I was a high school senior in Westerville, Ohio, weeks away from graduation, when Kent State became national news for all the wrong reasons. Kent State University, a mere two hours away, was one of the few places of higher education on my list of colleges to consider. That tragic part of history etched itself in my memory. Do you remember May the fourth is more than a movie meme?
On May 4, 1970 National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of Kent State students protesting the Vietnam War. They killed four and wounded nine. To this day, I still struggle to understand what happened and why.
A Simplified Summary of The War
The Second Indochina War, more commonly known as the Vietnam war probably began before World War II. But Japan’s invasion, defeat, and subsequent withdrawal from Vietnam left the nation vulnerable.
Communist-leaning, Ho Chi Minh claimed the northern city of Hanoi to be the capital of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam, and appointed himself president.
The French, wanting to reclaim control, backed Emperor Bao Dai. Saigon became the capitol of the state of Viet Nam. They wanted a country with close economic and cultural ties to the west.
A treaty split Viet Nam along the 17th Parallel and called for a nationwide election to unify the country.
The United States, caught up in the Cold War and the domino theory of communist invasion, threw their support for Diem with military advisors and the CIA.
The fighting escalated. (For a more detailed explanation and timeline, read History.com.
By 1967, the draft in the USA. called nearly 40,000 young men each month to fight in Viet Nam. More than 15,000 soldiers died, and more than 100,000 were injured. Few recognized the effect of PTSD on those fortunate enough to return home.
The anti-war movement began mostly on campuses. Students gathered and protested. But famous people like author Norman Mailer and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. protested too. Anti-war songs filled the airwaves.
There were anti-war demonstrations in London, Great Britain, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Amsterdam, Indonesia, and many other countries.
Protests Turn Violent
In October 1967, University of Wisconsin students staged protests against maker of napalm, Dow Chemicals, the protests and police response there were the first time a campus antiwar demonstration turned violent.
Skirmishes between antiwar demonstrators and police grew more and more frequent. Demonstrations became unruly and occasionally violent.
On May 1, 1970, 500 Kent State students gathered on the Commons (an open grassy area) to protest the war. It and a second rally in the afternoon ended peacefully.
That night, Friday, May 2, drunken demonstrators in downtown Kent taunt police and break windows in the downtown businesses. The town’s entire police force responded. The mayor declares a state of emergency and the Governor calls in the National Guard.
The National Guard arrived to find a crowd of about 1,000 people surround the school’s Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). It’s burning. Many in the cheering crowd prevent firefighters from extinguishing the blaze. The Guardsmen disperse the crowd with tear gas and bayonets.
The next day the Guard use tear gas on scattered protests. The college issued a ban against rallies, and classes resumed on May 4th.
By noon, approximately 2,000 people gathered on campus protesting the war. Guardsmen fired tear gas and with fixed bayonets advanced on the protestors. Some protestors wouldn’t leave. They taunted the Guardsmen. Some threw rocks.
Minutes later, the National Guardsmen opened fire, killing four and wounding nine students.
The horrors of protests turning into riots and violence by demonstrators and police weren’t new. I was ten when I witnessed civil rights protests and riots and violence on a small but very personal scale.
When I saw the news of the violence at Kent State, less than two hundred miles from where I sat in my home, it hit me hard. I was a high school senior who couldn’t wait to be a college student in three months.
None of my friends or acquaintances every confessed to being at those demonstrations. But I’ve carried the memory of “that could have been me” ever since. That thought, or fear, resonates every time there are deaths or injuries by Americans against Americans—regardless of color, preferred gender, or who they love—they are all Americans. If we can turn against one another, if we don’t respect one another, who is safe?
I had hoped we would always remember and learn to be better. That all would recognize peaceful protests as peaceful and demonstrations would never turn violent. That we would never condone violence against anyone for any reason.
A Painful Memory
From Nov. 1, 1955 until April 30, 1975, the conflict raged between Communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam. More than 3 million people (mostly Vietnamese) were killed in the conflict. That number includes 58,220 Americans killed. About 304,000 American soldiers were injured during the war. That doesn’t consider soldiers from other nations, the countless number of others missing or presumed dead, or those killed or wounded during antiwar demonstrations.
It also doesn’t count the dead or injured of other past, present, or future conflicts.
Many of my family members and friends have painful memories of violence, of the Vietnam war and the antiwar demonstrations in particular.
Perhaps you know someone, soldier, demonstrator, or family member, who has painful memories from the Vietnam war. And if not that war, perhaps previous or current armed conflicts, or the violence of hate crimes.
Remember May the Fourth is More than a Movie Meme
Did you remember May the fourth is more than a movie meme? Too many of us, not just in the USA but worldwide, share painful memories of violence, injury, and death. Or the painful, shameful memories of people injuring and killing other people because of differences in belief systems (hate). I wish we had learned to be better… Sometimes I despair. Can we ever remember our violent past and learn to be better? And sometimes, I raise my voice and ask us to remember and be better.