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Vietnam War Refought:
Kent State, 1977, Part II
The turning point reached on the war in the thinking of official Washington by 1968 was produced by several factors. One was the impact of the antiwar movement. Another was a general desire to withdraw from a chronic cycle of death and destruction which was failing to accomplish original war objectives while causing unprecedented division at home. Still another was the change of heart about the war by a substantial sector of the nation's elite. These people, from Wall Street investment bankers to politicians like Senator Robert Kennedy, came to feel that the United States had better negotiate a settlement in Viet Nam and get out to fight more crucial battles elsewhere and maintain tranquillity at home. Therefore, it can be argued that the change in official Viet Nam policy from commitment and escalation to de- escalation and withdrawal constituted only a partial victory for those antiwar forces which had tried to get Americans to face and analyze what was going on in America's name in Viet Nam. Additionally, neither the language nor the procedure eventually used to withdraw lent themselves easily to challenges of corporate liberalism. Since both American tradition and dominant thought frowned upon-- indeed forbade-- defeat, words and a program had to be found which would redefine the war rather simply as something in which the country ought no longer to be involved. Then it could end its commitment with a minimal amount of revelations or humiliation.13
Richard Nixon was quite successful in these respects with his "Vietnamization" program. Changes were made in official policy, but only within the confines of continued tranquillity at home and a more selective pursuit of Cold War objectives abroad. The new policy was popular because it promised to reduce American physical involvement (allowing the burden of the war's unchanged objectives and casualties to be shifted to the nonwhite Vietnamese) without rejecting any of the culturally-dominant assumptions that had been used for most of a decade to persuade Americans that the war was necessary and justified.14 The Cold War was still alive. The nation still had to maintain its credibility in the face of Soviet and Chinese provocations--including provocations from "proxies" like the Hanoi-supported National Liberation Front. It still had obligations to itself and the Free World to maintain noncommunist regimes like South Viet Nam's and to contain communist aggression.
So Americans could feel pleased when the troops began to come home. So could influential "leaders." If Vietnamization worked, they would have extracted themselves from the Viet Nam morass with minimal ideological losses.
The Cambodian invasion speech of April 30, 1970, and its often-violent aftermath pulled the nation out of its induced complacency. Americans had thought the war was ending, that they would not have to think about it any more. They had also thought the campuses were going to settle down at last, and stop raising so many alien, uncomfortable questions. The sequence of events that began following Nixon's speech and ending May 4th with the thirteen casualties at Kent State threatened to eliminate that supposition. Not only did the speech thrust the war and all its complications back into the minds of the majority, but the violence at Kent State raised such controversial questions as the legitimacy of civil disobedience, the relative value of property versus human life, and the acceptable extent of civil liberties.
Many Americans seemed to be of the opinion, following the shootings, that those who had "rioted" in downtown Kent the night of May 1 and had burned down a World War II barracks on campus (which was being used as a ROTC building) on the night of May 2 (behavior supposedly linked in both cases to student antiwar sentiment) should have been prevented from holding an antiwar, anti-National Guard rally on the Kent State campus on May 4. The fact that different groups of people were involved in varying, not constant degrees throughout the weekend, that the National Guard was already on its way to Kent when the ROTC building was set afire, that the cause of the fire was open to question, and that the May 4th rally itself was a peaceful extension of a May Day anti-Cambodian invasion demonstration until the Guardsmen tried to disperse the crowd all got lost in the whirlwind of media distortions and public turmoil that followed the shootings. Local, state and national officials seemed both to agree with and encourage the collective evaluation that a dozen store windows and a crumbling, oversized campus shed were more important and more worthy of public concern and protection than the right to peaceably assemble or the rights of four young Kent students to live.
The nation had not cared particularly about the shootings of black students at Orangeburg two years before. It cared equally little about the shootings at Jackson State ten days after the carnage of May 4th. But Kent State had, after all, involved materially comfortable white students and it involved a culturally unacceptable reaction to a war the nation was trying to forget. Therefore, the conjunction of limited traditional assumptions with a sort of collective war trauma suggested that "Kent State" was to remain a thorn in the nation's side.15
Until 1970, white students on middle-class campuses had been able to function with a degree of cultural and political freedom unknown in other settings around the country. Much of their behavior was neither understood nor approved of by other, more constricted Americans. When the shootings at Kent State occurred, some Americans were appalled to see that the repressive hand of the government had reached beyond its usual racial and occupational targets to new victims, but many more seemed pleased and reassured that the incident showed that no spoiled young intellectual upstart was beyond the reach of Richard Nixon's "law and order." Maybe President Johnson had lied to the nation about the war, but official judgment ought usually to be respected. Perhaps the invasion of Cambodia had not been a good idea, but rioting and burning down buildings to protect it were irresponsible, immoral, outrageous, and generally un-American activities.
The circumstances that produced "Kent State," 1970, arose from a maze of contradictions and long-term economic, political and ideological problems of national scope. Since there were no visible alternatives to such contradictions available, the nation tried to forget about Kent State as quickly as possible. It felt much of the same frustration, embarrassment, shame and confusion about the event that it did about the wider issue of the war. A national focus on Kent State would have brought back to the fore of the nation's consciousness all the questions of the Viet Nam era about the nature of American society, questions that really could not have been fully answered unless prevalent Viet Nam era assumptions were pushed aside.
The struggle of the May 4th Coalition during the spring, summer and fall of 1977 to preserve the physical location of the confrontation of 1970 was, thus, more than a student effort to preserve a site of some local interest or an environmental effort to question the land-use philosophy of Kent State University. It was more than an effort to question the University's commitment to student involvement in University decision-making. It was, in a broader sense, a struggle to counter culturally-dominant versions of the history and nature of the Viet Nam war era. If one believed that the four students who died at Kent State should be honored as representatives of the conscience of the nation to purge the country of its guilt and its accumulation of officially-imposed assumptions, one made an effort to preserve the area of the shootings that year--or, at least, expressed sympathy with the struggle. If one believed that Viet Nam could have been retained for the Free World, that the Kent State casualties had been rioters who had deserved their fate, or even that the events of the day had been a tragedy ultimately the responsibility of no one, one saw no reason to honor anything connected with 1970, or to preserve either its physical or symbolic memory.
Both sides involved in the gym struggle of 1977 (and various groups and individuals caught in between) saw it as a larger quarrel than it might first have appeared to be. Individuals involved on both sides as partisans recognized what the significance might be of building--or not building--a structure on part of the Kent State battlefield of 1970. In this sense, the gym struggle was not only an attempt to keep a historic site clear, but an effort to raise once again the challenges to official reasoning about the wars abroad and at home during the Viet Nam era--official reasoning still largely accepted by the public even if largely abandoned by 1977 by significant portions of the media, the academic and even the political communities. The May 4th Coalition spent five months in 1977 waging what Gramsci would have called a "war of position," a battle to counter on a cultural and ideological front beliefs and assumptions imposed upon and then accepted by the American public concerning the Viet Nam war era through the agency of public diffusion. What, then, of the course of this struggle?
The May 4th Coalition was born during an all-night occupation of the Kent State University Administration Building on May 4-5, 1977. The occupation followed the seventh annual commemorative May 4th rally, during which several speakers had urged that the crowd do something tangible to protest the states plans of the Administration and the Board of Trustees to construct a gymnasium annex on part of the site of the 1970 confrontation. The University always insisted that the construction plans did not affect the integrity of the 1970 site because none of the casualties or fatalities had been standing on ground to be included in the annex. The Coalition insisted that technicality was not entirely true--Dean Kahler, when wounded, had been standing on a section of the football practice field scheduled to be included in the construction and Jeffrey Miller, when killed, had been standing in a roadway scheduled to become part of an access road for the annex. In addition to that, "the May 4th site," for the Coalition, was larger than the site as defined by the University; while the University spoke of the site as little more than Prentice parking lot, where most of the blood of 1970 had actually been shed, the Coalition's May 4th site included the entire area on which the National Guard and Kent State students had skirmished: in this case, the Commons, the parking lot, the football practice field behind the current gym and the wooded hill behind Taylor Hall from which the Guard had fired. Whether the University really defined the site narrowly or did so during 1977 only to suit its own convenience--in rationalizing its construction plans, the gap between University and Coalition site definitions virtually guaranteed that the two sides would spend much of 1977 simply talking past each other.
The power of suggestion, at any rate, proved potent, as a number of participants in the rally ended up that evening in the Administration Building, refusing to leave until they had a meeting with KSU President Glenn Olds. Even after the meeting, however (which was civil but indecisive), the crowd was reluctant to leave and ultimately decided to remain in the building while it organized itself into a group to continue and coordinate opposition to the annex site, among other, lesser demands, like amnesty for building occupants.
For the next week or so, the group discussed the most appropriate and effective ways to save the May 4th site, as it defined it. Having come to a consensus as to what should and could be done--especially to make a powerful, nonviolent and effective public statement--the Coalition made its move on May 12th. After attempting in vain to convince the Board of Trustees to change its mind about the site location, Coalition members proceeded to the wooded hill in danger of destruction. There, they set up an indefinite sit-in and site expropriation with tents and other camping equipment, to last at least until such time as the Board of Trustees changed its mind and decided to build the annex elsewhere. They named the little settlement Tent City.
The Tent City period of the May 4th Coalition's life was its longest and most successful, lasting for slightly over two months. During this period, the Coalition worked from a physical base, and received its greatest sympathy from the media, local and national. Although a few area right-wingers wrote nasty letters to newspapers resuscitating old assertions of violence in 1970 from student and non-student rioters and threatening tax action against the University if it failed to take action to stop the most recent disruptions,16 most people in the area either failed to express opinions at all or somehow indicated some degree of understanding of the Coalition's position. Mostly, the public was silent, with columnists and editorial writers filling in the gap with combinations of real sympathy for the Coalition's position and more complicated expressions of desire that something be done to settle the annex question before the questions and general level of disruption raised by the controversy got too bothersome.17
The Glenn Olds administration was not, on the one hand, at all happy about the presence of about 70 tents and perhaps 200 men, women and children on KSU's Blanket Hill. Nor was it happy about the publicity being generated, especially by such veterans of 1970 as Alan Canfora (wounded in the wrist) and Greg Rambo (a Young Republican eyewitness to the shootings later radicalized by them). Less militant but just as radical were leaders like Nancy Grim, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of KSU in 1977. This latter group may have been more interested than the militants in making sure that all views got aired at the nightly Coalition meetings at Tent City, but they were just as committed to a major acknowledgment by the University that the importance of 1970 needed to be honored (among other things) by leaving the May 4th site alone.
President Olds seems to have found, on the other hand, a certain charm, even quaintness, about Tent City, just as did area reporters who came there to do stories about it and its occupants. There also must have been some reassurance to Olds in the earnestness of the settlers' commitments to maintain the grass, their nightly town meetings, and their rule banning smoking, alcohol and drugs from the area. (One could also add, somewhat more cynically, that Olds could afford not to worry too much about the indefinite tenure of Tent City, since he planned to move to Alaska later in the summer to take up the Presidency of Alaska Methodist University.)18
During the two months of Tent City, the Coalition experienced its greatest unity and impact. Yet even then, it was becoming evident that its support was wide but not deep--and also that factions were appearing within it whose activities were to prove counterproductive to attaining its stated goals later in the summer. The factions ranged from militants who described the disruptions of 1970 with patent historical falsity as a "student-worker uprising," and who insisted that the University had deliberately chosen the annex site to literally "cover up" the area and memory of the shootings, to liberals hoping that an annex stupidly or insensitively planned could be relocated before any of the Coalition's (or outside) radical troublemakers got any further with their analyses and general pushiness. In between were a variety of socialists and anarchists (plus counter-culturalists) who more simply wanted the injustice of the war and the shootings acknowledged and the beauty of the hill preserved, though a number of them also believed that the University had planned the annex to cover part of the May 4th site deliberately. Militants like Canfora and Rambo have already been mentioned. Liberals included Dr. Dennis Carey, acting head of KSU's official 1970 memorial, the Center for Peaceful Change, and his wife, Marie. What might be called "moderates" included KSU students and alumni such as Bill Arthrell, Nancy Grim and Jonathan Smuck. Philosophical differences were often reflected in tactical struggles, as the emerging factions tried to outmaneuver each other in Coalition votes.19
The issue of Coalition support was just as serious. In the first place, education was carried out largely through media interviews. Coalition members such as Fatimah Abdullah wondered if grassroots (door-to-door) efforts would be more effective and democratic, but this seems never to have been tried. It is only fair to note, of course, that most current mainstream political campaigners also rely almost entirely on media interviews and advertising rather than personal campaigning to relay their messages to the public. That only emphasizes, however, the problem of superficial, if not sensational news being made available to the public as a substitute for more substantial information.
Tent City came to an end on July 12, 1977, as the result of a court order. While the University had sought a simple injunction ordering the Coalition to dismantle Tent City and vacate the site to allow annex construction to begin, the judge apparently felt that the Coalition's case merited a hearing. Therefore, the Coalition was ordered to vacate the area, but the judge also put the University under an order: to delay construction for ten days until a full hearing could be held before him.
This presented the Coalition with a dilemma. It tried to decide, at a mass meeting the night of the court decision, whether to accept the order to abandon Tent City and await the hearing or to insist on remaining there until physically removed by police. While a sizable minority felt that the Coalition should go along with the order and hope for the best at the hearing, the majority ultimately voted to resist the order and make a stand on the hill. For those people, retention of Tent City had clearly become more important than tactical considerations tied to the judge's possible future decisions.20
Early on the morning of July 12, 193 people, including the entire Canfora family and the parents of 1970 fatality Sandy Scheuer, were peacefully led, dragged or carried down Blanket Hill to buses waiting to take them to the county jail for processing on contempt charges. While the arrests made national--even international--news and created a great deal of sympathy for the Coalition all the way to the White House, the fact was that Tent City was gone, the Coalition had lost its physical base and faced a very uncertain future. The fact that local Congressman John Seiberling, Senator Howard Metzenbaum and Jimmy Carter aide Midge Costanza expressed willingness to help the Coalition did not alter these realities.
The ten days passed, the hearing came and went and the judge decided that there was no legal obstacle preventing the KSU Board of Trustees from locating the annex as it saw fit. The Coalition's case was probably not helped by the fact that a number of members temporarily re-occupied the site during a rally held the weekend before the hearing; there would be a third site foray leading to a second mass arrest (of 62 people, in addition to about a dozen in jail through arrest warrants for the briefer action) the night before construction was due to begin.
Early on a sultry morning in late July, earthmovers arrived at the annex construction site. There was no one present to block them and few to observe; most Coalition members were either asleep or still in jail and were not even aware that construction had formally begun. The machines actually scraped turf unimpeded for several hours before a sudden court hearing on the Coalition's behalf engineered by William Kunstler at the federal level prompted a federal judge to issue an order delaying construction again. This decision was to lead to a series of negotiations, further hearings and appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court that were to delay a real start of annex construction until mid-September.
One of the great ironies about the dominant rhetoric of the Coalition throughout late July, August and early September was that it credited the advances of the struggle to mass activity. Even a few of the young, radical lawyers working in the courts for the Coalition spoke this way, apparently agreeing with the interpretation of the two Maoist groups which came to dominate the Coalition during this period, the Revolutionary Student Brigade (RSB) and the Communist Youth Organization (CYO). Yet it was not "mass activity"--on the part of the 200 or so people in the Coalition or the mass of the public to whom it never really spoke--that was responsible for the Coalition's successes during this period, but legal action by sympathetic lawyers and the efforts of local, state and federal politicians to negotiate in the Coalition's behalf.
The intervention, following the July 12 arrests, of White House aide Costanza could have been interpreted somewhat cynically as the effort of Jimmy Carter's White House to diffuse the controversy at Kent State before it spread. The related effort to save the site by placing it on the National Register of Historic Sites, endorsed by Costanza, was nevertheless real, as was the effort made by John Begala, Kent's state assemblyman, to get an agreement from the Board of Trustees to seek funds from the Ohio legislature to move the annex about 40 feet downhill from its original location (the so-called "rotation" proposal). Little as such liberals as Costanza and Begala may have liked the ultra-radical and increasingly anti-democratic turn of the Coalition during this period--not to speak of its original analysis of the war era--(and perhaps because of the former problem), they understood the reasons for the group's formation, sympathized with them, and tried to obtain a compromise that would at least keep most of the 1970 site clear.
Alas, even these attempts were to fail. The site, it seemed, could not be placed on the National Register because it was under fifty years old. (One might have wondered, at the time, whether a waiver of this requirement was possible and, if it was not, why so much energy had been put into a useless effort.) The federal courts could find no Constitutional basis to support the Coalition's case against the University--whatever the moral strength of it, it was not reflected in existing law--and the main judge involved, Federal District Judge Thomas Lamros, could get neither the Coalition nor the Trustee negotiating team to agree to some kind of compromise. Neither could John Begala get anywhere with either side to even begin to try to obtain relocation funds from the Legislature. The Trustees insisted that the annex be constructed as planned and the Coalition team insisted that it be moved completely away from the May 4th site. The other option presented by Begala, remodeling the old KSU lab school to accommodate the needs of the annex, was attacked so violently by Coalition-supporting parents with children there that Begala was obliged to drop it quickly as a possibility.21
By mid-September, all avenues of appeal had been exhausted and all the Coalition had left was empty announcements about mass resistance being planned when and if construction machinery actually arrived. Even at the high point of the gym struggle, only 193 people--not thousands--had been willing to submit to peaceful and probably safe arrest, raising questions as to how many people could be expected for the more dangerous task of blocking construction machinery. In the end, in fact, no one did. One courageous member of KSU's student government buried herself in the earth to block machinery already on the site from digging. (She was shortly pulled out after a close encounter with decapitation.) Perhaps a dozen people attempted to chase after the machinery as it came in the first full day of construction. Two or three dozen more watched helplessly on top of Blanket Hill as bulldozers ripped out trees to clear the site for the building. On that day of final defeat for the Coalition, neither the two largely imported Maoist groups nor most of the original campus Coalition leadership was actually present at the side to resist as they had long vowed they would. Neither were they busy on any door-to-door campaign, though some may have been working on leaflets announcing the next Coalition rally. But even if the Coalition had remained pragmatic and moderate, worked on intensive education and tried to work with such friends as John Begala, it would probably have lost its struggle: the revival of memory about the war and the shootings involved in its quest would still probably have proved too much for the public and a stubborn Board of Trustees. Judging from letters to editors during that period, the Coalition was drawing little sympathy by then.22