13 Deadly Seconds

Forty years ago, four students were killed at Kent State. Yet the tragedy began long before, when America embarked upon a perilous and paranoid journey.

Paranoia is a slow-growing weed. I was a schoolboy at Garfield Heights Elementary School in 1950 when the seeds of the Kent State University shootings were sewn.

The teachers gave us grim lectures about surviving an atomic bomb attack from Communist Russia. The mere mention of the word "communism" was an evil utterance. We collected Korean War bubble gum cards with racist depictions of Chinese soldiers, whom we called gooks. We knew the Pusan perimeter was threatened by hordes of Asians. China had fallen, the Korean War ebbed on, the fear escalated, and the McCarthy era's red-baiting politics smeared the best of names.

When I became a reporter in the 1960s, the paranoia was everywhere. The Cleveland Police Department had a Red Squad to track subversives. In a city as multiethnic as ours, intrigues abound: I laughed incredulously in 1966 when a grand jury blamed the Hough riots on a communist conspiracy. Newspaper editors fretted over communists the way they did commas.

By the spring of 1970, we were a country seized by paranoia. Cold War fears had led us into Vietnam, and almost 400,000 U.S. troops were still fighting there. The war had so divided the nation that our fears collided at small-town Kent State University, a campus not known for its activism.

That morning in May began warm and wonderful, the kind of day that signals spring's triumph over winter's gall. If you were in college, it was a day to skip class, get some beer and a blanket, and stare into the sky with a date. By the time it ended, it was a day of death recorded in American history.

Arriving shortly after the shooting, I found a stunned campus where students wept, the guardsmen were statues of shock, and the facts in question were bewildering. Some swore a sniper had been seen. Dorothy Fuldheim, Channel 5's news commentator, had arrived in a helicopter and denounced the troops as murderers. The guard refused to address the media, which added to the confusion.

My first reaction was anger at the reckless risk the students had taken that day. A year in Vietnam spent covering the war for The Plain Dealer had given me a deep fear of weapons. I knew how deadly they could be, particularly with inexperienced troops or poor leadership. But the students' naivety and the emotions of the moment had emboldened some to taunt the guardsmen.

The National Guard comprised many soldiers the same age as the students. Some had enlisted to avoid the draft. The desperate guardsmen assembled to prevent student demonstrations were tired, disorganized, poorly trained and poorly led.

So the tragedy unfolded in ways that would have awed the best Greek playwrights. The demonstration had begun three days earlier over the U.S. military incursion into Cambodia. An ROTC building had been burnt. The city of Kent considered itself under siege. The National Guard was ordered off the highways, where it was patrolling a Teamsters strike, and into town.

That Monday, guard leaders and school officials had decided to order the soldiers to disperse a scheduled rally. It was an ill-advised decision, for the crowd gathered on the common, a harmless, open area. As they moved to break up the crowd, the guardsmen were outflanked. A group of students who sensed victory pursued the troops up Blanket Hill. The crowd mentality gained momentum, and a small group of animated demonstrators chanted antiwar slogans, hurled back tear gas canisters, and threw stones and sticks.

Then came the deadly moment, still debated. Did the guardsmen turn and shoot at the students deliberately because they felt threatened? Or was it an accident?

The shooting began with a single shot. The full fusillade of 61 rounds lasted for 13 seconds, according to official reports and tape recordings. I always thought the opening shot was fired as a warning. Most of the guardsmen had their backs to the students and had to turn to fire. They may not have known whether they were in danger. However, I do believe that at least one student was targeted because of his taunts.

It was a miracle that more students weren't hit. The high-powered, ball-jacked rounds were fired from M1 rifles with a range of more than a mile.

Looking back, the most devastating irony about the Kent State incident is that the students were protesting a perceived expansion of the war in Southeast Asia. The paranoia had affected them, too: They did not see that the Cambodian incursion of May 1970 was aimed at ending the conflict.

Several years later, I met a relative of mine, Maj. Gen. Elvy B. Roberts, who had commanded the 1st Air Cavalry Division and led the Cambodian incursion. President Nixon had personally asked Roberts to lead the mission, after a South Vietnamese general opted out because his fortune teller prophesied bad karma. During the attacks, Roberts' helicopter was shot down three times. He emphasized to me that his mission, to destroy North Vietnamese assembling and supply areas in Cambodia, was designed to buy time for a withdrawal from the war — a point lost in our nation's paranoia.

When I returned to Vietnam in 2007, a history professor in Hanoi told me his government had used Kent State as propaganda to prolong the war. North Vietnamese leaders claimed the incident proved that America had fallen so low that it was killing its own children and would soon relent in the war. The professor was bitter about his own country's refusal to end the war sooner, saying it cost hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. It was the ceaseless bombing of North Vietnam in the early 1970s that finally brought the parties to the peace table.

Today in Vietnam, and on Kent State's campus, there is peace where paranoia once made war. The memory of the two will be linked forever, representing the bitterest of human lessons: Lives are lost when fear trumps reason.

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