Review of Howard Means's "67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence"

tags: Vietnam, Kent State

Luther Spoehr, a Senior Lecturer at Brown University, teaches "Campus on Fire:  American Colleges and Universities in the 1960s."

When President Richard Nixon announced on April 30, 1970, that American troops were going into Cambodia, college campuses all over the country exploded.  Because Nixon had promised to wind down the Vietnam War, this latest offensive was especially infuriating.  The war seemed as if it would never end, and by-then-familiar rituals of protest were played out around the country.  Even in an obscure corner of northeast Ohio.

On the night of May 1, conflict between police and protesters culminated in rioting in downtown Kent, the home of Kent State University.  Mayor Leroy Satrom called on Governor James Rhodes to send the Ohio National Guard.  The Guard arrived the next night, just in time to see the Kent State ROTC building go up in flames, and on Sunday about 1,000 Guardsmen occupied the campus. Governor Rhodes also arrived, and although he did not declare a state of emergency (leaving it unclear in the coming hours about just who was in charge), he made his views clear:  the protesters, he said, were “the worst type of people in America….We are going to eradicate the problem.  We are not going to treat the symptoms.”  Shortly after noon the next day, Monday, May 4, Guardsmen confronting the students opened fire, killing four (two of whom were walking to class) and wounding nine others.

Questions about how and why it happened have engaged historians, journalists, social analysts, and conspiracy theorists ever since.  In the immediate aftermath, a federal investigative commission headed by former Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton (a Republican) said flatly that the “indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable.”  After an extensive FBI investigation, the Justice Department concluded that “the claim by the National Guard that their lives were endangered by the students was fabricated subsequent to the event.”  Of those fatally shot, Jeffrey Miller was closest to the Guardsmen:  90 yards away, he was hardly a threat.  Allison Krause was 110 yards away; William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, 130 yards.  But the bulk of public opinion, which could be summed up as “the students had it coming,” supported the Guardsmen who had fired those 67 shots in 13 sudden seconds, and legal proceedings dragged on for years, finally ending weakly with a civil settlement of $675,000 and a statement of “regret” by the authorities.  Criminal charges had been dismissed.

Although the event has receded from memory, questions of fact and interpretation remain, periodically leading to calls to reexamine the case.  Twelve years ago, for instance, Murray Polner lamented here on HNN that “the definitive book about that terrible day has not been written” and expressed the hope that “a fair-minded historian can tell us what happened and why and whether justice was truly served.”  Is there, he wondered, “a historian willing to undertake this necessary study?”  (“Wanted:  The Truth About the Kent State Killings,”

Howard Means’ 67 Shots:  Kent State and the End of American Innocence may be as close to “definitive” as we will ever get.  It is thorough, fair-minded, and clear about what we know and still don’t know (and may never know).  Among the questions that linger:  Who exactly was responsible for the violence in downtown Kent?  Who torched the ROTC building?  Who ordered that Guardsmen be given live ammunition for their M-1 rifles?  What was said when a small group of guardsmen went into a huddle right before the shooting started?  Who, if anyone, gave the order to fire?   

Author of numerous books, including a biography of Colin Powell, Howard Means has dug deeply into archives and oral histories and conducted his own interviews with people both central and peripheral to the incident.  He is careful but far from uncritical when assessing the “contributions” of various players in the tragedy.  Nationally, the atmosphere was already polluted when, three weeks before the shootings, California Governor Ronald Reagan blurted, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.  No more appeasement.”  (A spokesman tried to walk back the statement a few hours later, but…there it was.)  On May 1, the day after the Cambodia invasion began, with campuses in turmoil, Nixon walked the halls of the Pentagon and denounced the “bums” behind the unrest.  Among state, local, and university officials, Governor Rhodes, who was running for the Senate, seemed to see the situation mainly as an opportunity to show voters that he was the real “law and order” candidate.  While his assertion that “we are going to eradicate the problem” cannot be shown to have led directly to the shootings, it certainly did nothing to make them less likely and may well have made them more so.  University President Robert White was out of state when things started to heat up, and he might as well have stayed there for all the good he did upon returning.  The word “feckless” applies to him—as it does to many of the National Guard’s senior officers, from General Robert Canterbury on down, through the broken chain of command, to the poorly trained, wretchedly-led, exhausted, panicky Guardsmen themselves. 

As for the students, their role actually comes close to justifying the book’s subtitle about the “end of American innocence.”  Too often, the phrase, as used by authors and publishers, is nothing more than a cheap attempt to inflate significance.  I mean, really, how many times can a country lose its innocence?  But Means has a case here: he uses “innocence” to refer, not to “guiltlessness,” but to “idealism” and “naiveté.”  Kent, he says, marked the moment that “mindsets and worldviews collapsed,” particularly for white middle class students, many of them first-generation college kids from rural areas, who literally could not imagine that agents of their own government would open fire on them.  It is worth noting that Kent’s black students were not part of the events of that day.  Lafayette Tolliver, a leader of the Black United Students, told Means, “We made sure our members stayed…clear of the Commons.  A lot of our members came from the Akron and Cleveland areas.  They had a knowledge of what It means to be on the wrong end of police brutality.”  Their hard-won wisdom paid off that day.

Ultimately, Means distinguishes between causal responsibility (resting with those who gave the orders and pulled the triggers) and the moral responsibility of the “leaders” who created and shaped the momentum that led to the tragedy.  The greater blame rests with the latter, especially the ones who indulged in reckless, irresponsible rhetoric (pay attention, Mr. Trump) and then walked away, unscathed, from the consequences.  In all, Means tells a vivid tale of official bluster and blunder colliding with youthful fervor and naiveté, followed by a sordid scramble by participants to obfuscate the record and obscure the truth.   By providing this detailed, poignant narrative, Means does as much as any writer has to recover this sad and significant moment in American history.

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