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The Kent State Massacre

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Published: Thu, 04 May 2017

This investigation is set to evaluate the degree to which the Kent State Massacre contributed in creating a turning point in public opinion towards the Vietnam War. A “turning point” is defined as a “moment when the course of events is changed”. The problem arises when one sets out to determine the exact point of change, as there are generally several factors that contribute to a comprehensive change. Despite its significance for the topic, details of the Vietnam War will not be discussed. This investigation will utilize several different sources to conduct its investigation. Some are first-hand sources, others are second-hand sources and one is a photo. To assess the impact of the Kent State Massacre had on public opinion towards the Vietnam War; this investigation will examine public opinion prior to the shootings, what happened at Kent State University and finally, what happened to public opinion post May 4th 1970.

Part B. Summary of Evidence

When U.S. President Richard Nixon took office in January 1969, the United States had been involved in combat operations in Vietnam for nearly four years. The U.S. military forces totaled 475,200 [2] ; more than 36,000 [3] Americans had lost their lives up to that point and in 1968 alone, more than 16,500 U.S. troops were killed [4] . Nixon decided that the Vietnam War would not ruin his presidency as it had his predecessor Lyndon Johnson. Nixon set a plan in motion which would later become known as Vietnamization. The plan set out to build up the South Vietnamese forces so that they could assume a greater combative role, at the same time reducing the presence of U.S. troops in the country. Furthermore, Nixon changed the political objectives of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, from guaranteeing a free and independent South Vietnam to creating an opportunity for South Vietnam to determine its own political future. The process of Vietnamization set out to mark the beginning of the end for U.S. involvement in Vietnam and effectively an end to the Vietnam War, Just as Nixon had promised during the presidential elections, through his slogan “Peace with honor”.

During this time the anti-war movement in America was gaining followers [5] . Nixon appealed to the “silent majority” [6] of Americans to support the war. In November 1969, details of the My Lai Massacre [7] by American troops were exposed to the public and provoked further public opposition in the United States towards the war. Additionally, the Selective Service System of the United States conducted two draft lotteries [8] to determine induction into the U.S. army for the war. Many young people grew increasingly concerned about being drafted into fighting a war that they were opposed to. The draft lotteries, details of the My Lai Massacre and the U.S. expansion of war into Cambodia [9] led to eruption of nation-wide college protests that helped set the stage for the events that took place at Kent State University in early May of 1970.

After Nixon’s announcement of the incursion into Cambodia [10] , approximately 500 students [11] at Kent State University gathered around the Victory Bell on campus and delivered protest speeches. The next evening, students gathered in the town of Kent to protest. During the protests many stores were vandalized and had their windows smashed, and as a result of this several students were apprehended. In reaction to the events, Kent mayor, Leroy Satrom asked the Governor of Ohio to have the National Guard maintain order. That same night a large demonstration was underway on the Kent State campus and the campus Reserve Officer Training Corps building [12] was burned to the ground. On May 3rd, students woke up to a strong National Guard presence on campus, however that did not stop the protests.

By Monday May 4th things changed. A protest was scheduled to be held at noon, but the precise purpose was not made clear, but most students assumed it was to protest the presence of the National Guard, which by now was resented by many students, even by many who held no deep political beliefs [13] . Students assembled at around 11:00 a.m., whilst the Guard assembled at the burned-down ROTC building. The Guard made several failed attempts to disperse the growing crowd. Guardsmen became cornered, so they knelt and pointed guns at the students. No shots were fired and the guardsmen started retreating again, with the students following and cheering. Suddenly the guardsmen turned and fired into the crowd of student protesters, killing four and injuring nine others.

Part C. Evaluation of Sources

Source 1 [14] depicts 14 year old Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller. The photograph was taken by John Filo, a photojournalism student at Kent State University and staffer of a satellite paper for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Filo’s motives behind the photo were not sensationalism, as the photo was taken in the spur of the moment and was not planned. However, since Filo chose to capture the moment when Vecchio entered the frame, the picture stirs up negative emotions, showing unreliability and bias in the picture. This bias can be useful to historians as it helps to summarize the emotions of the protesters. Filo’s purpose behind submitting the photo to the press was most probably because of the intense drama, power and symbolism of the grief and horror that took place at Kent State University on May 4th 1970. Filo’s picture holds some limitations to historians that set out to investigate the Kent State Massacre, mainly the fact that the photograph only depicts one brief second of the tragic day. The photograph does not show the guardsmen being bombarded by rocks that were thrown by the protestors, the photo does not depict the shooting itself, it does not show the protests prior to the shootings; it only shows the aftermath. One of the sources values is that it is an image rather than a text written by someone makes it less subjective. We are not subject to the bias of writers expressed through their choice of diction.

Source 2 [15] is an article from an academic journal called Peace and Change. The purpose of the journal that source 2 was published in, is to publish scholarly and interpretive articles on the achievement of a peaceful, just and humane society, in an international and interdisciplinary scope. The article was written by Ronald L. Hatzenbuehler Ph.D., a professor of History at Idaho State University and recipient of the Idaho Humanities Council Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities Award [16] for his life and achievements [17] . The article is a secondary source that was published 15 years after the events of the Kent State Massacre took place. The source would prove to hold great value for historians that set out to investigate the events that took place before, during and in the aftermath of the Kent State Massacre as it provides a well-rounded account of that, however it has severe limitations and holds little value to this investigation as the article only draws a comparison between the Kent State Massacre and the Boston Massacre of 1770, without dealing with how the Kent State Massacre helped the shaping of American public opinion towards the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

Part D. Analysis

Soon after the shootings, photographs of the dead and wounded at Kent State University started circling through newspapers and periodicals not only in the U.S., but worldwide, which served to amplify the growing opposition against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the Vietnam War. The photograph Mary Ann Vecchio Kneeling Over the Body of Jeffrey Miller quickly became and still is today a staple image of the anti-Vietnam movement in the United States of America, as it represented the many Americans the Vietnam War coming “(…) home to America. And in many ways it was. It was soldiers firing at unarmed people.” [18] And the picture made the cost of war real to all Americans. Following the shootings, the growing unrest across the United States escalated further, and provided the spark students across the U.S. needed to adopt strike tactics, resulting in a widespread student strike. Nearly five hundred colleges and universities were either shut down or disrupted by the strikes. A student strike center located at Brandeis University reported that by May 10th, 448 campuses were either still affected by some sort of strike or completely shut down. On May 9th, only five days after the Kent State Massacre, 100,000 people (predominantly students) converged on Washington D.C. in protest against the Vietnam War and the Kent State Shootings. Ten days after the events at Kent State, demonstrations took place at Jackson State College, a black teacher’s college in Jackson, Mississippi. On the night of May 14th, protestors set fires and overturned a dump truck, while unrelated persons, wrongfully mistaken as students, threw bricks and bottles at passing white motorists. Seventy five city and state policemen arrived to protect the fire fighters, and then remained to handle the protesters. Following a brief confrontation, the police officers fired at the students. Two students were killed and at least twelve others were wounded.

President Nixon and his administration’s public reactions towards the war were ill perceived by many in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Nixon referred to the war protestors as “bums” [19] and referred to conservative Americans and the silent majority as “heroes” [20] and argued that, like the protestor, he wanted to stop the war, put an end to the draft, top the killings, but he also believed that “his decisions would serve that purpose” [21] . Nixon expressed relief that someone, in this case the guardsmen at Kent State University, had taken actions against those who were opposed to the war; that something had finally happened to the protesters that he claimed «had it coming” [22] . However Nixon never indicated that he supported the decision to fire at the student protestors in any way. On June 13th 1970, President Nixon established the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest following the tragedies at Kent State University and Jackson State College. The Commission concluded that the actions of the guard and police officers “were unnecessary, inexcusable and completely unwarranted” [23] 

As a direct response to the invasion of Cambodia from April to June 1970, the United States Congress executed an amendment to the Foreign Military Sales Bill called the “Cooper-Church amendment” in January 1971, which prevented the president from using any appropriated funds to introduce ground troops into Cambodia. Legislations that the Congress actualized in 1973, after the cease-fire agreement was signed by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and reluctantly signed by the South Vietnamese President Nguyá»…n Văn Thiệu, was designed to prevent President Nixon from reintroducing troops or bombing if the cease-fire was violated.

Part E. Conclusion

The events that took place at Kent State University on May 4th 1970 undisputedly affected policy changes in the National Guard that allayed protestors’ fear of being shot. Kent State became a symbol of the “deep political and social divisions that so sharply divided the country during the Vietnam War era” [24] by emphasizing the horrors of war to the American public. The shootings made the war glaringly public and provoked nationwide student strikes. Although the strikes themselves may not have forced Congress to change its policies, they had a profound influence and impact on the American public, which in turn could influence Congress. The Kent State Shootings along with a massive media coverage of the war, draft lotteries and the threat of Communism as grounds for U.S. intervention in Vietnam, despite the fact that the claims were not legally justified, were the contributing factors in creating a turning point in public opinion towards the Vietnam War as they fostered a significant increase in passion and awareness towards the anti-Vietnam War movement for average American citizens. The Kent State Massacre would not have changed public opinion towards the war on its own, but the tragic events helped set the wheels of change in motion.

Part F. List of Sources

Books and journals

Hatzenbuehler, Ronald L. “Assessing the Meaning of Massacre: Boston (1770) and Kent State (1970).” Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research 21.1 (1996): 209-220.

Rubel, David, and Allen Weinstein. The Story of America: Freedom and Crisis from Settlement to Superpower. New York: DK Publishing, 2002.


Filo, John. Interview. CNN News Chat. May 4th 2000. April 30th 2012.

“Vietnam War Allied Troop Levels.” American War Library. 06 Dec. 2008. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. .

“American Vietnam War Casualty Statistics.” Vietnam War Casualty Statistics by Race, Sex, Religion, Etc… Web. 27 Apr. 2012. .

“Chronology, Day 1.” May 4 Task Force. 23 Feb. 2010. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. .

“Chapter 13 – Anti-War Protests.” PBS. PBS. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. .

Spicer / Al Jazeera English, Nick. “May 4, 1970: The Day the War Came Home | Common Dreams.” Common Dreams. 04 May 2010. Web. 05 May 2012. .

“Nixon April 30 Speech.” Nixon April 30 Speech. Web. 05 May 2012. .

“Kent State, May 4, 1970: America Kills Its Children.” Kent State, May 4, 1970: America Kills Its Children. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. .

Lewis, Jerry M., and Thomas R. Hensley. “THE MAY 4 SHOOTINGS AT KENT STATE UNIVERSITY: THE SEARCH.” Kent.edu. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. .


Filo, John. Mary Ann Vecchio Kneeling Over the Body of Jeffrey Miller. 1970. Web.


Appendix 1

“The Silent Majority” Speech

“Let historians not record that when America was the most powerful nation in the world we passed on the other side of the road and allowed the last hopes for peace and freedom of millions of people to be suffocated by the forces of totalitarianism. And so tonight-to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans-I ask for your support. I pledged in my campaign for the Presidency to end the war in a way that we could win the peace. I have initiated a plan of action which will enable me to keep that pledge. The more support I can have from the American people, the sooner that pledge can be redeemed; for the more divided we are at home, the less likey [sic], the enemy is to negotiate at Paris. Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that. Fifty years ago, in this room and at this very desk, President Woodrow Wilson spoke words which caught the imagination of a war-weary world. He said: “This is the war to end war.” His dream for peace after World War I was shattered on the hard realities of great power politics and Woodrow Wilson died a broken man. Tonight I do not tell you that the war in Vietnam is the war to end wars. But I do say this: I have initiated a plan which Will end this war in a way that will bring us closer to that great goal to which Woodrow Wilson and every American President in our history has been dedicated-the goal of a just and lasting peace. As President I hold the responsibility for choosing the best path to that goal and then leading the Nation along it. I pledge to you tonight that I shall meet this responsibility with all of the strength and wisdom I can command in accordance with your hopes, mindful of your concerns, sustained by your prayers.

Thank you and goodnight.”

That was an excerpt from President Richard Nixon’s “Address to the Nation on the War in Vietnam” also known as President Nixon’s “Silent Majority” Speech, a speech in which Nixon asked for the support of a “silent majority” of Americans which he considered to be overshadowed in the media by a more vocal minority of people opposed to him.

Appendix 2

The My Lai Massacre

The My Lai massacre is probably one of the most infamous events of the Vietnam War. The My Lai massacre took place on March 16th 1968. My Lai was a village of about 700 inhabitants some 100 miles to the southeast of the US base of Danang. Shortly after dawn on March 16th, three platoons of US troops from C Company, 11th Brigade, arrived in the Son My area having been dropped off by helicopters. 1 Platoon was commanded by Lieutenant William Calley and was ordered to My Lai village. They were part of Task Force Barker – the codename for a search and destroy mission. They had been told to expect to find members of the NLF (called Vietcong or VC by the US soldiers) in the vicinity as the village was in an area where the NLF had been very active. When the troops from 1 Platoon moved through the village they started to fire at the villagers. These were women, children and the elderly as the young men had gone to the paddy fields to work. Sergeant Michael Bernhardt, who was at My Lai, was quoted in 1973 as stating that he saw no one who could have been considered to be of military age. He also stated that the US troops in My Lai met no resistance. An army photographer, Ronald Haeberie, witnessed a US soldier shoot two young boys who he believed were no more than five years of age. Other photos taken at the scene of the massacre show bodies of what can only be very young children. Those who returned to the village claimed that it took three days to bury the bodies. They were later to report that some of the children had their throats cut and that some of the bodies had not just been shot but had also been mutilated.

What happened at My Lai only came to public light in November 1969 when a US soldier, Paul Meadlo, was interviewed on television and admitted killing “ten of fifteen men, women and children” at My Lai. His admission caused much shock and a great deal of pressure was put on the US military to launch an investigation. In fact, the US military was already aware of the allegations and had launched an investigation in April 1969, some six months before the public was made aware of what had gone on. It soon became clear that many hundreds of villagers had been killed. The actual number killed was never established but it was officially put as no less than 175 while it could have been as high as 504. The two most common figures put on casualties are 347 and 504. The memorial at My Lai itself lists 504 names with ages that range from one to eighty-two years. An official US army investigation came out with the figure of 347. Though a number of US soldiers were charged, all with the exception of Lieutenant William Calley were acquitted. Calley was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. He served three years before he was released. However, Calley had his supporters and many believed that he was simply following orders.

Appendix 3

The Vietnam Lotteries

A lottery drawing – the first since 1942 – was held on December 1, 1969, at Selective Service National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. This event determined the order of call for induction during calendar year 1970; that is, for registrants born between January 1, 1944, and December 31, 1950. Reinstitution of the lottery was a change from the “draft the oldest man first” method, which had been the determining method for deciding order of call. There were 366 blue plastic capsules containing birth dates placed in a large glass container and drawn by hand to assign order-of-call numbers to all men within the 18-26 age range specified in Selective Service law. With radio, film, and TV coverage, the capsules were drawn from the container, opened, and the dates inside posted in order. The first capsule – drawn by Congressman Alexander Pirnie (R-NY) of the House Armed Services Committee – contained the date September 14, so all men born on September 14 in any year between 1944 and 1950 were assigned lottery number 1. The drawing continued until all days of the year had been paired with sequence numbers.

Appendix 4

Vietnam, Containment and the War

Vietnam, one of the 6 countries in a region once known as ‘Indochina’ had been a colony of France from the late 19th century to World War II. After France’s defeat by Germany in WWII, Indonesia was taken over by Japan until its defeat in 1945. At this point, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnamese independence, despite the fact that France wished to regain its colony. Conflict followed from 1946 to 1954, the year that France withdrew after the conflict with the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu. The United States had become interested in Vietnam during WWII, but was uncertain if Vietnam should be a colony of France “Even though American leaders were not entirely supportive of France’s role in Vietnam, they disapproved of France’s opponents even more.” France appeared to be the lesser of two evils. America therefore gave aid to France during their war with Vietnam. Communism grew after WWII as the “Soviet-American relationship deteriorated” augmented the USA’s fear, Eisenhower hated the idea of half Vietnam being controlled by communists as well as he feared a Vietnam national election, which could combine North and South Vietnam, and result in a total communist state. The USA therefore provided military equipment to South Vietnam to help it against Minh’s guerrilla activities (led by the NFL) to destabilize South Vietnam as a part of their ‘containment policy’ against Communism. “Successive American Presidents increased US involvement in Vietnam (…)” and Vietnam became a case study of America’s war against communism. In 1960, there were 800 American military advisers in South Vietnam; by 1963, 16,000; by 1968, 500 000 American soldiers.

President Nixon was elected on a platform of “Peace with Honor”, but on April 30th, 1970, he shocked the nation with announcing the incursion of troops into Cambodia. This met with outrage because the Vietnam containment war had spread to Cambodia; leading the fear that peace was not close.

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