Forty years ago the shootings at Kent State University brought the US war in Vietnam home, and marked a turning point for the anti-war movement, writes Viv Smith
On 4 May 1970, the United States National Guard shot dead four students at Kent State University in Ohio – triggering a wave of rage that spread across the US.
Around 1,000 students had gathered that day for protests against the US invasion of Cambodia, part of president Richard Nixon’s drive to smash the resistance in Vietnam.
In response, Kent mayor Leroy Satrom drafted in the National Guard, the state-controlled military reserve, onto the campus.
The 116 National Guard troops advanced on the gathered students, with bayonets fixed on their rifles.
Suddenly, the Guard opened fire without warning – killing four, paralysing one and injuring others.
President Nixon had been elected the year before on a promise that he would end the war in Vietnam and bring the troops home.
The war was turning into a disaster for the ruling class in the US.
The anti-war movement grew from modest beginnings to a crescendo in 1969 when a million marched against the war across the US.
US troops were refusing to fight and some in the ruling class were starting to grumble at the cost of the war.
Nixon called for “Vietnamisation” – the building up of the US-friendly South Vietnamese government apparatus – arguing this would allow US troop withdrawal.
But, in secret, Nixon escalated the conflict – launching massive carpet-bombing of neighbouring Cambodia and Laos in an attempt to destroy Vietnamese resistance bases.
The war in Vietnam was part of the US government’s Cold War strategy of installing US “friendly” regimes across the globe.
The US had begun its process of “regime change” in North Vietnam after Vietnamese forces defeated occupying French colonial troops in 1954.
Vietnam was divided between the independent North, under Ho Chi Minh, and the repressive pro-Western puppet regime in the South.
Under US president John F Kennedy, military forces were increased from 1,500 in 1960 to 15,000 by 1963.
The number of troops in Vietnam peaked at 580,000 by 1968, the year Nixon was elected.
But the January 1968 Tet Offensive by the Vietnamese resistance shook the US forces to their foundations.
US soldiers, increasingly unprepared to wage a losing battle, took to the practice of “fragging” – blowing up their commanding officers to avoid being sent out into battle.
The rate of desertions doubled. By 1971, over 10 percent of the US army in Vietnam was addicted to heroin.
Nixon, desperate to force the North Vietnamese to do a deal, launched his final offensive. But by April 1970 he could no longer keep the bombing quiet.
Nixon claimed the offensive was “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 were painfully familiar words to a war-weary public and, like tinder, reignited the anti-war movement.
Students at Kent State University were among hundreds of thousands who demonstrated.
This time the murdered students at Kent State weren’t what top US General Westmoreland had described as “orientals”, who he thought don’t “value life in the same way”.
Now the US ruling class had brought the war home, by turning on white, largely middle class students.
The shootings sent a shockwave through the US.
Within days, 350 universities were out on strike, followed by high schools and junior schools. Thirty officer training buildings were set on fire at colleges.
The National Guard was called out in 16 states and two more black students were shot at Jackson State college in Mississippi, sparking further protests.
Hundreds of thousands marched the following weekend – against the war, and against the shootings and brutality at home and abroad.
Over four million students protested after the murders at Kent State.
Nixon eventually admitted that this had forced him to drop his plans for intensifying the war.
But the US military – the most powerful in the world – had been brought to its knees by the refusal of the Vietnamese people to be cowed, despite the great cost.
The student-dominated anti-war movement and resistance by US soldiers helped to finish it off.
The US dropped a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than it used globally during the Second World War.
Eventually the US was to kill three million in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
The Ladies Home Journal sent a journalist to Vietnam to counter the anti-war movement’s claims of US military atrocities.
This is what she ended up writing, despite her prejudices:
“I had heard that napalm melts the flesh. I thought that was nonsense.
“Well, I went to Saigon and saw these children burned, and it’s absolutely true.
“The chemical reaction does melt the flesh.
“When gangrene sets in, they cut off their hands, fingers or feet. The only thing they can’t cut off is their head.”
In the autumn of 1973 the US administration had to admit defeat and announce plans to withdraw all troops.
The South Vietnamese regime had no popular support and could not survive without massive US military backing.
Eighteen months later, Vietnamese liberation forces entered Saigon – the centre of US operations in Vietnam.
It is a defeat from which the US has yet to recover from.
The students killed at Kent and Jackson State were standing up for the freedom of people they had never met halfway across the world.
Their courage, and that of the Vietnamese people who refused to be bowed, is an inspiration to anti-war and anti-imperialist activists everywhere.
As Bruce Dzeda, a member of the class of 1970 at Kent State, recalled, “It was one of those searing experiences that changed me forever... I find myself still radicalised by it.”
Eyewitness to the slaughter
“I remember the jeep coming out,” says Rob Fox, a student who took part in the protest.
“They were saying, ‘Disperse immediately. This is an unlawful assembly.’
“I’ll never forget – somebody threw a croquet ball out and it bounced up against the jeep’s wheels. Everybody just laughed. We said, ‘How can this be an unlawful assembly?’
“And then the next thing I know they start shooting tear gas out at the crowd. Some kids got brave, ran and threw the tear gas back.
“Then the Guard started marching out in formation… They knelt down and aimed their weapons.
“People were saying even then, ‘they don’t have weapons – they don’t have live ammunition. It’s just to scare us.’
“Out of the corner of my eye I saw the Guard stop. And then I saw them turn.
“I heard this popping sound going off, and I saw Jeffrey Miller get hit.
“I said, ‘oh my God, this is real’. Then I dived between the cars.
“After that, there was just absolutely pandemonium… We had people screaming, people were cradling their classmates.
“I noticed this girl was bleeding profusely. I felt absolutely powerless to do anything, it seemed like eternity until an ambulance finally got there.
“And then the strangest thing – people got mad. They really got angry.”
Cambodia and Vietnam’s pain
- US air force commander Curtis Le May described Nixon’s plan to invade Cambodia as action designed to “bomb them back to the stone age”.
- Cambodia was bombed from March 1969 to August 1973. In the first 14 months the US ran more than 3,630 bombing raids in an operation codenamed “Menu”. Each day’s bombing was labelled “Breakfast”, “Lunch” and “Dinner”.
- The US dropped over a million tons of bombs on North Vietnam and nearly four million tons on South Vietnam
- The US killed 1.5 million Vietnamese people in the war and up to a million people in Cambodia.