Tin Soldiers and Nixon Coming: Kent State, 42 Years Later

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Today is the 42nd anniversary of the shootings at Kent State University. The National Guard opened fired on students protesting the Vietnam War. Survivors of the shootings are again asking the Department of Justice to reopen the investigation into whether an order to shoot was given, based on a 2010 enhanced audiotape analysis in which experts concluded an order to shoot was given. [More...]

On the eve of the 42nd anniversary of the shootings, four students wounded that day asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate digitally enhanced audio evidence they believe proves an officer ordered the guardsmen to fire on the unarmed students.

A command to fire has never been proven and guardsmen said they fired in self-defense. Criminal charges were brought against eight guardsmen, but a judge dismissed the case. Wounded students and families of those slain later received a total of $675,000 after civil lawsuits.

The Justice Department closed an inquiry of the 2010 tape analysis last month, finding the enhanced audio was inconclusive.

The Kent State survivors, including Dean Kahler who was paralyzed from the waist down, are now requesting the Justice Department to offer immunity to any surviving guardsmen in hopes they will come forward with information. They say if DOJ refuses, they will "appeal to the International Court of Justice, the U.N. Human Rights Council or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights."

Here is what the audio analysis from 2010 concluded:

"Guard!" says a male voice on the recording, which two forensic audio experts enhanced and evaluated at the request of The Plain Dealer. Several seconds pass. Then, "All right, prepare to fire!"

"Get down!" someone shouts urgently, presumably in the crowd. Finally, "Guard! . . . " followed two seconds later by a long, booming volley of gunshots. The entire spoken sequence lasts 17 seconds.

The tape was discovered in the library in 2007. Here's the recording released that year.

Here's the 2010 digitally enhanced version.

For readers too young to remember the Kent State shootings, here's an account from the BBC series, War and Protest, the U.S. in Vietnam":

In April, President Nixon promised to withdraw another 150,000 American troops from Vietnam over the coming year, and the United States military suspended the use of Agent Orange.

On 30 April, 1970, President Nixon announced that United States combat troops and B-52 bombers would enter Cambodia to destroy North Vietnamese and Vietcong sanctuaries and supplies. Excerpts from the speech in which he made that announcement include the following comments:

Ten days ago in my report to the nation on Vietnam I announced the decision to withdraw an additional 150,000 Americans from Vietnam over the next year....

... And at that time I warned that if I included that if increased enemy activity in any of these areas endangered the lives of Americans remaining in Vietnam, I would not hesitate to take strong and effective measures to deal with that situation.

Despite that warning, North Vietnam has increased its military aggression in all these areas, and particularly in Cambodia....

... Cambodia, as a result of this, has sent out a call to the United States, to a number of other nations, for assistance. Because if this enemy effort succeeds, Cambodia would become a vast enemy staging area and a springboard for attacks on South Vietnam along 600 miles of frontier: a refuge where enemy troops could return from combat without fear of retaliation....

... Tonight, American and South Vietnamese units will attack the headquarters for the entire Communist military operation in South Vietnam. The key control centre has been occupied by the North Vietnamese and Vietcong for five years in blatant violation of Cambodia's neutrality..

In the days following the Presidential announcement, students on University campuses across the United States were protesting the US invasion of Cambodia. At Kent State University in Ohio, protesters threw rocks and broke some windows. Some students tried to burn the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) building.

On 3 May, 1970, Ohio Governor James Rhodes called in the National Guard.

The National Guard units that responded were poorly trained and had just completed riot duty elsewhere. The first day, there was some brutality; members of the National Guard bayoneted two men, one of whom was a disabled veteran, who had cursed or yelled at them from cars.

On 4 May, the National Guard marched down a hill, to a field in the middle of angry demonstrators, then back up again. Seconds before they would have passed around the corner of a large building, and out of sight of the crowd, some of the Guardsmen wheeled and fired directly into the students, hitting 13 and killing four of them. The firing lasted for 13 seconds. Guardsmen later admitted to firing at specific unarmed targets; one man shot a demonstrator who was giving him the finger. The unarmed students who were shot raged from 60 feet to 700 feet away from the Guardsmen.

The targets were not limited to protesting students. Two of the four who had been killed were simply on their way to class. Most of the Guardsmen later testified that they turned and fired because everyone else had. The question of who fired the first shot, or gave the order to fire, has never been answered. The Guardsmen were not in any immediate physical danger when they fired. The demonstrators were not following them and they were seconds away from being out of sight of the demonstration.

The four students killed by members of the Ohio National Guard were: Alison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder.

The Guardsmen were never prosecuted by the State of Ohio, for any crime. President Nixon announced any number of investigations, none of which reached any clear conclusions. White House tapes released later showed that Nixon thought demonstrators were 'bums'3, had asked the Secret Service to go beat them up, and apparently felt that the Kent State victims 'had it coming'.

I remember where I was on May 4. 1970. I had just returned home to New York from college in Ann Arbor, MI, to begin my summer job at a local record store. The news spread like wildfire, even without internet, email and cable tv. We wore black armbands at work the entire next week and the music we played in the store reflected our anger.

Four years later (38 years ago today) May 4, 1974, I was sworn in as a lawyer to the Colorado bar and began my career as a defender of constitutional rights and the accused. Without a doubt, the draft lottery, the Vietnam war, LBJ, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were factors in my choice, and I'm proud to say I've never once looked back to question it.

Here is an excellent and prescient reminder of why we should not forget Kent State, written in 2000 by Mark Weisbrot.

To forgive is a virtue, but forgetting is an indulgence we can ill afford. Our foreign policy establishment remains addicted to empire, and is possessed by a hubris that is arguably even greater than the one that got us into Vietnam. Until they learn the lessons that the anti-war movement tried to teach them, we can expect more Vietnams ahead of us.

Those of us who write about Kent State on its anniversary every year may just be repeating our own words. But there's nothing wrong with that. We don't want the message to die. As Hunter Thompson's wife, Anita, wrote here at TalkLeft on the eve of the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, while listening to iconic rock music photographer Lynn Goldsmith and I recount our protesting experiences during the Vietnam war, Hunter expressed it this way:

There is probably some long-standing "rule" among writers, journalists, and other word-mongers that says: "When you start stealing from your own work, you're in bad trouble." And it may be true. I am growing extremely weary of writing constantly about politics. My brain has become a steam-vat; my body is turning to wax and bad flab; impotence looms; my fingernails are growing at a fantastic rate of speed - they are turning into claws...People are beginning to notice, I think, but f*ck them. I am beginning to notice some of their problems too...

-- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.

Here is the Kent State University Archive collection of the May 4, 1970 shootings.

Memo to commenters: In writing about 2010 analysis of the tape, I noted that one of the two experts enhancing and analyzing the tape in 2010 was Tom Owen. I shouldn't have to say this, but I will: Please keep your comments in this thread to your thoughts about Kent State, war protests, U.S. war policy, and similar topics. Owen's analysis of the 911 tapes in Zimmerman is not the topic.

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    I was only 12 and did not grasp (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by ruffian on Fri May 04, 2012 at 04:52:31 PM EST
    what had really happened until years later. I don't remember how or what I first heard, but I thought it was some kind of a confused melee where shots were fired by a few guys mistake.

    Certainly I will never forget that photograph.

    Of course later I learned what a coordinated attack it was, however it started. It only makes sense that there was an order given. How would all of them choose to fire otherwise? if they were responding to each other and not to one common order I don't think there would have been such a strong, uniform action. Entirely possible that will never be provable in court.

    The line from the song that always sticks with me is 'Soldiers are cutting us down'. Not supposed to happen to citizens of the USA at the hand of their own soldiers. If you ask me anyway. Of course I am not a high ranking justice department official.

    I remember. I remember every year. I will (5.00 / 4) (#2)
    by caseyOR on Fri May 04, 2012 at 05:14:43 PM EST
    never forget. Kent State and the shootings a couple of weeks later at Jackson State were  radicalizing events for me. I was already leaning pretty far to the left. This pushed me all the way. And I am still there all these years later.

    On May 4th, 1970 I was 18 years old and just a couple of weeks away from my high school graduation. A number of us wore black armbands to school, and we were ordered to remove them. Too provocative, we were told. Shooting unarmed students in cold blood? That's what happens. Nothing to see here. Wearing a black armband? That is provocative.

    Four decades later we barely blink an eye when "the authorities" respond to protest, or anything they don't like, with violence. Tasers and pepper spray and those damn batons and their fists and the police horses and anything else the police have at hand is used to brutalize Americans exercising their right of free speech and their right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

    Obama and Clinton make lofty speeches about human rights. They never miss a chance to castigate other countries for violating the rights of citizens. They condemn governments who respond to their citizens' voices with violence. They led us into a war with Libya because, they said, Gaddafi was attacking his own people, and that was wrong.

    Yet where are Obama and Clinton when their own people are attacked by government forces? Where is their oratorical outrage when Occupy protestors are beaten, their bones broken, when police sexually assault women protestors as a part of their crowd control tactics? Where is their outrage then?

    In 1970 I was shocked and angry, but I believed that we could make things better. We could right the wrongs being done in our name by a rogue government. I was hopeful.

    Now, I am angry, but not shocked by the things the government does to its people. And I no longer have hope.

    I don't know where Obama is (none / 0) (#8)
    by TeresaInPa on Sun May 06, 2012 at 07:38:17 AM EST
    but Secretary Clinton is not allowed to comment on domestic politics/events.  

    As I do every year (5.00 / 3) (#4)
    by Zorba on Fri May 04, 2012 at 06:21:24 PM EST
    on the anniversary of the Kent State shootings, I shed a tear and pause to reflect.  I was in college, and active in the anti-Vietnam War protests.  And at the time, we all thought "That could have been us."  Not that it stopped us, but it was definitely something we thought about.
    Never forgive, never forget.
    And I do wonder how much we have learned since then, and how much longer it will be until some Occupy protesters are shot?

    One year almost to the day after Kent State (5.00 / 3) (#6)
    by caseyOR on Fri May 04, 2012 at 09:44:47 PM EST
    I was in a Washington, D.C. jail cell. I had been arrested during the 1971 MayDay demonstrations protesting Nixon's decision to mine Haiphong Harbor, and his refusal to end the damn war.

    Four years later, four more g0d damn years later, the helicopters rose above the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and the war finally ended.


    ended.. (none / 0) (#10)
    by jondee on Sun May 06, 2012 at 04:50:10 PM EST
    on virtually the same terms it could've ended on in '68, if the win-at-absolutely-any-cost creeps hadn't worked behind the scenes to sabotage the peace negotiations.

    More inexcusably buried history..in the United States of Amnesia.


    One can (5.00 / 2) (#7)
    by lentinel on Sat May 05, 2012 at 07:21:56 AM EST
    hear the horror of the event at Kent State on that tape.
    The enhancement makes clear what we already knew.

    The thing is, I don't feel that our national mentality has progressed even an inch from that day.

    Our government is allowed to kill suspects.
    Our president is allowed to order the killing of suspects.

    People against bellicose policies of our country are still caricatured as hippies and misfits. Dissenters are always a hair's breathe away from being denounced as traitors.

    I hope that this enhancement of the tape will inspire a renewed investigation into the events of this day at Kent State. To me, it represents what our government is willing to do to us if we get in the way of their global designs.

    It is all too current.

    It is a warning.

    doubts about the recording don't lessen the crime (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by willisnewton on Sun May 06, 2012 at 04:59:30 PM EST
    "Guard.. prepare to fire" is not really the way a trained officer would give such an order. It's hard to know what to make of this recording.  

    I read a few books about this tragedy and while the exact sequence of events is indeterminable, my impression was that it was a cluster of guardsmen who acted outside of command structure and wanted to single out the protesting ringleaders and those who had been taunting them the most.  The seemed to act on a pre-arranged signal of some sort, but it probably wasn't audible.  

    Of course others joined in the shooting once it began.  Officers showed a complete failure in lacking to control events and their men on that sad day.  The governor shares a large responsibility in the blame for calling in the guard to a campus, as well for sending armed guardsmen onto the university commons during a peaceable lunch assembly.    

    And the aftermath and coverup compounded the shame again and again.  Justice was never served for those who lost their lives.  

    The difference in how dissent is both expressed and suppressed from then to now is instructive.  What hasn't changed is that the power structure can stand quite a lot of outrage without really accepting that it needs to change.  

    Did the anti-war movement actually help end the war, or not?

    Drafting the children of the middle class seems to have done as much as anything.   But Kent State seemed to signal some kind of turning point.  Just not one that produced a speedy result.  

    The torture scandal at Abu Ghraib might be a modern day comparison in a way.  Something that called the war into question for everybody, and yet wasn't "enough" to change the actions of the ones who had the elected power to stop the war.  Instead they seem to just wade deeper into the big muddy.  

    too young to remember (none / 0) (#3)
    by desmoinesdem on Fri May 04, 2012 at 06:00:11 PM EST
    but did you know that one of the survivors of the Kent State shootings was present at the attempt to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords? Amazing story.

    was in the 2nd grade (none / 0) (#5)
    by jharp on Fri May 04, 2012 at 07:43:30 PM EST
    I was in the 2nd grade and lived within 50 miles of Kent.

    And I very clearly remember thinking those students had no one to blame but themselves.

    I often wonder what made me have that erroneous opinion at that young age.

    I'd have to guess it was the right wing community I grew up in that had something to do with it.  

    remember Jackson State, too. (none / 0) (#9)
    by willisnewton on Sun May 06, 2012 at 04:14:43 PM EST


    Riots in part were a response to the outrage of Kent State.  Two killed and many wounded...  read the article.

    What's not too surprising is the coverup, which started immediately:

    The injured students, many of whom lay bleeding on the ground outside the dormitory, were transported to University Hospital within 20 minutes of the shooting. But the ambulances were not called until after the officers picked up their shell casings, a U. S. Senate probe conducted by Senators Walter Mondale and Birch Bayh later revealed. The police and state troopers left the campus shortly after the shooting and were replaced by National Guardsmen. After the incident, Jackson authorities denied that city police took part.