New light shed on Kent State killings

Previously undisclosed FBI documents suggest that the Kent State antiwar protests were more meticulously planned than originally thought and that one or more gunshots may have been fired at embattled Ohio National Guardsmen before their killings of four students and woundings of at least nine others on that searing day in May 1970.

As the nation marks the 40th anniversary of the Kent State antiwar protests Tuesday, a review of hundreds of previously unpublished investigative reports sheds a new — and very different — light on the tragic episode.

The upheaval that enveloped the northeastern Ohio campus actually began three days earlier, in downtown Kent. Stirred to action by President Nixon’s expansion of U.S. military operations in Cambodia, a roving mob of earnest antiwar activists, hard-core radicals, curious students and others smashed 50 bank and store windows, looted a jewelry store and hurled bricks and bottles at police.

Four officers suffered injuries, and the mayor declared a civil emergency. Only tear gas dispersed the mob.

An exhaustive review later concluded that this unrest on the streets — the worst in Kent’s history — was “not an organized riot or a planned protest.”

But the FBI’s investigation swiftly uncovered reliable evidence that suggested otherwise. Among the strongest was a pre-dawn conversation — never before reported — between two unnamed men overheard inside a campus lounge later that night. Their discussion was witnessed by the girlfriend of a Kent State student and conveyed up the FBI chain of command 15 days later.

“We did it,” one man exulted, according to the inquiry. “We got the riot started.”

The second man expressed disappointment at being excluded from the riot’s planning. “Wait until tomorrow night,” the leader replied excitedly. “We just got the word. We’re going to burn the ROTC building.”

This was 20 hours before the ROTC headquarters on the Kent State campus, an old wooden frame building, was, in fact, burned to the ground.

“What about the flare?” the second man asked before the leader spotted the coed listening to them and abruptly ended the conversation. Dozens of witnesses later told the FBI they saw a flare used to ignite the blaze.

Now largely forgotten, the torching of the ROTC building was the true precursor to the killings at Kent State because it triggered the deployment of the National Guard to the fevered campus.

That deployment climaxed in bloodshed on the afternoon of May 4, 1970, with the guardsmen, clad in gas masks and confronted by angry, rock-throwing students, firing their M-1 rifles 67 times in 13 seconds, killing Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder.

A report submitted to Attorney General John Mitchell in June 1970 stated “there was no sniper” who could have fired at the guardsmen before the killings.

Numerous witnesses corroborated this.

A female freshman provided the FBI with a sworn statement that “there was no shot before [the guardsmen’s] volley, and there were no warning shots fired.” The Justice Department’s internal review cited statements by six guardsmen who “pointedly” told the FBI that their lives were not in danger and that “it was not a shooting situation.”

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