April 26, 2016


REVIEW: of 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence By Howard Means (Joseph A. Esposito, April 26, 2016, Washington Independent Review of Books)

Culling through oral histories and conducting his own interviews, the author develops the narrative, which takes the reader from the immediate reaction to Nixon's Cambodia announcement through the next week, when "Kent State" was transformed from a university name to a rallying cry. Even though we know the outcome, Means builds the suspense, making the well-known story a gripping and thought-provoking teachable moment.

The eventual confrontation escalated from disorderly drinking in the adjacent town of Kent, Ohio. Crowds began to form and became unruly. Soon the ROTC building became a target for arson; campus police and officials watched it burn down. The pivotal moment came when the city's mayor contacted Governor James Rhodes, a tough law-and-order Republican who was locked in a tight primary campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. Rhodes dispatched the National Guard to the university.

Many of the guardsmen were young and some had joined to avoid Vietnam service. They were quickly assembled from duty in close-by Akron and were tired, unfamiliar with peacekeeping responsibilities, and plagued by a confusing chain of command. And they were equipped with old but still highly lethal M1 Garand rifles, which Means discusses in detail.

The goal of these men was to disperse students and restore peace to the campus. After a curfew and show of force, including helicopters, failed to quell the disturbance, tear gas was employed. As the situation deteriorated, university leaders, among them its well-respected president, either abrogated their responsibility or were supplanted by the National Guard.

Without any intermediaries to reduce the tension, the campus became a battleground between the National Guard and a crowd of student activists. As student taunts grew, accompanied by the launching of small projectiles, the guardsmen overreacted. The result: the firing of 67 shots within 30 seconds. Student casualties included those simply walking by or watching, some a considerable distance away.

Followed a few days later by the Hard Hat Riot, the two incidents demonstrated that the patience of the adults had been exhausted and we didn't mind using violence to keep the kids in line.  It signaled the end of the protests. 

Nixon should have realized then that the re-election was unlosable.

Posted by at April 26, 2016 3:41 PM