, the political goal was ostensibly to stop the spread of Communism in Vietnam and Cambodia; the political goal of the student anti-war protesters at Kent State was to turn public opinion against the Vietnam War in-general and Nixon’s announcement of the U.S. invasion into Cambodia specifically.

**It’s not too difficult to draw parallels between this event and those of the famed “Boston Massacre” just prior to the American Revolution.

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9 Comments

  1. I was at Ohio State when this happened and we were in anguish over the killings at KSU. A day or two later there was a big protest at OSU over the shootings and the police fired on the crowd to clear the Oval. No one was killed but several hit by buckshot. The university soon closed for the quarter because the protests did not stop. We hated the governor, Jim Rhodes, for calling out the National Guard.

    Comment by John Curran — May 4, 2010 @ 1:45 pm
  2. Thanks for offering your perspective, John. This all happened well before I was born. I’m hoping that others who are old enough to remember will also chime in.

    What’s your take on the “Kent State Massacre”? Were the shootings in any way justified in your opinion?

    Comment by Stephen Littau — May 4, 2010 @ 1:53 pm
  3. This incident, in many ways, was a “perfect storm” of bad judgment by all sides. Gov. Jim Rhodes was in the middle of a tough senatorial campaign (which he eventually lost), so he wanted to appear tough in the face of a difficult situation. The guardsmen had just come in from quelling the rioting during a strike by mine workers in the coal fields of eastern Ohio. Thge mine workers had guns, so the firepower and mindset of the guardsmen was still there. They were exhausted, outfitted with equipment far too powerful and deadly for student demonstrations, and should never have been re-deployed to such a situation. As you wrote, the students were violent themselves, though largely destroying property; they were throwing rocks, bottles, and whatever they could get at the guardsmen.

    I was in 6th grade in suburban Columbus, Ohio; just becoming politically aware, and in the middle of the top political/social news of the day. I remember that my uncle was in one of the guard units that went to Ohio State. My parents took something down to him one evening just after the incident on the Oval, and took me along. I remember that I hid on the floor of the car’s back seat, because I thought something might happen at OSU.

    In later years, both my wife and my BFF went to Kent State for school, and both lived in Prentiss Hall. That is the dorm in whose parking lot the shootings took place. I’ve studied the time (the KSU library has an area devoted to the shootings) and I’ve walked the hill and the lots. What I have never done, though, is understand. Some things just happen, in spite of all intentions for a different outcome. This is one of them.

    Comment by Phil Grimes — May 4, 2010 @ 8:04 pm
  4. To answer Stephen Littau’s question, I do not believe the shootings were justified. The guardsman were poorly led, very nervous & probably angry that people had thrown rocks & other items at them. They appear to have huddled for a bit before they marched up the hill & began firing. The decision to fire appears to have been done by a small group and not an officer. The other outrageous thing is how far away from the guardsman the killed victims were.

    This would have been much different if the men had been given riot guns and were not carrying M1 rifles that can kill at 1000 yards or more.

    This was our government saying that protests against the war would be met with deadly force. Remember that Nixon had just begun bombing Cambodia and the protests were about that decision. Nixon & Kissinger had opened the war deeper into southeast Asia when they had been promising to end it.

    It was a tense time in this country & Kent State was not the only place college students were murdered. See Jackson State shootings. A year or so earlier, the Mexican government had machine gunned about 50 students and we thought our goverment was beginning to act like a third world military dictatorship.

    Comment by John Curran — May 5, 2010 @ 6:02 am
  5. Infantry makes horrid police. Infantry are training solely to close with and destroy the target.

    None of the shot were armed, none were within 30 meters of the shooters. Two of the dead were walking to class, not even participating in the protest. None of the dead were within 90 meters of the shooters. How dangerous is a thrown rock at 90 meters (almost 100 yards)?

    The students behaved badly. But “behaving badly” is not a capital offense.

    Comment by John — May 5, 2010 @ 1:48 pm
  6. Pardon typo, it should read “trained”, not “training”.

    Comment by John — May 5, 2010 @ 1:50 pm
  7. So on Monday, you’re creeped out that PA says, “We know where you live, pay your taxes.” But on Wednesday, you are unconcerned about agents of the state killing unarmed, if unruly, protesters.

    You are an idiot.

    Comment by Joshua Holmes — May 5, 2010 @ 6:33 pm
  8. Joshua:

    If I were unconcerned about National Guardsmen shooting students I wouldn’t have written the post in the first place. When I am comfortable that I have sufficient understanding of the FACTS, I almost always have a very strong opinion on events like this. Based on my current understanding of what took place, I believe the National Guardsmen used unnecessary force (I put most of the blame on the governor for putting these soldiers in this situation to begin with; John is absolutely right about the distinction between soldiers and law enforcement). Perhaps I could have done a little more research before posting, but once in awhile, I like to step back and let the readers draw their own conclusions and write their responses. I’m particularly interested in what people have to say who have spent a lot of time studying this event, who are old enough to remember what happened, and especially interested in hearing from those who were there.

    You raised some valid points and your name calling was unnecessary; you didn’t have to go there. But since you did, I have to just say: Joshua, go fuck yourself.

    Comment by Stephen Littau — May 5, 2010 @ 8:44 pm
  9. The first time I heard about this, it was from a far-left wing professor who said that the National Guard went into Kent State to massacre people. Ridiculous, I know.

    Comment by Michael O. Powell — May 13, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

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