Book Review: “When Truth Mattered: The Kent State Shootings 50 Years Later,” by Robert Giles
Published by Mission Point Press, 353 pp. $33.00
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
Before you continue reading this, take your watch or cellphone and use it to time precisely thirteen seconds. That’s how long it took on a spring afternoon in 1970 for a force of Ohio National Guardsmen to fire a volley of at least 61 shots at crowd of college student protestors. When the smoke cleared, four young people – none of whom were more than 20 years of age – lay dead, and nine others were wounded. Almost as soon as the confrontation ended, the shootings at Kent State University would be destined to become one of the defining moments of the Vietnam War. Nothing like it had ever before happened in American history, and 50 years after the fact, the reverberations of that tragic incident continue to be felt to this very day.
The shootings that took place on the first Monday of May 1970 captured the attention of the entire nation, and in the aftermath of the killings, a horde of media descended upon the Kent State campus, determined to get the details of what had happened. In the end, Americans would learn the real story thanks to resourcefulness and determination of an editorial team from the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper, whose offices were located approximately fifteen miles from the campus. In When Truth Mattered, veteran journalist Bob Giles, who was serving as the paper’s Managing Editor during that fateful moment in time, reviews the events that led up to the massacre, and describes the Herculean efforts that his colleagues made to “get the truth and print it”, an achievement that would eventually earn them a Pulitzer Prize for their work.
Despite repeated official claims to the contrary, by the spring of 1970, the Vietnam War was not going well, and just about everyone in the United States knew it. Over 50,000 Americans had been killed in Southeast Asia, and many thousands more were returning home grievously wounded in body, or in spirit, and in all too many cases, in both. The same nation that 25 years previously had emerged in triumph from the Second World War had been left angry, fearful, uncertain, and divided as perhaps never before by an inconclusive war that growing numbers of Americans believed to be both unjust and unwinnable.
Eighteen months before the fiasco at Kent State, the nation had elected a new President, Richard Nixon, who had promised to bring an end to the Vietnam War by achieving “Peace with Honor”. On the evening of April 30, 1970, in a televised address from the Oval Office, Nixon made an unexpected announcement that caught his fellow citizens by surprise, and seemed to be completely at odds with his promise to end the war. No one realized it at the time, but Nixon’s message that evening would serve as the trigger for unleashing a chain of events that would lead to the Kent State catastrophe just four days later.
In a carefully worded statement, Nixon informed viewers that in the interest of expediting a resolution to the situation in Vietnam, he had decided to launch, for the first time, ground attacks on North Vietnamese supply camps located in neighboring Cambodia. He justified his decision by stating that depriving the Communist forces of much-needed war materials would put added pressure on them to negotiate for peace. To placate Americans who might view the move as being an escalation of the war, Nixon attempted to reassure viewers that the planned new actions would be a temporary measure, and that once the military objectives had been achieved, U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Cambodia.
Notwithstanding Nixon’s assurances, the American public wasn’t buying it. Opponents of the war immediately denounced Nixon’s decision as essentially amounting to the illegal invasion of a neutral country, and one more indication of the unwillingness of the political and military establishment to face the facts about the untenable situation in Southeast Asia. The President’s plan to move against Cambodia was also roundly condemned in the editorial pages of many of the nation’s leading newspapers, including those of the Beacon Journal.
At the time Nixon went on the airwaves in the spring of 1970, antiwar protests were erupting on college campuses all across the United States, and Kent State University was no different. A state funded school which had originally been established in 1910 to provide teacher training, during the decade preceding Nixon’s speech to the nation Kent State had gone through a rapid period of expansion, and by the spring of 1970 it was home to some 19,000 students. The university was named for the nearby city of Kent, a midsize community located in the Northeastern corner of Ohio. Because more and more students were being drawn from outside the local vicinity relations between the university community and the local townspeople could at times be fractious, and these tensions would rapidly escalate during the days following Nixon’s announcement about Cambodia.
The march towards mayhem began on Friday, May 1, when in a symbolic act of defiance a group of students buried a copy of the U.S. Constitution on the campus, claiming that Nixon’s actions had rendered it “dead”. Trouble continued to brew over the weekend, as students went on a rampage in downtown Kent, trashing local businesses and later burning the university’s ROTC building during a demonstration on Saturday night. Matters rapidly deteriorated to a point where Mayor Leroy Satrom felt compelled to declare a state of emergency and ask the state government for help in getting the situation under control. This led to the fateful decision to call in units of the Ohio National Guard, who arrived in the scene on Sunday, May 3, setting the stage for the tragedy that would take place the following Monday.
As Giles’ book shows, the potentially explosive situation that had quickly developed was only made worse by the actions of James Rhodes, the combative and self-serving Governor of Ohio. At the time of the demonstrations Rhodes was fighting for his political life, and was desperately hoping to emerge victorious in a tightly-contested Senate primary race that was due to culminate during the week ahead. Seeking to curry favor with conservative voters, many of whom strongly disapproved of the college protests, Rhodes pulled no punches in condemning the students, denouncing them as being “the worst type of people that we harbor in America” and vowing to use the full force of the law to suppress the campus unrest. His offensive and ill-timed remarks only served to further inflame the hostile emotions that were already running perilously close to the boiling point.
At noon on Monday, May 4, a crowd of students defied a directive from Governor Rhodes and assembled on the campus commons for another demonstration. They soon came face-to-face with a force of National Guardsmen armed with tear gas and M 1 rifles loaded with live ammunition. The soldiers fired tear gas at the students and advanced with bayonets fixed, but the protestors disregarded their order to disperse. At 12:24 PM, a group of the soldiers suddenly turned, and fired a volley of shots towards the crowd. Thirteen seconds later, the Kent State shootings would be indelibly seared for all time deeply into an entire nation’s psyche.
Word of the shootings first reached the Beacon Journal newsroom through Jeff Sallot, a 22 year-old journalism student who worked as a stringer for the paper, and who had been detailed to report on the demonstration that was to take place on May 4th. Recognizing that they were dealing with what could potentially be the story of a lifetime, Giles and his colleagues immediately swung into action like a highly trained journalistic SWAT team.
As Sallot (who would subsequently go on to a distinguished career first with the Toronto Star and later the Globe and Mail) continued to provide minute-by-minute updates through the only phone line that was open from the campus, fellow students John Filo, John Darnell, and Howard Ruffner, accompanied by the Beacon Journal’s veteran photographer Don Roese, captured the drama on film. Just seconds after the Guardsmen’s rifles fell silent, Filo snapped the photo that would be forever after remembered as the enduring image of the tragedy, showing distraught teenager Mary Ann Vecchio crouching over the body of one of the slain protestors. In the nick of time, and little more than half an hour after the first shots were fired, the Beacon Journal’s team managed to meet the deadline for the paper’s early afternoon edition, breaking the story with the headline “Four Protestors Shot in New KSU Outburst”.
As the university community reeled from the shock of the carnage, the authorities raced to circle the wagons and shield themselves from accepting any blame for what had gone so terribly wrong. The tough-talking Governor Rhodes beat a hasty retreat from public view, offering only the explanation that he had nothing further to say about the matter. Meanwhile, the National Guard commander on the ground, Brigadier General Robert Canturbury, vigorously denied any responsibility for his soldiers’ actions. He steadfastly maintained that neither he nor any of his subordinate commanders had given an order to fire, and attempted to justify the shootings by pointing to a regulation that authorized the Guardsmen to use deadly force in situations where their lives were danger.
To further protect itself from any culpability, the National Guard also claimed that an armed sniper had been lurking among the students, and that the troopers’ actions had been a response provoked by a shot fired at them. As evidence to support this allegation, they pointed to single bullet hole in a metal sculpture on the campus they insisted had been made by the sniper’s bullet. This theory, however, was quickly discredited by the Beacon Journal, which conducted independent tests that showed that the bullet hole had been caused by a shot fired in the direction of the students, not the Guardsmen. A subsequent investigation by the Ohio Highway Patrol also determined that there was no conclusive evidence to suggest that a sniper had been present.
Amid the inevitable cacophony of accusations and finger-pointing that followed in the wake of the shootings, the staff of the Beacon Journal doggedly pressed on in their quest to uncover the story of what had really happened. Their big break came in July, when Ray Redmond, a longtime reporter with the paper, had an opportunity to read a confidential report summarizing the findings of an exhaustive FBI investigation. On Thursday, July 23, the Beacon Journal ran a front page story with the headline “FBI: NO REASON FOR GUARD TO SHOOT AT KENT STATE”. Key points of the story were the following:
- The report of the FBI investigation concluded the shootings were “not necessary and not in order.”
- None of the soldiers’ lives were in danger at any time prior to the shootings.
- The demonstrators could have been turned back without resorting to deadly force if arrests had been made, or if more tear gas had been fired.
- The U.S. Department of Justice had advised Ohio officials that sufficient grounds were present to criminally charge six National Guardsmen for their roles in the shootings.
The revelations in the Beacon Journal’s July 23 edition were a bombshell that rocked America right up to the highest levels of the nation. The following morning, President Richard Nixon phoned FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to express his displeasure about the “news leak”. Two weeks later, Jack Knight, Editor of the Beacon Journal’s and owner of its parent company, received a sternly worded letter from Hoover, admonishing him for the “inaccurate article” and asking that a “clear statement of truth be accorded an equally prominent position in the pages of your newspaper”.
Notwithstanding the FBI Director’s fearsome reputation, Knight, who had started his own career 50 years earlier at the Beacon Journal, refused to be intimidated. “I am surprised by the hostile tone of your letter, which is evidently intended to mollify public opinion” he wrote to Hoover. “There is no occasion to lecture the editor for, as you know, we are quite as dedicated to the quest for truth as the FBI.”
In the end, the repercussions of the 1970 shootings at Kent State would continue to be felt for many years after the actual incident itself. Remarkably, because of the fact that the Guardsmen had been mobilized by the state and were therefore not on Federal duty, none of them could be court martialled under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Families of the victims attempted to seek redress through other avenues, pressing for criminal charges in the civilian courts, and initiating litigation against those they deemed to be responsible for the killings.
Sadly, these efforts came to seemingly little avail. Though charges were eventually laid against some of the National Guardsmen who had fired on the protesters, the first soldiers to go on trial were acquitted, and the remaining charges against their comrades were ultimately dropped. The civil lawsuits dragged on for several years until a settlement was reached in 1979 for the comparatively modest sum of $675,000, much of which went to Dean Kahler, a student who had been paralyzed from the waist down by one of the Guardsmen’s bullets.
Fifty years after the fact, troubling questions remain about the Kent State shootings. It has never been determined who, if anyone, gave the order for the National Guardsmen to fire. And if there was no order to fire, as their commander Brigadier General Canterbury repeatedly insisted, what prompted the troopers to turn their weapons on the unarmed students ? An even more fundamental question would be, why was the National Guard mobilized in the first place ?
By 1970, antiwar protests were an almost routine occurrence on American college campuses. Previous experience had shown that local law enforcement agencies were capable of containing these situations, and none of them had ended with any loss of life. Kent State would mark the first time in history when American citizens exercising their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly would die at the hands of their own nation’s soldiers. In an age when military commanders must live with the ever-present possibility that they may be called upon to provide aid to the civil powers, the Kent State affair offers some important lessons to ponder.
I would suggest that one of the key lessons may be taken away from this tragedy relates to the importance of ensuring that when military units are dispatched to any mission, the troops need to be properly trained and suitably equipped to deal with what they will likely encounter. The National Guard had served America well since its establishment in the early years of the 20th century, but it must also be remembered that the Guardsmen at Kent State were civilians first and soldiers second. Serving part-time, they understandably lacked the level of training, discipline, and leadership that would have been found in a Regular Army unit. This may well have been a contributing factor to the confusion and breakdown in leadership that eventually led to the shootings.
Similarly, it is also worth noting that after the Guard units were hastily mobilized, they apparently arrived on the campus armed only with their personal weapons and tear gas. For reasons that will never be known, they were never provided with other equipment specifically designed for dealing with riots, such as protective shields and batons. It is also unclear whether any of the Guardsmen or their officers had received training in crowd control procedures. Again, the absence of equipment suitable for the mission, and questions about whether the troopers were properly trained for the situation they were tasked to deal with, may have been contributing factors to what subsequently went wrong.
The other important lesson that I believe should be drawn from this experience would be that military commanders must always remember that their actions will be subject to the scrutiny not only of their superiors in the chain of command, but also that of the public and the news media. Accordingly, they must be prepared to justify their decisions if required and be held accountable for the consequences of their actions. This clearly wasn’t the case at Kent State. As When Truth Mattered points out, undoubtedly the most serious failure of leadership in this situation must be attributed to Brigadier General Robert Canterbury, the senior National Guard commander, who arrived on the scene with over 20 years of military experience under his belt.
Canterbury must surely have realized the seriousness of the potentially explosive situation on the campus, and although he was well aware of the fact that the Guardsmen were carrying loaded weapons, he failed to exercise appropriate fire control that could have prevented the casualties. Not only that, but in subsequent testimony regarding the events of May 4, Canterbury adamantly denied that he or anyone else had given the order to shoot, and maintained that he had no direct responsibility for the weapons or tactics that were used to stem the protest. His complete refusal to accept personal responsibility for any aspect of the tragedy ran completely contrary to the fundamental guiding principles of military leadership, and must have been a humiliating source of embarrassment for his fellow members of the National Guard.
In the end, it is highly debatable whether the Kent State shootings had any meaningful impact on the subsequent course of the Vietnam War itself. Nixon went ahead with his planned invasion of Cambodia, later describing the operation as being a huge success, although this claim was dubious at best. He would be re-elected in a landslide in the 1972 Presidential election, only to resign in disgrace less than two years later in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Meanwhile, although the Americans would steadily reduce their presence, the war in Vietnam would continue to drag on, finally ending with a Communist victory in the spring of 1975, not quite five years to the day after the Kent State killings.
Arguably, what the events at Kent State did accomplish was to bring into sharp and compelling focus the seriousness of the divisions that the Vietnam War had created within American society. They also highlighted in vivid detail the critically important role that ethical and professional news reporting plays in a democratic society, specifically in terms of holding government accountable for its failures and ensuring that citizens are fully informed of the truth. Bob Giles’ memoir of that painful time in America’s history offers a thoroughly gripping read, and at the same time, some thought-provoking commentary that serving military officers of all ranks would be well-advised to take heed of.