What really happened at Kent State?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Keener: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Keener, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Keener: Hi, Jane. Today, we have a topic that doesn't come from too far back in the annals of American history. And it's a pretty important topic to discuss because it's a mystery that's been unsolved for decades now.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, a pretty one controversial one at that.

Candace Keener: Definitely. And what's so interesting about this is that there's new evidence that emerged a couple of years ago that threatens to change the course of how we conceive of this event. And what I'm referring to rather mysteriously is what really happened at Kent State?

Jane McGrath: Kent State is actually a university in Ohio in the town of Kent. You've probably heard of it, or it rings a bell, because of this tragedy that happened in 1970. It happened on May 4th, and had to do with an antiwar protest. As you probably know, the Vietnam War was going on at this time, and the Americans were involved in it. And it was very controversial.

Candace Keener: It was. It was an incredibly unpopular war. And one of the reasons that Richard Nixon had been elected to the presidency was because he had made the promise to get the American troops out of the war!

Jane McGrath: Right. He promised Vietnamization, which was the idea that he was going to transfer the combat duty from American soldiers to the Vietnamese themselves. And so that was one of the reasons why he was elected president. He was campaigning for this. But he seemed to stab people in the back, or go back on this promise, when he announced on April 30, 1970 that he was sending U.S. troops into Cambodia.

Candace Keener: This really took people by surprise. They didn't understand the motive behind it. And the official motive Nixon gave when the made the announcement on national television and radio was that there were Vietcong headquarters in Cambodia. And by infiltrating the headquarters, they'd eventually be able to take down the Vietcong. So by a military and governmental perspective, the maneuver made sense. But to the American people who felt they'd been duped, it was a real slap in the face.

Jane McGrath: Right. It seemed like he was escalating the war rather than pulling out of it, which people wanted to see - especially college kids around the country. And they were one of the most active antiwar protestors at this time. And so the next day, which would've been Friday, May 1st, students in campuses all around the country - not just Kent - were staging antiwar protests. It was a very standard thing and very understandable because this is the day after the announcement. And in Kent, the students staged a protest in which they symbolically buried the U.S. Constitution. And it was very standard. Kent was not unlike many other campuses.

Candace Keener: And another thing they did was plan to convene again on Monday, May 4th at noon for another rally. And Friday night, as you can imagine, the semester is winding down. It's getting close to summer. Students go out, as usual, to the bars and they're intermingling with townspeople from Kent. And the scene escalates because antiwar sentiment is running high. And things get a little bit out of control.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, these crowds start building bonfires in the streets and bottles are thrown at cop cars, and it's increasingly more and more tense and rowdy. I went to the University of Maryland, and this doesn't seem completely out of the ordinary. We win a championship and the kids build bonfires. But it really made the officials of the town of Kent very nervous.

Candace Keener: Definitely. The protestors were having verbal conflicts and physical conflicts with the police. So all the Kent police were out that night! Police were called in from surrounding towns and cities. And all the county's officials came out, too, just to show their faces and help quell the crowds - and eventually to help disperse the crowds. And things really got out of control and mayhem broke loose when the mayor of Kent closed all the bars. And what a bad move in retrospect, because people are being rowdy! But you can imagine that there's still a good number of people inside the bars, having their beers and carrying on as usual. But you close all the bars; you move all of those people into the streets. They've all been drinking - mayhem. What were you thinking?

Jane McGrath: Ye ah, I think he had good intentions because you can understand how the presence of the bars made the crowds more rowdy after drinking. But to close them during the night just made things worse.

Candace Keener: It really did. So in a bit of desperation, he called Governor James Rhodes. And those two wouldn't conspire quite yet, but the next day they reached a decision that ultimately culminated in the tragic shootings at Kent State. But that night, the crowd was dispersed with tear gas and things were calm. It was the calm before the storm.

Jane McGrath: The next day, Saturday, May 2nd, Satrom, the mayor, was still nervous about what happened the night before. But also, he was hearing rumors and supposedly threats against local businessmen. This made him even more nervous so he called the governor, James Rhodes. And about five that evening, Saturday, he asked the governor to send the National Guard to Kent.

Candace Keener: And at 10:00 p.m. the Ohio National Guard arrived. And they came into a rather dramatic scene on the Kent State campus. Someone - to this day we don't know how - was burning down the ROTC building there.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, there was a big crowd around the ROTC building and crowd was cheering on the blaze. But we still haven't found out who exactly lit it. Some students were wrongly accused of starting the fire, so we still don't know. But we do know that many protestors actually cut fire hoses, which effectively prevented firemen from putting out the blaze when they did arrive on the scene.

Candace Keener: So that night there were arrests made and more tear gas, and just pandemonium for a good while.

Jane McGrath: The Guards were able to disperse them when they arrived, but the blaze had already been set, the damage had already been done.

Candace Keener: Exactly. So by Sunday, May 3rd, according to reports it was a pretty nice day in Kent, Ohio. The sun was out, it was springtime. And even though the Guardsmen were there, they didn't dampen spirits that much. Students were having conversations with them. They were talking and conversing, and things were going okay until Governor Rhodes showed up in Kent. And the things he said just added fuel to a fire that had been burning out. He essentially threatened to get a court order, putting the state in a state of emergency. And no one actually said the words, but it was assumed that martial law had been declared. And understanding, falsely, that martial law was in effect, all rallies were banned, including the one that had been banned for noon the next day, Monday, May 4th. And tensions spiked again.

Jane McGrath: And one important thing also, that Rhodes did on Sunday was during a press conference he actually called these violent protestors "the worst type of people that we harbor in America," which is a very uncharitable remark and not very diplomatic for the time. I'm sure it just added fuel to the fire.

Candace Keener: Exactly. So university officials tried to get the word out to all the Kent State students, "Don't conduct the rally. Please don't meet on the commons. Let's just scrap this whole idea." They went so far as to print a couple thousand -

Jane McGrath: 12,000.

Candace Keener: - 12,000 flyers telling students "Don't hold this rally." And the students felt on the whole that it was their right constitutionally to have this rally and to speak what was on their mind. So by 11:00 a couple thousand had already started congregating. And then by noon, there were 3,000. And there's a report that was put together by two men affiliated with Kent State University, and that is Jerry Lewis and Thomas R. Hensley! And they attempt to break down the numbers to give us a better idea of how many people in the crowd were actually protestors, demonstrators, agitators, and spectators. And the estimate that 3,500 were active demonstrators! About 1,000 were on the sidelines cheering them on, and then around the periphery you had about 1,500 more who were spectating. And I would presume also that that number includes people who were passing by on their way to different sites around campus. Because, as we'll see, one of the victims of the shootings was just a passerby!

Jane McGrath: Right. So you have this situation where you have about 1,000 Guardsmen and 3,000 students who are gathered around, some actively protesting and some just watching. One of the generals in the National Guard, General Robert Canterbury, and he tried to disperse the crowd. He tried with a bullhorn saying, "Go home. Rallies are banned." He was driven around in a Jeep around the commons trying to get people to leave. Finally he ordered his men to load their weapons and start dispersing tear gas.

Candace Keener: And we should mention that their weapons were M-1 rifles. And it's pretty intimidating from all accounts. Imagine you're a bystander you're one of the crowd of 3,000 civilian s looking on. To see men holding these weapons and you know that they're loaded even if they're locked - what a scary thought. But conversely from the Guardsmen's point of view, they were outnumbered by about two to one.

Jane McGrath: It seems like that, yeah.

Candace Keener: And that's why there's so much controversy today, as we'll see later in the debate. Who was more frightened?

Jane McGrath: Well, I think it's interesting to note as a good point. But on the other hand if I were a spectator or a protestor, I really wouldn't expect the Guard to even think about shooting into the crowd. I think that's what gave them a lot of the courage or gall to challenge the National Guard.

Candace Keener: And by challenge, we should be explicit and say they were hurling insults and throwing rocks. They were not being complacent people in a crowd. And please don't mistake what I'm saying. I'm not trying to defend either side here. I'm presenting the facts. But you should know that people weren't standing by. They were actively engaging with the Guards. The Guards had their weapons loaded, they were dispersing the tear gas, and the crowd was fighting back.

Jane McGrath: And so when the tear gas was dispersed, this pushed protestors past the commons area and up and over a hill. And on the other side you had this practice football field in a parking lot. So the crowd was pushed back to that area. And when the guardsmen got there, they realized that they were trapped because the field was enclosed by a fence.

Candace Keener: And at that point, the guard started traipsing back up Blanket Hill. And when they got to the top of the hill, they turned around and, out of the 70+ Guards present, 28 fired.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And we should note that not all of these 28 who fired, fired into the crowd. Most of them actually just shot up in the air or shot down into the ground. It seems like they were trying to not harm anyone, but just warn the protestors. But that wasn't the case for all of the Guards.

Candace Keener: No. So for about 13 seconds there were between 61 and 67 shots fired. And as a result, there were four deaths. We have Jeffrey Miller who was shot from 270 feet away. He was hit in the mouth. Allison Krause was 300 feet away and she was shot in the left side. William Schroeder, 390 feet away was shot in the back. And Sandy Scheuer, who was a student just passing by on her way to class, was shot at 390 feet away as well. And she was shot in the neck.

Jane McGrath: And that's what makes it more tragic. I mean, it would've been tragic anyway, but the fact that some of the kids who were shot or wounded were not even involved. They didn't even want to engage in the protest and they became a victim of it.

Candace Keener: And nine wounded included Dean Kahler, who was permanently paralyzed from the shot. Donald MacKenzie was the furthest away of any of the victims of the shootings, at 750 feet. And another one of the students, Joseph Lewis who was hit, he was actually hit while he was flipping off the Guard with his middle finger.

Jane McGrath: Oh, yeah. I remember reading that. So panic basically ensued. I can't imagine how it would feel in the seconds, the moments after the shots were fired, but people believe - like you mentioned Lewis and Hensley write about this and they were a great source for my research. They believe that things would've gotten worse, most definitely.

Candace Keener: And if you listen to eyewitness accounts from Kent State that day, they say that everyone just hit the ground. Shots are fired, you hit the ground. And then people paused and stood back up. And you don't realize at first who's been shot. And then they start seeing people who aren't getting up, people who are covered in blood. And especially in the parking lot, it became very obvious. You have blood pooling out of victims lying on the asphalt. Jeffrey Miller, one in particular -

Jane McGrath: At least after this, there was thought about provoking the Guards further. And if it weren't for Glenn Frank who was a professor there - and he happened to be acting as a faculty marshal to keep the peace during the protest. He started pleading with the crowd to just disperse and let it go and don't provoke the Guards anymore.

Candace Keener: And you can actually hear clips of what he said, or people recounting his words. And this is strictly paraphrasing, but he was very passionately saying things like, "If you've never listened to any directions in your life at all, for heaven's sake listen to this now. Don't react."

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it's heart wrenching. And thank goodness he was there to say that. A lot of people credit him for saving some lives that day. This news hit the national scene and everyone was basically in shock. A lot of people were disappointed with the response they got from Nixon administration. Nixon himself said merely, "When descent turns to violence, it invites tragedy." It struck a lot of people as cold when he said that.

Candace Keener: And he later remarked that, "Those few days after Kent were among the darkest of my presidency." And I guess so, if you're showing such a lukewarm sentiment as what you commented, Jane.

Jane McGrath: It's interesting. I remember reading an account of one of the most bizarre things of Nixon's presidency is in the days following Kent. He actually left the White House in the wee hours of the morning with no or very little security, and he engaged in conversation with some protestors who were standing on the steps of a monument or some such. And he told them, "I know you probably hate me and think I'm a jerk." He used a little more vulgar language than I did, but he tried to engage with the generation. But you can see the disconnect between the younger college generation at this time and Nixon's generation. They didn't know how to connect with each other.

Candace Keener: Definitely not. And I can imagine that that generational gap would've made it incredibly difficult to understand the sentiments of the crowd and reconcile those with the duty of the National Guard. And that became a huge debate. And trying to settle this case in court was a nightmare. And it wasn't settled, really, until January 1979. And eventually the courts settled with $675,000 to the wounded and the families of the killed students. And the National Guard never even issued an apology. They only made a statement of regret.

Jane McGrath: They wanted to clarify, I think, that it was not an apology. Because that would make it look like they were to blame. They testified in these trials that they shot because they felt that their lives were in danger. And a lot of people disagree with that. They think that they made up this excuse. And there are some conspiracy theories that the troops, when they originally came down past the hill to the football field, these troops who fired had planned ahead - a premeditated murder situation where they said, "When we get back up to that hill, we're going to turn around and fire," which would indicate that they didn't feel like their lives were in danger so much as they just wanted to shoot. They wanted to end this rally.

Candace Keener: And other eyewitness accounts said that they were very angry. They were obviously caught in the middle of a student protest that, arguably, they weren't prepared to handle. The National Guard is obviously prepared for certain types of situations, but a student protest may have been one that they weren't trained to handle efficiently or properly.

Jane McGrath: And what I find most interesting about the Guards themselves is that a lot of sources bring up the fact that these Guards - most of them were not much older than the college kids they were shooting into.

Candace Keener: And that would explain the camaraderie on Sunday, when they were hanging out and talking.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And also the fact that many of these kids in the Guard, they had entered the Guard because they wanted to dodge the draft themselves. So you can see that maybe they had similar sentiment as the protestors, as draft dodgers.

Candace Keener: After the shootings, life stopped on the university and it was closed. Like many universities around the country, Kent State was closed for six weeks. And it didn't reopen until the summer. But in order to ensure normalcy and proper closure of the semester, professors and students completed their coursework through mail and they would have meetings in town. In the Jerry Lewis and Thomas Hensley report, they describe one student who was in the sciences, who helped make videos and different experiences in laboratories and mailed them out to his fellow students. So people were obviously trying to make this work.

Jane McGrath: And other campuses were closed around the country, too. It partly had to do with student strikes, which forced them to close, and also they had to close or felt it was the right thing to do. I was talking to my dad about it and he was actually attending Georgetown at this time. And he remembers when Georgetown campus shut down for the rest of the year. But there wasn't a whole lot left of the semester. You mentioned six weeks or so. We're thinking May. It's pretty late in the semester, but it did disrupt the entire country in that way.

Candace Keener: It really did. And what's interesting - I alluded earlier in the podcast that there's evidence now that threatens to shake up the verdict of the case as we know it. I'm not quite sure what became of this, but back in May of 2007 a story broke on NPR that one of the wounded victims, Alan Canfora, had new evidence that he wanted to see investigated. And the day of the rally, there was a student who had a microphone perched on the windowsill of his dorm room. And he recorded everything that happened on a reel-to-reel tape. And not until recently with improved technology standards in audio was anyone able to convert that into a better sounding clip. And it had been stored in the archives at Yale for many years since then. And Canfora gave an eyewitness account that he heard someone command the shots, which obviously would've made this case very different. Because people say, "We don't know why the Guards shot." Well, if someone told them to shoot, there's the evidence right there. And if you listen very carefully to the tape - and you can! If you do a search for it online you can hear it. You can sort of make out the words, "Right here. Get set. Point and fire!" But it's very faint. So I'm not quite sure if this is maybe a matter of wanting to hear something that's not really there.

Jane McGrath: Do they know that it would've been an official who said that? Or maybe it was just one of these -

Candace Keener: That's a good point, too, because Canterbury was the officer of highest rank among the National Guard. But is there evidence to point towards the fact that he would've said it, that he would've given the order?

Jane McGrath: Because I remember reading that one of the officials, after the shootings, came running across saying, "Stop firing. Stop firing."

Candace Keener: Right. And it could be that an order got handed down incorrectly to a small portion of the number of Guards. And that would've explained why only 20-something out of 70-something even shot.

Jane McGrath: That's true.

Candace Keener: So it's something that I don't really know a lot about except for the story. And I'm not sure if the case has been reopened for investigation.

Jane McGrath: One thing that struck me when I began doing research on Kent State was the fact that it sounded similar to another historical situation that happened centuries beforehand having to do with the Boston Massacre. And it really struck a chord with me that there was this situation where you have armed troops and angry citizens confronting each other and there's panic and confusion going on. And somehow a shot was fired and it just escalated after that. And I actually found a scholarly article about it that describes the similarities and the differences. It's fascinating. It's interesting to think about these situations and how there are so much better ways to handle them and how we need to avoid the repeat of such episodes.

Candace Keener: Exactly. And it really is our right as citizens to speak out against things. We have that granted to us by the Constitution. We have freedom of speech. We can protest. And obviously there are peaceful and more radical ways to do it.

Jane McGrath: And it's complicated by the fact that it needs to be peaceful protest and were the protestors being peaceful? Well, you could argue that with the burning down of the ROTC building, maybe not.

Candace Keener: Exactly. And that's a question that the report from Lewis and Hensley raises. They leave their summary of the Kent State shootings with a whole list of questions. And some of the ones that really stood out to me were how much of this action was brought on by outside agitators, non Kent State students. What were the townspeople doing to get the crowds riled up?

Jane McGrath: And the confusion of the martial law as well.

Candace Keener: Exactly. Was martial law declared or was it not? Who actually banned the rally? Didn't anyone have a right to ban the rally? And in respect to the outside agitators coming in, one of the most famous images from the Kent State shootings, a photograph taken by photography student John Filo that day of young Mary Vecchio leaning over the body of Jeffrey Miller. Her hands are at her sides and her face is just contorted in anguish. Marry Vecchio wasn't a Kent State student. She was a 14-year-old runaway who just happened to be there. And this image is so iconic. And it's really how many of us remember Kent State, the pandemonium, and the chaos of the tragedy of it.

Jane McGrath: Memorable picture that's so heart wrenching. Yeah.

Candace Keener: And if you haven't seen it, again do a search for it. But Mary Vecchio later said that she suffered because of the photo. And that's a direct quote. She said that she had suffered because of it. And I'm not quite sure what that means.

Jane McGrath: I don't know. Maybe it would indicate that she got a lot of attention because of it and she was always attached with this tragedy.

Candace Keener: I guess that's a good point. If you witness an event like that, of course it's always going to be with you. It's always something you're going to remember. But eventually you overcome tragedy by coping with it in certain ways. And if your face is so strongly attached to this moment, you can't really get over it, can you?

Jane McGrath: That would be hard.

Candace Keener: And that's why it's so important to remember Kent State and remember it not just from the perspective of the actual events that occurred, but from the perspective of history. As you mentioned, Jane, bringing into context with other events where mob behavior resulted and culminated in tragedy when you have someone who's armed against a protestor who's not - and proper ways to speak out against what you deem injustices in the world.

Jane McGrath: And as you mentioned, news is still coming out about this tragedy with the release of that audio. So if there's anything in the news about Kent State, you can bet that we'll be talking about it on our blog Stuff You Missed in History Class on the website howstuffworks.com. And Candace and I write on this blog everyday and keep you up to date on things that are happening, things that interest us and we think will interest you, too.

Candace Keener: And as always, if you have any comments or feedback for us, you can email us at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com.

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com. Let us know what you think. Send an email to podcast@howstuffworks.com.