In May 1970, soldiers of the Ohio National Guard fired 67 live rounds at a group of unarmed students at Kent State University. Four were killed. The world was appalled.
When Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 he promised to end the war in Vietnam, but his announcement on April 30 1970 of the US invasion of Cambodia, coming after the revelations about My Lai, provoked protests nationwide. At Kent State there was a mass demonstration the following day, and in town that night bottles were hurled at shop windows, cars and the police. Next day the mayor asked the Ohio National Guard to maintain order. They found their Reserve Officer Training Corps building ablaze, surrounded by a cheering crowd. The National Guard used tear gas, made arrests, and set up camp. By May 3 there were nearly 1,000 guardsmen on campus. Governor Rhodes described the protesters as a ‘well-trained, militant revolutionary group’.
University officials tried to prevent a protest scheduled for May 4, but about 2,000 students gathered anyway. When the National Guard ordered the crowd to disperse and fired tear gas, the students returned a fusillade of stones and gas canisters, chanting ‘pigs off campus’. Guardsmen advanced with fixed bayonets and the students backed off. Both sides hesitated, not knowing what to do next. Some guardsmen on top of a hill suddenly opened fire on the scattered students in the distance below. Two of the casualties weren’t even demonstrators – they were just on their way to classes.
Some 4,000,000 students came out on protest strike all over America and a violent demonstration in Washington followed. Inquiries and legal actions dragged on, but none of the soldiers (who all claimed they had been in fear for their lives) was ever brought to trial.
When: May 4 1970
Where: Kent State University, Ohio, USA
Death toll: Four killed, nine wounded.
You should know: The photograph of a screaming girl kneeling over the body of a dead student became an enduring image of the anti-Vietnam War movement winning a Pulitzer Prize for photography student John Fito.