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Vietnam War Refought:
Kent State, 1977, Part III
It does not often take large numbers of people to start a movement, to conduct struggles. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset has written of a "critical mass," a human activist equivalent of the atomic phenomenon, which sets off events that only later involve large numbers of people. This is hardly a reassuring theory for those who contend that history is always made by the masses, but it seems to be supported by the facts. Most people at most times simply lack the time and energy to give sustained effort to political activity. Those who did have both time and energy are credited by Lipset in one of his studies of 1960s campus radicalism for first having raised important social issues and then having drawn large numbers of students, primarily involved in classes and social activities, at least temporarily into political life.
Thus, a pattern emerges from a study of the antiwar and New Left activity of the 1960s, the crisis of 1970 and the rise of the "May 4th Movement" at Kent State culminating in the May 4th Coalition-led gym struggle of 1977. Over a period of perhaps twelve years, relatively small groups of people brought issues to the attention of the majority.
Many 1960s antiwar activists came to believe that the Viet Nam war was not a mistake but a deliberate attempt by a loosely-knit but powerful coalition that controlled the U.S. to retain a small but highly-regarded part of its empire, fueled by Cold War ideology. It followed, then, that the real cause of the Kent State shootings had been the desire of the Nixon administration to suppress domestic objections to its Viet Nam policy so that it could have more of a chance of successfully retaining Viet Nam for the capitalist world.
Many in the antiwar and May 4th movements drew such conclusions; others did not. The antiwar movement of the 1960s was a broad and diverse coalition and many in it could agree that the war in Viet Nam was illegal and immoral without seeing it as a struggle to save Viet Nam for the capitalist world. For seven years after the Kent State shootings, many liberals, for instance, struggled for accountability for the deaths and injuries of 1970, not because of the economic and political ramifications of the event perceived by radicals, but from a deep sense that human rights on that occasion had been denied.
Liberals and radicals came together in the May 4th Movement, and more particularly in the May 4th Coalition during the gym struggle of 1977, as they had during the 1960s to end the Viet Nam war. They shared the belief that there must be accountability for 1970 and that the May 4th site ought to remain intact as a historical reminder and as human memorial.
The small group of people which began the struggle against annex construction constituted a "critical mass" which organized and mobilized support to preserve the May 4th site. Different people had different reasons for joining both the critical mass and the Coalition, however. These reasons ranged from the broadly liberal belief that Kent State 1970 had been a tragedy and that the dead and injured should be memorialized to the radical belief that Kent State had been an example of suppression of opposition to imperialism. A good many radicals hoped that in the course of the struggle to save the site, the public would gradually see the ramifications of Viet Nam and Kent State for American society and would become ready both to accept and participate in radical action. There were also those apolitical and countercultural people primarily interested in anarchism and environ-mentalism who were opposed to the annex location because the site was beautiful and/or because the unresponsiveness of the Trustees symbolized for them the hierarchical and unaccountable nature of contemp-orary American society, though political Coalition members and nonanarchists also shared such concerns. Such varied attitudes toward Coalition goals were bound to affect the strategy and tactics of the "critical mass" as it tried to mobilize mass support for annex relocation.23
The struggle that developed within the Coalition between moderates and militants was in part a disagreement over the tactics most appropriate for the mobilization of mass support and in part a struggle based on different goals. Until July 12, such differences presented no major problems for the Coalition, even the marathon arrest debate ending in a display of unity. Once removed from its physical and community base at Tent City, however, the Coalition was bound to encounter more trouble holding itself together. This problem was only exacerbated by the rise of the Coalition's Maoist bloc, the evident refusal of the public to be influenced by the calls from the White House, some politicians and the media for compromise, and by the sheer stubbornness of the Board of Trustees. (The degree of official response to the Coalition may have made the public wonder why the group increasingly proclaimed the existence of a closed system.) If the Coalition had only had to grapple with the problem of convincing the liberal community of the justice of its case, the gym struggle of 1977 might well have ended with annex relocation. But the Coalition was confronted with apathy and often hostility in the public which it lacked the means to overcome during the controversy.24
Neither the antiwar movement nor the "May 4th Movement," the most important component of which was the May 4th Coalition of 1977, was successful in gaining public acceptance of radical interpretations of the Viet Nam war or May 4, 1970. The antiwar movement did succeed in gaining a public support for a liberal interpretation of the war, however, a feat which the more narrowly-based Coalition was unable to match. Certainly if the Coalition was not going to persuade the public that the Kent State shootings needed to be memorialized by saving the site--even with the help of the media--it was not going to succeed even to the extent that the antiwar movement had. Yet the success of the antiwar movement on only a liberal level caused part of the Coalition's problems, just as the attempts of many of the leaders of 1977 to operate only on a radical level created serious difficulties for the Coalition.
The very traditions and intelligence that told the antiwar movement and some people in the May 4th Coalition at what levels they should speak to be comprehensible to the public worked against any basic emphases on radical analyses. The more these groups were able to communicate the existence of certain problems in comprehensible, everyday terms, the less likely it became that fundamental, thus-far largely alien and incomprehensible explanations would emerge. The very willingness of a number of influential liberals within the political, academic, and journalistic communities to respond, for instance, to the issue of the annex site in 1977, whether it was presented by Coalition moderates or militants, discouraged the acceptance of radical arguments made by the Coalition as a whole that the site decision was the result of a plot engineered by a closed, conspiracy-prone system to suppress memories and insult the dead.25
Media figures, liberal academics, and some politicians had gained enough perspective on the Viet Nam era by 1977 to have some sympathy with the Coalition's position. It was the public that seemed unwilling to grapple with the issues of the Viet Nam war and Kent State 1970/1977. The three mechanisms by which public sentiment could be gauged--letters to editors, letters to legislators and polls--showed a consistent majority arrayed against the Coalition. The hostility became more obvious as the summer progressed, options narrowed and the Coalition moved left. Much of the public apparently felt threatened by the activities of the Coalition and also by the prospect of revival of painful and alien history which it wished to ignore or forget.
So as the public exercised its informal vote by pressure to leave the annex where it was, legislature and government seem to have decided that it would be too risky to try to circumvent the expressed will of the Trustees, and the Board got its annex where it wanted it. One could call this outcome an exercise in democracy, if the use of that term did not presuppose independent thought and evaluation as the necessary grounding for votes.
In 1977, the May 4th Coalition took advantage of the contradictions it encountered--the sympathy of liberals, the media, academicians, politicians and judicial figures--to successfully delay for almost two and a half months the onset of construction. The Coalition succeeded in these delaying tactics without being heard seriously by the public, however. Nor was the Coalition able to wage the sort of successful war of position that would have gained public acceptance of the radical view of both the Viet Nam war and Kent State 1970, partly because the public only agreed with the liberal interpretation of the Vietnam War (and largely disagreed with the liberal interpretation of 1970) and partly because the common ground on which Coalition leaders and sympathetic liberals approached the public on the annex question was too superficial to lend itself to some kind of ideological breakthrough.
The May 4th Coalition lost its battle to preserve the site of the Guard-student confrontation at Kent State of May 4, 1970, essentially because it failed to make itself an efficient enough critical mass to engineer a successful challenge of culturally-dominant assumptions and assertions about what the Viet Nam war, the antiwar movement and Kent State meant to the nation. The group made a considerable effort to accomplish this, however, and a remarkable number of influential Americans responded to it on some level, even if the public at large did not. The Coalition needed to create a sympathetic counterculture to win its battle; the efforts to create one after 1970 and during the Tent City phase of the gym struggle were too small-scale to help in the end.
The Coalition did bring back before the public the issues of Viet Nam and Kent State 1970--even if that public failed to respond to the issues. It set an example of activism in the midst of the apathetic 1970s. The publicity it helped to generate for the uncompleted story of Kent State may well have influenced the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in its decision to order a new trial for Kraus v. Rhodes--one which ended in an out-of-court settlement in 1979, at least providing the May 4th families with compensation and an apology from the state. The energy and commitment of the Coalition's legal collective set an example for the May 4th Movement, even if its words and behaviors were often contradictory. And the experience gained during the course of the gym struggle by the more thoughtful men and women of the May 4th Coalition was bound to guide them later in other, broader struggles for social justice and change.
1 Thomas Powers, The War at Home: Vietnam and the American People, 1964-1968 (New York: Grossman) 1973: xviii, xix.
2 Ibid.: 141.
3 New York Times, 28 Nov 1965, as quoted in Powers: 92.
4 Harris Poll, 20 Jun 1968, as cited in Jerome H. Skolnick, The Politics of Protest (New York: Simon and Schuster) 1969: 23. Skolnick's evaluation of the poll can be found on pages 22-23.
5 For varied recountings of official deceptions about Viet Nam, see Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (New York: Vintage) 1972; David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire (New York: Random House) 1964; Townsend Hoopes, The Limits of Intervention (New York: David McKay) 1969; Thomas Powers, op. cit.; Herbert Y. Schandler, The Unmaking of a President: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam (Princeton University Press) 1977; and Jonathan Schell, The Time of Illusion (New York: Vintage) 1975. Related revelations concerning the doctoring of Viet Nam war statistics by the Pentagon--despite the protests of the CIA--were made during Mike Wallace's The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception (CBS Reports, 23 Jan 1982).
6 Schell, op. cit.: 50.
7 Ibid.: 35.
8 Ibid.: 73.
9 See Thomas D. Matijasic and Scott Bills, "The People United: A Tentative Commentary on the Kent State Struggle, 1977," Left Review 2:1 (Fall, 1977): 10-35; and S.R. Thulin, "Introduction: May 4, 1980," in Scott Bills, ed., Kent State: Ten Years After (Kent, OH: Kent Left Studies Forum) 1980: 1-2. This booklet was a special issue of Left Review 4:2 (Spring, 1980).
10 Gramsci presents his conception of the "war of position" in "State and Civil Society," Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans., Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers) 1971: 238-239. Chantal Mouffe elaborates upon it in "Hegemony and Ideology in Gramsci," in Chantal Mouffe, ed., Gramsci and Marxist Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan, Paul) 1979: 198. Gramsci observes in "The Modern Prince," Selections...: 184, that historical crises producing wars of position for the triumph of an alternative (socialist) ideology are by no means always economic and may emerge from a number of other circumstances. Carl Boggs, in Gramsci's Marxism (London: Pluto Press) 1976, gives a good summary of the conditions and processes Gramsci saw as necessary for the production of a "war of position" and the successful construction of a "counter-hegemonic" ideology and culture on pages 40-41, 60.
11 Gramsci expresses the opinion, in "Americanism and Fordism," Selections...: 285-286, that American culture has had so little carryover from aspects of the European past (like feudalism), that there has been nothing to block the development of pervasive capitalist habits and ideology. Boggs, op. cit., expands on this theory when he asserts (51) that liberalism and "corporate rationality" are so tied together in American minds and behavior that both are aspects of "Americanism." This has meant that class conflicts taking political forms in Europe are non-political in the United states: 52.
12 Boggs, op. cit., quoting Gramsci: 41; Gramsci, "State and Civil Society," Selections....: 275-276.
13 Boggs, op. cit., quoting Gramsci: 40-41; Gramsci, "State and Civil Society," Selections....: 25.
14 Powers, op. cit.
15 Gramsci describes the element of danger present in "a general crisis of the State" (applied in this study to Viet Nam), in which disorganization among classes and a struggle by the dominant class to regain its control over events are to be expected ("State and Civil Society," Selections....: 210-221). The dominant class, he says, normally reorganizes faster than its opponents, switches men and policies and regains its dominant role--albeit with some sacrifice. This was clearly the case in 1967 and 1968.
16 This idea emerges to some extent in J. Anthony Lukas, Don't Shoot: We Are Your Children (New York: Random House) 1971. For a more extensive exploration of the concept, see author's "The Legacy of 1970," in Bills, ed., op. cit.: 26-28.
17 Letter from Richard Larlham to Kent-Ravenna Record-Courier (13 Jun 1977).
18 See Kent-Ravenna Record-Courier (14, 17 Jun 1977).
19 See Daily Kent Stater (3 Jun 197).
20 This information was taken from interviews conducted by Miriam R. Jackson with Nancy Grim (13 Mar 1981); Dave Perusek (2 May 1981); Jonathan Smuck (7 Jan 1981) and Marie Carey (21 May 1981).
21 Interview conducted by Miriam R. Jackson with Fatimah Abdullah (Eve Rosen Morris), 18-19 Aug 1981.
22 Author's recollections of arguments. The author argued against immediate arrest. See Chronicle of Higher Education, (18 Jul 1977), for an account of the meeting. Also see Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1980. Chapter Four ("Organizational Crisis, 1965") has a helpful description of the "Old Guard" conflict with "Prairie Power." Chapter Six ("Inflating Rhetoric and Militancy") has several examples of the ways in which Left-wing groups occasionally fail to distinguish between radicalism and militancy.
23 For background on the site study and Costanza, author's interview with John Adams, 24 Nov 1981. On Ohio voters' attitudes, also see background from Adams interview. Analysis of judicial attitudes is drawn from author's interviews with Chris Stanley and Terry Gilbert (18 Aug 1981), Carter Dodge (18 Aug 1981) and David Luban (1 Nov 1981). As a matter of fact, the tiny Spartacus Youth League condemned the Coalition for having resorted to any kind of court action as a sellout to capitalists. Chris Stanley (interview) emphasized that the Coalition, not lawyers, should have been primary during the gym struggle, in terms of grassroots organizing work. Also see Akron Beacon Journal, Cleveland Press, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Record-Courier, 19 Aug 1977. For University School proposal, see Record-Courier, 23-25 Aug 1977; Akron Beacon Journal, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 25 Aug 1977. All interviews from author's dissertation, We Shall Not Be Moved: A Study of the May 4th Coalition and the Kent State University Gymnasium Controversy of 1977 (Purdue University, 1982).
24 A summary of this information was relayed to the author by an aide to Ohio State Representative Michael Stinziano during a visit to Kent in mid-August of 1977. Later letters to newspaper editors like the one from Joseph T. Gajdos to the Record-Courier (5 Oct 1977) contained similar amounts of hostility. Gajdos letter was headlined, Horsewhip Kent gym protesters.
25 Lipset, op. cit., especially pages xiv-xvi. Similar focusing on the role of what might be called (with apologies to David Halberstam) the best and the brightest appears in Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York: Random House) 1973, and Milton Viorst, Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s (New York: Simon and Schuster) 1979.