The battle lasted only 13 seconds, yet it became the Dien Bien Phu of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. On May 4, 1970, on the sunny campus of Kent State University, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed students. Their bullets wounded nine and killed four.
Shocking the nation and the world, Kent State would eventually turn public opinion against the war, but in the short run, the shooting aided the aims of those two self-admiring geniuses of manipulation, Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger. Within a week of the shooting, a Newsweek poll indicated that 58 percent of Americans blamed students for the deaths at Kent State. Only 11 percent blamed the National Guard, which was ordered to Kent State by Governor James A. Rhodes ''to eradicate the communist element'' on campus.
Nixon was elected in 1968, saying he had a secret plan to end the war. In truth, he had no clue.
With Kissinger, his national security adviser, Nixon widened the war because, the president said on April 30, 1970, America would otherwise become ''a pitiful, helpless giant.'' Nixon and Kissinger concealed their plans to invade Cambodia from Congress and from Secretary of State William Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. When campuses erupted in anger, Nixon blithely said four days after Kent State: ''I have not been surprised by the intensity of the protests.''
To understand the emotional intensity of the time, multiply the Elian Gonzalez uproar by 100 million. The issue of Vietnam was not symbolic but life and death. I know that my anger disturbed my professional composure, which I found surprising but not regrettable. On May 4, I was at the White House when press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler read Nixon's statement that Kent State ''should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.'' Blaming the victim was a Nixon-Kissinger trademark.
Since 1968, I had earned my place on Nixon's ''enemies list'' by asking questions, but never heatedly. I seldom hassled Ziegler, for whom I had a certain respect, repaid when he avoided trouble during Watergate. I was also skeptical of the flag-burning elements within the antiwar movement, which I covered eagerly because it was a great story. My refusal to cooperate with J. Edgar Hoover's investigations fattened my FBI file, but as a recent Army veteran, I didn't think soldiers were automatically killers.
That afternoon, I thought the Ohio Guardsmen were. ''How do you know those students weren't walking to the library?'' I bellowed at Ziegler. Startled, he began to backpedal, talking about ''further investigation.''
Months later, the FBI report stated that the students were no threat to the Guard: ''Jeff Miller's body was found 85-90 yards from the Guard. Allison Krause fell about 100 yards away. William Schroeder and Sandy Scheuer were approximately 130 yards away from the Guard when they were shot.... Sandy Scheuer, as best we can determine, was on her way to a speech therapy class. We do not know whether Schroeder participated in any way in the confrontations that day.''
Thus began what Russell Baker called ''that sour decade'' and what David Halberstam called the era of ''us against us.'' A few voices in Congress warned against what the war was doing to America. Tip O'Neill, then a midlevel member of the Rules Committee, urged the House to ''look at the situation. No nation can destroy us militarily, but what can destroy us from within is happening now.'' But the House backed Nixon heavily, buying the ''helpless giant'' argument. So did most Americans. In 1972, Nixon won reelection and 49 states.
Revisionist historians now argue that the war was somehow a swell idea. They imply that Nixon and Kissinger were thus virtuous and wise. I was there and bear witness that their legacy is one of lies and blood.
Martin F. Nolan's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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