Forty years ago, on May 4, 1970 soldiers opened fire on a student
anti-war protest on the campus of Kent State University, nestled around
the small, sleepy Ohio town of Kent.
The number of dead - four
students, two of them simply heading to class - does not compare to the
number of American soldiers ultimately killed in Vietnam: some 57,000.
the death toll cannot begin to compare to the number of Vietnamese
civilians who lost their lives: between 700,000 and 2 million, according
But those student deaths were momentous.
4th represented the war coming home to America. And in many ways it
was. It was soldiers firing at unarmed people," said Jerry M. Lewis, who
was just a young professor at the time of the shootings, an eyewitness
who is still troubled by what happened, four decades on.
Of the Kent State killings, President Richard Nixon's adviser Richard
Haldeman wrote in The Ends of Power that the 67 rifle bullets
fired that day would, metaphorically, ricochet right back into the White
"Kent State, in May 1970, marked a turning point for
Nixon, a beginning of his downhill slide toward Watergate," Haldeman
Four days before the killings, Nixon had announced that
the American war in Southeast Asia was spreading from Vietnam to
Cambodia - where the Communist Viet Cong had set up operational bases.
announcement, a stunning reversal from Nixon's election promises of a
"secret plan to end the war," sparked the initial protests in Kent, on
But the demonstrations at Kent State on May 4 were also
meant to voice anger at the presence of Ohio National Guard soldiers,
who had come to occupy the university campus and impose a curfew.
troops had been sent in by Ohio's tough-talking law-and-order governor,
as he campaigned for election to the US senate: during the first
protests there had been some vandalism in the town of Kent, and an arson
attack on the campus' military officer training centre.
State was much more than a turning point in the tragicomic story of
Richard Nixon, who was kicked out of office because of a break-in
organised to spy on the Democratic National Committee, ensconced at
Washington DC's Watergate apartment complex.
The killings, and the public outrage
which ensued, helped accelerate the end of the war.
kids who had been brought up to believe that America was different
because we had freedom of speech," says Elaine Holstein, whose son
Jeffrey Miller was killed.
She remembers how her son had promised
her on the phone that nothing would happen to him that day, and how
terribly wrong he was.
"I called Jeff's apartment and it rang and
rang for quite a while, and some kid picked up, and I said let me talk
to Jeff, and he said 'Jeff is dead'," she told us in her small Queen's
apartment, her hands trembling as the emotion came flooding back with
Holstein would teach herself to pretend that Jeff
was "just sleeping" in the photographs that were endlessly reprinted in
newspapers and magazines, and even displayed in art shows.
heart-rending snapshot of 14-year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio,
screaming in anguish, was taken by student photographer John Filo. It
would help mobilise some four million outraged students in the nation's
first and only nationwide student strike, just days after the killings.
clearly had a powerful impact on congress, they started seriously to
end the war in Vietnam, they started to cut off the funding" said Alan
Canfora, a survivor of the shootings, and an activist who wants Barack
Obama, the US president, to open a new investigation into the events of
Despite hundreds of photographs, hundreds of metres of
film, and audio recordings of the events, no-one went to jail.
years of lawsuits ended in a carefully-worded expression of regret by
the soldiers and the state of Ohio, and a meager financial settlement.
demonstrators against today's American wars told us that Kent State
remains an inspiration.
Talking in front of the White House at an
anti-war rally in March, 20-something Ryan Smith said: "Back then they
were doing it for Vietnam, today we're doing it for Iraq and
Afghanistan. All we can say to them [is] that it lives on - the spirit
And that is how Elaine Holstein feels.
mother who needs to pretend her son is sleeping just so that she can
bear to look at the famous photograph memorialising his death, still
feels Jeff's spirit and still sees the ghost of Kent State, when she
sees students anywhere in the world stand up to the state.
says: "To me, the scene I remember is Tiananmen Square, and seeing those
students, and thinking 'how wonderful it is that they will dare to do
Four Dead in Ohio can be seen from
Tuesday, May 4, at the following times GMT: Tuesday: 2330; Wednesday:
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