High-tech forensic audio analysis last week of a recently discovered audiotape of the May 4, 1970, anti-Vietnam War protest at Kent State University may shed new light on the genesis of the tragedy that shut down colleges and universities across America. During a campus confrontation, Ohio National Guardsmen fired into rock-throwing student protesters, killing four - two of them mere passers-by - and wounding nine others. The incident is of more than historical interest because the “Kent State massacre” played a major role in undermining U.S. support for the Indochina war and thus facilitated a far greater human tragedy.
The audiotape reveals that shortly before the guardsmen began firing, protesters may have surrounded and threatened the life of a young man named Terry Norman (a Kent State student, like many of the guardsmen) who was taking photographs for law enforcement agencies.
According to Friday’s Cleveland Plain Dealer, the tape captured the command “Retreat!” As the guardsmen moved back up Blanket Hill, pursued by rock-throwing protesters, photographer Norman was left behind - apparently too busy taking pictures to realize the guardsmen were pulling back - and quickly was in the midst of angry protesters.
The tape captures one voice saying: “They got somebody,” and a few seconds later, male voices shout: “Kill him!” Kill him!” There is then the sound of a .38 caliber revolver shot, followed by a female voice: “Whack that [expletive]!” Three more handgun shots ring out at about five-second intervals, and soon thereafter - in just 13 tragic seconds - 29 of the 77 guardsmen fire a total of 67 rifle shots that are to help seal the fate of the non-communist people of Indochina.
Mr. Norman later admitted carrying a .38 Special revolver because his life had been threatened repeatedly during earlier protests, and a TV reporter at the scene stated he saw Mr. Norman hand the weapon to a police officer and say, “I was afraid they were going to kill me, so I took out my revolver, and I fired it into the air and into the ground.”
The tape doesn’t have all of the answers. But the Ohio National Guard adjutant general later alleged there had been “sniper fire” at the guardsmen, and many of the guardsmen later testified they had been in fear for their lives.
By way of background, the guard had been mobilized following violent protests against President Nixon’s “illegal” decision to send American troops into Cambodia to attack North Vietnamese sanctuaries, from which communist forces had been crossing regularly into South Vietnam to attack U.S. troops and the South Vietnamese. Over a period of four days, bonfires were built in Kent streets, beer bottles and rocks were thrown at passing vehicles and through storefront windows, and more than 1,000 students surrounded the ROTC building, cheering as it burned.
Responding police and firemen were pelted with rocks and bottles, and fire hoses were slashed. Gov. James Rhodes called out the guard to restore order.
Though a Gallup Poll reported 58 percent of Americans blamed the protesters and just 11 percent blamed the guard, the Kent State incident was a great and inexcusable tragedy no matter who was primarily to blame. But its consequences in the years that followed proved far more catastrophic.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that the angry students - as so often was the case throughout the war - had their facts wrong. Going into Cambodia was not “illegal.” Like South Vietnam, Cambodia was one of the “protocol states” the United States had solemnly pledged to defend against communist aggression when the Senate in 1955 consented to the ratification of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization agreement with but a single dissenting vote. Cambodia, like South Vietnam, was similarly incorporated by reference in the 1964 statute, by which 99.6 percent of Congress authorized the use of military force to carry out our SEATO obligations.
The hated Richard M. Nixon had nothing to do with the Kent State shootings by frightened guardsmen. For the benefit of younger readers, in those days, joining the National Guard was one of the safest legal ways to avoid service in a war zone. And rather than “widening” the war, the Cambodian incursion was a tremendous victory that largely broke the back of communist forces in the Mekong Delta. (I was there at the time.)
But the angry protests made it very difficult for any but the most courageous legislators to continue supporting the war, and in May 1973, Congress enacted a new statute - of very dubious constitutionality - making it illegal for the president to spend money on U.S. military involvement in “hostilities” anywhere in Indochina. As Yale’s distinguished diplomatic historian and professor John Lewis Gaddis observed a few years back in Foreign Affairs, “Historians now acknowledge that American counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam were succeeding during the final years of that conflict.” Sadly, under pressure from the “peace movement,” Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Reassured by the American Congress, North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong declared that the Americans would not come back “even if we offered them candy,” so North Vietnam sent virtually its entire army to conquer its neighbors behind columns of Soviet-made tanks in flagrant acts of conventional armed international aggression.
The student protesters who may have believed they were struggling to end the suffering in Indochina were sadly mistaken. During the three years following the communist conquests of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, more people died violently than had been killed in combat during the previous 14 years throughout Indochina. According to the Yale University Cambodian Genocide Project, in tiny Cambodia alone, more than 20 percent of the population - an estimated 1.7 million human beings - lost their lives. A 2003 story on the Cambodian “killing fields” in National Geographic Today captured a snapshot of this tragedy by noting that, to save bullets, small children were murdered by being battered against trees.
It didn’t have to happen.
Robert F. Turner served twice in Vietnam as an Army officer. He is author or editor of several books on the Vietnam War and has taught seminars on the war for more than 20 years at the University of Virginia. The views expressed are personal.