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Vietnam War Refought:
Kent State, 1977, Part I
The 1977 Kent State University gymnasium annex controversy, or "gym struggle," emerged when University plans to take up part of the site of the 1970 student- National Guard confrontation with a gymnasium annex became widely known. The effort to preserve the entire confrontation site was launched by a student- led group called the May 4th Coalition, in the face of the determination of the Kent State administration and Board of Trustees to construct the annex as planned. But the dimensions of the struggle-- its origins, participants, scope, course and outcome-- were much broader than its immediate goal might have implied. In fact, the May 4th Coalition sought to bring before the American public for its serious consideration, during the spring, summer and fall of 1977, some fundamental questions raised by the Viet Nam war and its accompanying domestic unrest.
The gym struggle of 1977 took place in the shadow of the Viet Nam war, the cause and symptom of so many contradictions and divisions within American society for most of a decade. The Viet Nam era, recalls journalist Thomas Powers, "was a terrible time that seemed to go on forever," a period during which polarization, frustration and anguish became the central facts in the lives "of an entire generation."1 Many Americans had great difficulty accepting the reality of the massive destruction wreaked upon Viet Nam in the name of "freedom" (later, "credibility"), and resisted the emerging national realization that the Viet Nam war was not a "mistake" but a disastrous defeat. The legions of antiwar protesters who demonstrated from New York to California between the mid- 1960s and the early 1970s had first told Americans that their country-- one they liked to think of as the hope of the world, modern history's great democratic beacon and peacemaker-- was oppressing a weak, less- developed people for little discernible reason. Later they insisted that America was not "fighting Communism" but obstructing a colonized people's long- term independence struggle, and in the end many antiwar leaders were to contend that America was fighting not to retain its "credibility" but to retain a small but valuable part of its empire. Many in the antiwar movement announced-- some with the support of their parents-- that they would leave the country or go to jail to avoid military service.
Some people were uncomfortable about the Viet Nam war for another reason. They were used to winning wars, going all- out for clear- cut victories. Why wasn't their government doing that in Viet Nam? Shipment upon shipment of troops and equipment went to Viet Nam as the American military commitment to the South Vietnamese government grew through the mid- 1960s, with little subsequent evidence of any real strengthening of the precarious positions of the various regimes in Saigon. America's allies generally failed to help; indeed, some opposed the American position. All of this was very frustrating and, to a great degree, humiliating for many Americans. Americans wanted America to be strong, decisive and magnanimous at the same time. "The war," observes Thomas Powers, "was one of those things that come along once in a generation and call entire societies into question, forcing people to choose between irreconcilables." Some adopted the perspective that enabled Socialist leader Norman Thomas to declare at an antiwar rally in late 1965 that he would "rather see America save her soul than her face" there.2 But in the opinion of others, America was not choosing to display the military will and power necessary to win the war, even if victory required a war with China, or, as Curtis LeMay put it, bombing Viet Nam "back to the Stone Age," or that Viet Nam be destroyed in order to save it. Yet America's military power was unquestionably ruining land and killing people-- many of them civilians-- hardly the results one would have expected from an enterprise conducted by a generous, humane nation.
Thus, the nation experienced isolation and sometimes actual condemnation abroad and a degree of political and spiritual division and anguish at home unknown since the Civil War. The Viet Nam war was not one with which Americans could long comfortably have lived.
During the early stages of the war, antiwar demonstrators seemed, to most Americans, at best to be pacifists too cowardly to do their duty for their country and the Free World, and, at worst, to be unpatriotic, obstructing the war effort and/or taking the side of the enemy. One poll taken in December, 1966, and in July, 1967, revealed that 58 percent of the population could tolerate such rallies and marches if they stayed peaceful, but that fully 40 percent did not believe that Americans possessed even that freedom. Demonstrating, as Jerome Skolnick has pointed out, for such people, clearly meant something quite different than "writing to a congressman or speaking up at a town meeting."3
When it became clear, by early 1968, that the Johnson administration (and the Kennedy administration before it) had consistently lied to the American public about the roots and prospects of the war,4 that public had nowhere to go emotionally, torn as it was between a war it had come to hate, a government that had betrayed its trust and an antiwar movement which did not seem to love its country or wish it to succeed. The accompanying domestic violence exemplified by the assassinations of leaders from Malcolm X to Robert Kennedy, bloody urban riots and the shooting of black students (notably at South Carolina State College at Orangeburg in 1968) had almost become a normal aspect of American life by the end of the decade. The Kerner Commission warned of further explosions in a seriously divided country.
By 1968, enough Americans had expressed their opposition to the war by displaying support for Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy to knock the major proponent of continued fighting, President Johnson, out of the Presidential race. In November, Richard Nixon was elected to succeed Johnson, on a pledge to get the country (justly and honorably, of course) out of Southeast Asia. Nixon was also elected on a pledge to promote "law and order." He spoke, however, of bringing the country together again and a nation weary of war and division accepted the idea with relief:
It was as though in 1968 peace and national unity had been settled upon as the theme for the next four years, and any events that failed to carry out the theme were deprived of their significance and were invisible. Somehow an image had been fixed in place, which mere events could not easily dislodge.5
The violence perpetrated by the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State campus on May 4, 1970, occurred a year and a half after this mood settled over the country. A population irritated through much of 1969 by rebellious students who "seemed intent on prolonging the hated period of 'national division' out of sheer perversity"6 appreciated neither Richard Nixon's Cambodian invasion speech nor the campus explosions that followed it. The relaxed and reassuring language of the early Nixon administration had turned, by April, 1970, into the President's insistence that America must demonstrate its will and credibility to itself and the rest of the world, and that participants in the campus antiwar movement could be characterized as "bums." The speech threw the nation into a tailspin:
Instead of the expected return of the "known and familiar," the nation was experiencing a revival of the alien and weird. In fact, by now the alien and weird had prevailed for so many years that they had almost become the known and familiar.7
The violence at Kent State which left four students dead and nine wounded, one seriously, was not, of itself then, unusual. What was unusual were the circumstances in which the violence took place, the white, middle- class and student identities of the victims, and what was symbolized for the national consciousness by the blood spilled in the center of the campus of a previously obscure Midwestern state university. "Kent State" became the most obvious national symbol of the decade of the polarization, anger, guilt, bitterness, shame and confusion produced by America's tragic and disastrous adventure in Viet Nam.
For seven years after May 4, 1970, the nation lived with the knowledge that its ill- advised war in Southeast Asia had finally caused deaths at home. For seven years, it tried to forget about Kent State, living as best as it could with the broader knowledge (certain by April, 1975) that it had lost the war. Meanwhile, the question of accountability for the deaths at Kent State was pursued on state and national levels, primarily by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the United Methodist Church's Board of Church and Society. At the same time there emerged on the Kent State campus itself what Scott Bills and S.R. Thulin have called the "May 4th Movement,"8 a concerted attempt by students and occasionally by faculty members to keep the ideas, analyses, goals and memories of the antiwar movement and its dead in circulation. Since part of the memory of 1970 remained in the physical location of the Guard- student confrontation-- in the land on which the two groups had skirmished and on which the blood of thirteen students was later shed-- the wooded hill, the football practice field and the parking lot in the middle of the Kent State campus because as much a symbol of antiwar resistance as the emerging tradition of holding annual commem- orative rallies there.
Whether the Kent State administration did or did not think about the ramifications of all this when it decided during the early 1970s to build a gymnasium annex on part of the wooded hill and most of the practice field is open to speculation. What is certain is that, as soon as the plans became known in the fall of 1976, they aroused protest from several student groups concerned about appropriate commemoration of 1970. By May of 1977, when more general student awareness combined with a feeling of University insensitivity to other commemorative requests (such as canceling classes on May 4th or naming buildings after the four dead students), a remarkable degree of energy and resentment was ready and waiting to be galvanized into action.
The result was the formation of the May 4th Coalition, the group which attempted over a five- month period to preserve the entire site of the Kent State confrontation. Unfortunately, victory for the May 4th Coalition-- retention of the May 4th site through relocation of the gymnasium annex-- would almost certainly have required a change in prevailing national attitudes about the Viet Nam war and those who opposed it. The nature of those attitudes has already been detailed. The question is: What forces produced such attitudes and what obstacles did the Coalition face in 1977 while trying to combat them?
The antiwar movement of the 1960s had to break through a web of circumstances, beliefs and assumptions-- some already detailed-- in order to convince a majority of Americans that the war was mistaken or wrong. The Left wing of the movement may eventually have made private (and sometimes public) common cause with the National Liberation Front, the entity against whom the United States was actually fighting most of the time, but such identifications could rarely be publicly made because the "Viet Cong" were the "enemy." Therefore, the movement as a whole concentrated on persuading the public that its government was intervening wrongly and dangerously in a civil war or a war for national liberation, appealing to that part of the American tradition which put Americans on the side of the oppressed underdogs. Since the prevailing ideology taught Americans that war with Viet Nam must be endured to display American will and credibility to the world against Communist challenges, the movement had to persuade them that this was not, in fact, what was at stake in Vietnam-- or that the deaths and destruction American military might was causing there was too high a price to pay to prove such things. The movement had to try to persuade the majority of Americans to stop thinking about national honor in the context of "winning" the war in Viet Nam--or, at least, to re-define it.
In these senses, the antiwar movement was an attempt to break through the hold of Cold War ideology on the majority of American minds. If the Viet Nam war can be seen in good part as an ideologically- based conflict growing only indirectly out of actual material circumstances, the antiwar movement can likewise be seen as an attempt on the ideological plane to change a material situation. Borrowing from the political and social writings of the Italian Leftist Antonio Gramsci, the efforts of the antiwar movement can be characterized as a struggle to counter dominant class ideology ("ideological hegemony") by means of a "war of position," an extended series of challenges to prevailing thought and the presentation of alternative perceptions of reality.9
The question then becomes to what extent this war of position was perceived as such by either the belligerents or the public, to what extent it triumphed and to what extent its pressures brought about a change in war plans or a change in the perceptions of the world that had caused the war in the first place. This question is important because it seeks to discover the extent of counter- cultural penetration to be credited to this kind of struggle during the Viet Nam war era.
The evidence suggests that the gradual change of attitude toward the war on the part of influential media, politically influential intellectuals, mainstream political leaders from both parties, Wall Street corporate executives and even some Pentagon officials that filtered through to the public's consciousness between the fall of 1967 and the spring of 1968 was partly but not wholly brought about by the ideological challenge presented by the antiwar movement. The change was also produced by the progress (or lack of it) of the war itself and by a growing realization that further pursuit of an elusive victory in Viet Nam was likely to exact an unacceptable price in social and political terms potentially threatening to the rule in the nation of what might be called "corporate liberalism."10
The crisis created by the Viet Nam war can be viewed, in Gramscian terms, as a "crisis of the modern state," one which occurs when the dominating class is largely "stripped of its spiritual prestige and power...."11 One might have thought that such a crisis of confidence would create ideal opportunities for the antiwar movement (and the Left in general) to gain a serious audience for its interpretations from intellectuals and the public. The erosion of public and academic confidence in official authority and ideas caused by the course of events in Viet Nam created only the possibility for such a presentation, however. A degree of success would certainly be achieved if the war and its nature could be "demystified" before the nation-- if the nation could at least detach itself from Cold War myths and view the conflict clearly. The antiwar movement was to discover in the process of making this effort, though, just how pervasive and entrenched "corporate liberalism" was in American society.12 Debate about the propriety of the Viet Nam war was taking place overwhelmingly within these boundaries.