Kent State University - American EducationA public, coeducational university in Kent, Ohio, and the scene of four student deaths by National Guard rifle bullets in October 1970—a seminal event in turning American public opinion against the Vietnam War. The killings followed four days of student protests against the invasion of Cambodia by U.S. troops on April 30. President Richard M. Nixon had ordered the invasion to chase North Vietnamese troops who were said to have taken sanctuary there. Protests swept the nation’s college campuses. In Kent, some students had run riot through the town on May 1, and a politically oriented rally was staged on campus the next day. Attended by fewer than 1,000 of the university’s 20,000 students, it suddenly turned violent as students burned down the campus ROTC building. Without consulting university authorities, the mayor of Kent asked the governor to send National Guardsmen to Kent State.
The body of a Kent State University student killed by Ohio National Guard bullets at the scene of student protests over United States escalation of hostilities in the Vietnam War. The widely circulated photographs were posted on campus with scrawled demands for vengeance. (Library of Congress)
Relatively inexperienced and already exhausted from previous riot duty in Cleveland and Akron, the Guard arrived on campus on May 3, at which time the governor changed their assignment from protecting property to breaking up student assemblies. On May 4, students gathered on the commons. National Guardsmen ordered them to disperse. They not only refused, they also taunted the Guardsmen and started pelting them with rocks. The Guardsmen fired tear-gas canisters, which the students picked up and hurled back at the troops. Under siege, the troops retreated to high ground, turned and knelt and fired 61 shots into the jeering crowd. Thirteen students fell, four of them mortally wounded. The PRESIDENT’S COMMISSION ON CAMPUS UNREST, which investigated the shootings, condemned the Guardsmen’s actions, but a grand jury refused to indict the Guardsmen and blamed the “permissiveness” of university authorities for the incident. Four years later, eight of the guardsmen were indicted for the deaths of the four students, but all were acquitted. In January 1979, however, the state of Ohio paid the victims and their families $600,000 in compensation as part of an out-of-court settlement.