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Ohio Natonal Guardsmen patrol the Kent State campus after a three-day riot with students in May 1970 that culminated in four deaths and the wounding of 9. Guardsmen fired into a crowd of Vietnam War protesters.

'13 Seconds' recounts wounds opened at Kent State

By Dan Danbom, Special to the News
May 27, 2005

In spring 1970, American college campuses boiled with anger over an expanding war in Vietnam. With the demonstrations at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention fresh in their minds, antiwar activists found themselves at an even higher level of outrage over President Richard Nixon's announcement that the U.S. bombing of Cambodia would continue.

But nowhere did the emotions on both sides of the Vietnam War issue come to such a head as in Kent, Ohio. At Kent State University, those opposing the war and those opposing the war's opponents met in an awful intersection the day Ohio National Guard troops fired on student demonstrators (and bystanders), killing four and wounding nine in 13 seconds.

Vietnam veteran and Chicago Tribune reporter Philip Caputo was assigned to cover the aftermath of the deadly demonstration. Now, to remember the 35th anniversary of the shootings, Caputo has revisited all the attitudes and actions that led to the event in 13 Seconds. It reopens wounds of that time for those of us who lived through them, and provides a history lesson for Americans who didn't.

"That some people today manifest a nostalgia for the sixties (which actually covered the last half of that decade and the first of the next)amazes me," he writes. "It was a dreadful time. American society had come to resemble a shattered mirror still in its frame, the fissures between hawk and dove, Left and Right, young and old, black and white threatening to widen until the pieces fell out and broke into bits. The worst year was 1968: the Tet Offensive, one hundred thousand U.S. casualties in Vietnam in those 12 months; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the convention riots in Chicago, which had been rocked just months earlier by the race riots set off by King's death, with half the west side destroyed in orgies of arson and looting, accompanied by gunfire. . . . Cops had become vandals, the forces of disorder and order had fused, things were spinning out of control. And the engine driving the centrifuge was the war. You could not escape it."

Kent State was a microcosm of America's torment. The weekend before the shootings, students had rioted in downtown Kent and burned the campus ROTC building. When firefighters attempted to put out the fire, demonstrators slit fire hoses.

At the Kent mayor's request, Gov. James Rhodes called in the Ohio National Guard. At a news conference the following day, Rhodes called the demonstrators "the worst sort of people we harbor in America" and compared them to Nazis.

The National Guard moved onto campus, but the mayor inexplicably didn't tell university administrators they were coming. Kent State administrators banned further demonstrations on campus, but poorly communicated their decision to students. Some officials believed the governor had declared martial law, but no one was sure, adding another layer of ambiguity to an already-confused situation.

What is clear is that 2,000 students - some demonstrators, some oblivious bystanders - were on the Kent State commons at noon that day, and a confrontation with the National Guard ensued. As the guardsmen appeared to be moving away from the demonstrators, 28 of them turned and fired between 61 and 67 shots.

As a result of Kent State, the antiwar movement took on new energy, and America took on new polarization. One poll taken after the shootings showed 58 percent of Americans thought the guardsmen had done the right thing. Twelve percent thought the shootings unjustified. One writer opined that the killings were "the most popular murders ever committed in the United States."

Caputo covers the events at Kent State objectively, even clinically at times, then moves on to make the case that the shootings had a historical analogy in the Boston Massacre. He also repeats an intriguing conspiracy theory which, given the history of the Nixon administration, may not be far off-base.

Caputo's book is short but hardly incomplete. It's an efficient but thorough accounting of one terrible event in a tumultuous time.

Caputo reminds us, in ways our memory of Kent State may not, that what happened there couldn't have happened without the contributions of nearly everyone involved, and the combination of polarization and miscommunication were, on May 4, 1970 at least, lethal.

Dan Danbom is a freelance writer living in Denver.

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