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kainah Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Apr-26-06 03:41 PM
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Prelude to Kent State: Nixon Invades Cambodia
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Edited on Wed Apr-26-06 03:56 PM by kainah
Thirty-six years ago, news out of Kent, Ohio stunned the country. The Ohio National Guard had opened fire on a crowd of student demonstrators. Thirteen seconds later, when the shooting stopped, two students lay dead, two more were dying, and at least nine had been wounded.

Over the next week or so, I will post a series of diaries on the Kent State shootings. This, Part I, deals with the prelude to the shootings: President Nixon's announcement of the invasion of Cambodia and the May Day demonstrations at Yale University. Part II will cover the weekend at Kent prior to the shootings. Part III will detail the events of May 4 and Part IV will look at the aftermath and the legal proceedings. A Part V, with summary and annotated bibliography, is possible, if there's enough interest.

In memory of Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, and Sandy Scheuer, explore what happened at Kent State in 1970, what we know and what still remains a mystery.

(Cross-posted at Daily Kos and Booman Tribune.)

May 4 dawned beautiful in Kent, OH. But the mood on the usually sedate campus stood in stark contrast to the weather. Everyone -- students, professors, administrators, townspeople, and guardsmen -- woke up tense and anxious, wondering what this day would bring. Before night fell, the students would be gone, guardsmen would be protecting empty buildings, townspeople would be hiding behind locked doors and wild rumors would be spreading that the Weatherman were heading to Kent to spike the water supply with LSD. Kent State University would never again be known as a "sleepy college town"; "Kent State" would be forever linked to May 4, 1970.

On May 4, 1970, I was a freshman at another Ohio college. I learned about the events at Kent State when I heard one of my good friends shrieking in horror. For me, that day would begin a long quest to find the truth. After researching the shootings for more than thirty years, I still can't claim to have all the answers but I think I do know most of the questions that still need answers.

What happened that sunny May day began several days earlier, on Thursday, April 30, 1970, when President Richard Nixon declared a "limited incursion" into Cambodia. Nixon assured the nation this was "not for the purpose of expanding the war into Cambodia, but for the purpose of ending the war in Vietnam." But for those who had rejoiced ten days earlier when Nixon announced that 150,000 troops would be pulled out of Vietnam by the end of the year, his words rang hollow.

One of the enduring mysteries remains why Nixon chose that spring day to make his announcement. In fact, U.S. troops had been operating covertly in Cambodia for more than a year. Almost exactly a year earlier, on May 9, 1969, the New York Times had reported on the U.S. bombing of targets in Cambodia. As a result, Henry Kissinger ordered secret wiretapping of seven National Security Council members and four reporters. Now, for some strange reason, Nixon had decided to go public about it. Why?

For years, colleges had been the center of antiwar demonstrations. The Vietnam Moratorium had begun the previous October with mass protests, teach-ins, and student strikes. While activities had quieted down somewhat during the cold winter months, everyone knew the protests would start up again come spring. Yet, at the exact time that college administrators expected to see their students getting active again, Nixon went on national TV to provide all the fodder necessary for angry dissidents to rally students in protest. Surely Nixon knew that would be the result.

And, in case that wasn't enough, Nixon went further on Friday, May 1. During a visit to the Pentagon, in supposedly off-handed comments, he further inflamed passions by declaring: "You know, you see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world and here they are, burning up the books, I mean, storming around about this issue, I mean, you name it. Get rid of the war, there'll be another one." Meanwhile, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Vice President Spiro Agnew launched his own salvo, calling universities "circus tents or psychiatric centers for overprivileged, under-disciplined, irresponsible children of the well-to-do blase permissivists."

Many found Nixon's pronouncement offensive. Later that weekend, both Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, unknowingly living the last days of their lives, would call home and mention being angry that Nixon had called them "bums." Joe Lewis, who would be shot twice on May 4, recalls, "I was not a bum. I was an eighteen-year-old American fully aware of how lucky I was to be going to a university in America where your freedoms are guaranteed."

So why were Nixon and Agnew stoking the fires? Could it be that they wanted to provoke the students?

Indeed, all the evidence suggests Nixon was doing exactly that. That early May weekend, tens of thousands of activists from all over the country were heading east for the "May Day Rally" at Yale University protesting the upcoming murder trial of several Black Panthers, including Bobby Seale. Yale students, asserting that the Panthers could not get a fair trial, had called for a campus-wide strike. They found an unlikely ally in Yale's President Kingman Brewster who agreed about the state of America's court system: "I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the U.S."

But the strike had also brought other worries for Brewster. Officials at the Justice Department, FBI, Army, and Secret Service, meeting in Washington, DC to discuss the May Day rally, decided that among the activists heading for New Haven for the May Day rally, some 2,000 were "violence-prone militants." The solution, concluded Attorney General John Mitchell, was having federal troops nearby. After receiving a formal request from Connecticut Governor John Dempsey, troops were dispatched to nearby air bases in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In addition, some 2500 Connecticut National Guardsmen were activated. The Justice Department also urged Kingman Brewster to close down Yale's campus to keep out the "outside agitators." The beautiful old campus has gates at all the entrances, making it literally possible to close off the campus. But Brewster, instead of listening to Nixon's agitators, consulted with student leaders and professors who recommended that Yale pursue the exact opposite course and that the university open its gates and welcome those who would be arriving from all over the country. During the ensuing weekend, some 15,000 outsiders would take advantage of Yale's hospitality, bedding down in its dorms and eating in its cafeterias. By late Saturday night, it had become clear that Kingman Brewster's level-headed approach, aided by the New Haven police chief, James Ahern, would keep Yale calm. There would be no excuse to call in the troops or to use the lethal force which would have discredited so many groups that Nixon considered his "enemies": students, antiwar protestors, the "liberal elite," the Black Panthers, and the Ivy League schools.

Sometime on Saturday, then, attention switched from Yale to the sleepy little campus of Kent State. How that happened is not exactly clear except that, as the next installment of this series will explain, several incidents on Friday had set the stage for a confrontation at Kent State. Another factor that undoubtedly made Ohio an attractive alternative was the fact that the state was governed by an ambitious supporter of Richard Nixon, James A. Rhodes. That weekend, Rhodes, term-limited as governor, was busily campaigning for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. The primary was scheduled for Tuesday, May 5, and the situation at Kent State provided a last great opportunity to push his law and order credentials. As the events of the weekend would show, Rhodes was more than willing to stoke the fires of fear and to turn over control of campuses to military forces. (One of the few satisfying footnotes to the story: James Rhodes lost the Tuesday primary.)

It may also be significant that one of the key figures involved in monitoring campus dissent for the Nixon White House was from northeast Ohio. Little attention has been paid to the role of John Dean in the Nixon administration prior to his arrival in the White House as counsel to the president in July 1970. Although John Dean's book on Watergate, Blind Ambition, makes it sound as though he was lounging on a California beach when he was tapped for this prestigious position, the truth is that Dean had served Nixon as an assistant attorney general under John Mitchell for several years before going to the White House. Dean's portfolio at the Justice Department included monitoring student unrest and antiwar activities. And that was his role in May 1970. Moreover, Dean was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, about 30 miles from Kent State. He received his B.A. from The College of Wooster, another northeastern Ohio college. Perhaps all that is coincidence but, for years, there have been rumors that Dean was in New Haven for the May Day rally and that, sometime that weekend, he flew to Cleveland. If true, this would certainly raise some interesting questions about whether he might have gone there to facilitate and monitor the events that would lead to the confrontation on the Kent State campus.

In considering the possible role that Dean and the Justice Department might have played in the Kent State shootings, it's important to remember a few interesting facts:

(1) While many people referred to Nixon's "dirty tricks" as Watergate unraveled, one man Attorney General John Mitchell referred to "horror stories." Is it possible that Mitchell knew of acts that went well beyond "dirty tricks"? Could Mitchell have been referring to Kent State when he spoke of "horror stories"? Could he have used that term because he knew that plans for such an event originated in the White House? (Personally, FWIW, I do not believe that Nixon ever ordered student demonstrators to be shot. Instead, I believe Nixon said something like, "Can't someone shut those students up?" and his loyal toadies took it from there.)

(2) Soon after the Kent State shootings, John Dean was promoted to counselor to the President. Is it possible that this was a reward for a job well done in executing Nixon's wishes to shut down the student protests? (While many now say that the killings at Kent State helped to end the war in Vietnam, this, sadly, is simply not true. Following an initial burst of demonstrations in reaction to the killings, most students got the message demonstrating could be deadly and the campuses became a lot quieter after Kent State.)

(3) The parents of those killed at Kent State pushed for years to have Congress investigate the shootings. Those entreaties finally bore fruit in the spring of 1973 when Rep. Don Edwards (D-CA), chairman of a House Judiciary Subcommittee, announced a fact-finding inquiry into charges that the Nixon administration was obstructing justice by refusing to investigate the Kent State shootings. Hearings were scheduled to begin that fall. On the witness list were John Dean, John Mitchell, Richard Kleindienst, James Rhodes, and two Ohio National Guard generals. Shortly thereafter, Dean began talking to the Watergate prosecutors. In August 1973, the new Attorney General Elliott Richardson stunned everyone by announcing plans to reopen the Justice Department investigation into Kent State. This forestalled the House Judiciary Committee inquiry and, as Watergate overwhelmed all other issues, John Dean was never asked what he might know about what happened at Kent State on May 4, 1970.

Coming next: May 1-3, 1970, at Kent State
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