The shots heard ‘round the nation



Fifty years ago years ago this week National Guard troops fired on students at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. The students had been peacefully protesting the Vietnam war when Ohio Gov. James Rhodes ordered troops to move in on the unarmed college kids.

I was a sophomore at Notre Dame, 280 miles west of Kent, Ohio, when it happened. We couldn’t believe it. America couldn’t believe that our government would turn on its own people who were peacefully exercising their constitutional rights.

Since we were insulated in a bubble on a college campus, my roommate Don Giant and I decided to find out how the blue collar residents of South Bend felt. I was a communications major. We grabbed my movie camera and tape recorder and headed to Michigan Avenue, the city’s main drag downtown. What we learned shocked us.

Most people we talked to were shocked by the shooting of the students. But one lady supported the government wholeheartedly. We asked: What if one of the dead students was her child? “If one of my kids was demonstrating, they’d deserve to get shot,” she told us.

That’s tough love.

Protests against the Vietnam War had been growing for years. In February 1968, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite — “the most trusted man in America,” according to the Gallup Poll — returned from a trip to Vietnam and told his television audience that the cause was lost and America should find an honorable way out. President Lyndon Johnson reportedly said, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

A moratorium calling for an end to the war was observed on college campuses across the nation on Oct. 15, 1969, and discontent grew. The Kent State shootings seven months later only galvanized the resistance and in the days following the shootings demonstrations closed 450 campuses and millions of people demonstrated against the war. It took five more years before the war ended with 58,318 American soldiers killed and 153,303 wounded in furtherance of our government’s lies.

One significant aspect of the Kent State shootings is that it occurred on a mainstream mid-American college, not on the liberal coastal bastions like Columbia or Berkeley where protests had traditionally begun. The anger had penetrated Middle America.

You couldn’t get more conservative than Notre Dame, where most students were business administration or engineering majors. But classes there were cancelled too as students participated in a two-day fast in remembrance of the students who died, and the president of the university, Fr. Ted Hesburgh, presided at a mass for peace on the main quad. Many professors cancelled final exams, which were to begin the following week.

But the violence wasn’t over. A few days later 11 students at New Mexico State University were bayoneted by National Guard troops, and two students were shot and killed and several others wounded by police at Mississippi’s Jackson State University.

After Kent State, disenchantment swelled against the leaders who took us to Vietnam, from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon. Republican and Democrat alike lied to us, too proud to admit they made a mistake, as we eventually learned from the Pentagon Papers that were leaked to The New York Times and Washington Post, and later admissions by people centrally involved like Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the generals who fudged the numbers. They knew the war was a lost cause, yet they let it continue because they didn’t want to be embarrassed by their pride and ineptitude.

The movie we filmed that day 50 years ago is long gone, but the memories remain.

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