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by William H. Benson

May 4, 2006

     On Thursday, April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced that a massive American / South Vietnamese troop offensive was moving into Cambodia with intentions of inflicting damages upon the enemy, the North Vietnamese.  He said, “We take these actions not for the purpose of expanding the war into Cambodia, but for the purpose of ending the war in Vietnam and winning the just peace we all desire.”

     These words were not what the war-weary public wanted to hear, and they were not believed.  The war was in its seventh year by then with no end in sight and already tens of thousands of American soldiers had been killed.  (Indeed, it would be another four years before America ended its tragic involvement in Southeast Asia.)

     To most Americans, Nixon’s decision was an escalation of a war that America could not ever win, and that it meant more deaths and casualties.

     The President was quite unprepared for the American public’s hostile reaction that emanated mainly from students at college campuses.  At Kent State in Kent, Ohio, close to Akron, Ohio, students on Friday, May 1, threw some rocks, broke some windows, and attempted to burn down the ROTC building.  Ohio’s governor, James Rhodes, sent in the National Guard.

     On Monday, the fourth of May, a school day, 96 guards marched down a hill to a field in the middle of several hundred student demonstrators.  The crowd was initially peaceful and quiet but with the advance of the guards, the students retreated.  Then, as the guards retreated back up the hill, the students followed and began to throw rocks at them.

     None of the students were armed, and none of the guards were in any immediate danger.  Then, when the guards were just within seconds of stepping around the corner of a building and thus would have been protected from any stone-throwing, certain of the Guardsman wheeled around and began shooting into the crowd of students.

     The reason behind this action was never determined.  Some said that a sniper had fired first, and others said that their lives were in danger—neither of which was proven true.

      In 13 seconds they fired 67 shots.  Thirteen students were hit, and of them 4 died: Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder.  Some of the 13 hit were not even part of the demonstrators but were onlookers or were students passing on their way to class.  One of the students hit was 700 feet away from the guards.  The closet hit was 60 feet away.  None of the thirteen presented any threat to the guards.

     Because the investigation afterwards was botched, the prosecutors failed in their case to convict any of the guards.  The judge ruled that it was impossible to prove which of the guards shot which of the victims.  In the civil case $675,000 was divided 13 ways.

     President Nixon called the parents of only one of those four students because that student had been a member of the ROTC.  The phone never rang for the parents of the other three.  White House tapes later revealed that Nixon believed that the demonstrators were bums, that he felt that those wounded had it coming, and that he deliberately stalled the federal prosecution against the guards..  

     Over 4 million students protested the guards’ actions, and over 900 colleges and universities shut down, more than 500 of them for the rest of the semester.  It was the first national student strike.  Nixon was staggered by this hostile reaction, pushed to the point of physical and emotional collapse, and he withdrew his U.S. military invasion into Cambodia.  The White House soon looked like a besieged city when policemen and parked buses surrounded the President’s home.

     H.R. Haldeman later wrote, “Kent State, in May 1970, marked a turning point for Nixon, a beginning of his downhill slide toward Watergate.  None of us realized it then; we were all too busy trying to calm the national furor over the Cambodian invasion.”

     The Greek dramatist Euripides centuries ago wrote: “Again, where the people are absolute rulers of the land, they rejoice in having a reserve of youthful citizens, while a king counts this a hostile element and seeks to slay the leading ones, all such as he deems discreet, for he feareth for his power.”