WASHINGTON --Whether it is history or nostalgia, or both, news feeds on anniversaries. Last week it was the fall of Saigon 25 years ago. This week it will be the killings at Kent State University in Ohio 30 years ago on May 4, 1970 -- and in my mind that is a far more important event to remember and study.
The first mentions of Kent State that I have seen in this wave of anniversary journalism have treated the "incident" as a tragedy, but it was more than that; it was almost a flashpoint in American history, something like John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.
Four young people were killed and 11 wounded in 13 seconds as National Guardsmen in gas masks fired into a crowd of perhaps 2,000 students protesting the war -- or just watching. The immediate cause of the demonstrations was the invasion of Cambodia five days earlier in an attempt to flush out and destroy communist troops and supplies in sanctuaries inside Cambodia, a neutral country unlucky to be next to South Vietnam.
Kent State was about more than its immediate victims. It ripped open a country that was already divided, and this time it was as much about the young vs. the old as it was about war and dissent. For two nights, a Friday and a Saturday, hundreds of students had surged through the town of Kent, breaking shop windows and then battling with police -- some of the clashes having more to do with beer than war.
The next night, someone set a fire at the school's old wooden ROTC building, which burned to the ground as dancing, cheering students watched. Gov. James Rhodes reacted by calling in troops of the 145th Infantry, Ohio National Guard, saying their mission was to "eradicate the communist element." "Brownshirts ... worse than Brownshirts," Rhodes called the demonstrators, comparing the Kent students with Hitler Youth.
On Monday, about 2,000 of Kent's 20,000 students gathered on campus, some of them cursing and taunting the Guardsmen, men their own age looking otherworldly in gas masks. Thousands more students and others were gathered at a distance, watching the confrontation. The soldiers tried to break up the crowd of demonstrators by firing tear gas. Then the soldiers tried to bluff the students, kneeling in a firing line, with bayonets attached, but did not fire. The troops withdrew to another line on a small hill. This time, the troops did fire.
Tragic. But, this is the point, most Americans thought the Guardsmen were right. They thought the students got what they asked for, what they deserved.
The president of the United States, Richard Nixon, paled when he heard the news, saying: "Is this because of me, of Cambodia?" But then he issued a statement without sympathy: "This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy. It is my hope that this tragic and unfortunate incident will strengthen the determination of all the nation's campuses, administrators, faculty and students alike to stand firmly for the right which exists in this country of peaceful dissent and just as strongly against the resort to violence as a means of such expression."
After the initial shock of the killings at Kent State faded, students themselves became the issue -- and most of the country did not like them, did not like their ingratitude, their arrogance or the way they dressed and cut their hair. In the next Gallup Poll, 58 percent of respondents blamed the students for what happened; only 11 percent said they thought the Guardsmen or public officials were at fault.
This is a sampling of quotes from letters to Time and Life magazines in the next three weeks:
From Alexandria, Va.: "It was a valuable object lesson to homegrown advocates of anarchy and revolution, regardless of age ..."
From Memphis, Tenn.: "They were a part, however passive, of a riotous mob which repeatedly refused to disperse upon the direct orders of a legally constituted authority. ... One might just as well say that a Marxist, shot while robbing a gas station of money with which to further his cause, was killed for his political beliefs."
From San Diego: "The real senseless part of the entire affair was the lawlessness of some 2,000 students out of 20,000 at Kent State, hell-bent on having their own way. ... I was taught that if you violate the law, you must be willing to pay the price. It is against the law to riot ... I for one appplaud the National Guard and police at Kent State."
From Plainfield, N.J.: "How did we get so many brilliant children? ... I am weary of them and their posturing. They are causing more pain to this country than all the wars of history."
That is really the way it was back then. Memory fades; history makes most anything, including ignorance, stupidity and hate, seem more rational and less dangerous than it actually was.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.