KENT, Ohio -- The National Guardsmen were
walking up a hill when they suddenly
wheeled around and fired into a
group of unarmed students. That was
how four students died at Kent State
University on May 4, 1970.
To see the site is to know that the
guardsmen were not under threat.
The closest student killed, Jeffrey
Miller, was 85 to 90 yards away,
Allison Krause 100 yards, William
Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer 130
Why, then, did it happen? The
Guard was ill trained and ill led,
mainly working-class young men resentful of the seemingly privileged
students. Nothing can excuse the undisciplined shooting. But the deeper
reasons lay in our national leadership: its obsessive pursuit of the
Vietnam War, its paranoia, its mendacity.
"This is not an invasion of Cambodia," President Nixon had told the
nation on April 30 as he disclosed that
U.S. troops were invading Cambodia.
A president who had campaigned on a
promise to end the war was widening
it. If he did not, he said, America
would be "a pitiful, helpless giant."
American intelligence, we were
told, had located a major North Vietnamese headquarters in Cambodia,
and U.S. forces were going to seize it.
What they found was a bunch of huts.
Americans who were not alive in
1970 must find it hard to understand
why students at Kent State and other
universities protested so emotionally
over Vietnam. There were various
reasons. But the underlying one was
the government's persistence in a
war whose futility was so overwhelmingly evident by then.
The Nixon administration had begun to reduce the American force in
Vietnam that at its peak had exceeded 550,000. That was a creditable
policy. But the administration confounded it by pretending that somehow South Vietnam could prevail
The country was divided. President Nixon did not want to alienate
those who believed in the war. But,
fatally, he did not educate the country to understand the war's futility.
To the contrary, he implied that victory was essential to our credibility
-- to our not being seen as a pitiful,
In the years of the first Nixon
administration, 1969 through 1972,
the United States dropped four million tons of bombs on Indochina, and
lost 20,492 American lives. Many
times that number of Vietnamese
were killed. To what end?
There was another, profound cost
to the United States: the further polarization of our society, the shattering of common faith in government.
Those wounds have not yet healed.
The attitudes that did such damage persist, too. They can be seen in
the leading survivor among the policy makers of 1970, Henry Kissinger.
Writing in Newsweek on the legacy
of Vietnam, Dr. Kissinger painted
the critics of the war policy then as
radical extremists who "challenged
the very essence of American foreign involvement." Their legacy, he
suggested, is in the Clinton administration.
"The conclusions that many in the
Clinton administration -- and in the
liberal community -- have drawn
from the Vietnam War," he wrote,
"present a profound challenge to traditional American foreign policy.
They treat the cold war as a misunderstanding, if not an American creation."
In other words, liberals and the
Clinton administration are soft on
Communism. Try saying that to
Madeleine Albright, Dr. Kissinger.
Of course the overwhelming majority of liberal Americans supported
the West's staunch and successful
resistance to Soviet Communism,
and look back at the policy with
Dr. Kissinger always thought that
criticism of U.S. foreign policy was
somehow unpatriotic. The irony is
that, out of office, he has become the
most nagging of critics. Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor: He has opposed one
after another intervention to save
Criticism is valuable because it
helps to correct public policies. That
is a great advantage of open societies. But the system works only if
those in charge are wise enough to
recognize when a policy, however
well intentioned, has gone wrong.
The Vietnam War and its leaders are
a monument to the failure of that
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