We Need to Beat Our Own Swords Into Plowshares and Honor the Kent State Martyrs, the Wounded, and Their Families

Memorial to Jeffrey Miller, taken from approximately the same perspective as John Filo’s 1970 photograph

Following the May 4, 1970 massacre of students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio by members of the Ohio National Guard, colleges and universities across the U.S. were in an uproar that ended in the closing of hundreds of campuses for the academic year and the outrage of millions of students and others across the U.S. Nixon had launched an attack against Cambodia, which had been going on secretly for some time, so his betrayal of his own “secret plan” for peace was a joke as most already knew. Much of the war in Southeast Asia had morphed into a concentrated air war, but thousands of ground troops would still die. Millions in Southeast Asia would die.

Recently, a tempest took place on and off the campus of Kent State after a popular professor and former CIA employee, Professor Stephanie Smith (Common Dreams,“Facing Growing Backlash CIA Veteran Stephanie Smith Steps Down As Chair of Kent State 50th May 4 Commemoration Advisory Committee,” May 23, 2019), was appointed as the chairperson of the university’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the massacre. On its face, the appointment seems more ludicrous than can be imagined, a binding of George Orwell and Lewis Carroll, but a swift reaction headed by Laurel Krause (co-founder of The Kent State Truth Tribunal), the sister of Kent State martyr Allison Krause, included an email campaign that led to the resignation of Smith.

Mike Alewitz, Kent State massacre witness quoted in CounterPunch said that “This appointment is a travesty and an insult to all those that seek social justice,” (CounterPunch, “CIS Veteran to Chair Kent State 50th May 4 Commemoration Advisory Committee,” May 19, 2019).

A former CIA employee being at the helm of the commemoration of the massacre raises a significant question that has not been addressed about this latest debacle in what the massacre means for some and how the massacre has been used by others for various reasons, including monetary gain, power, and notoriety. One observation at the online retailer Amazon sums it up in the ratings section for a publication of one of the many writings that have been published about the massacre over the years. The rater observed that the offering looked like part of a “cottage industry.” There is some truth to that observation.

In fact, the petty quarrels over who gets to carry the ball, control the message of the importance and facts of the massacre at Kent State, or capture the flag that is the history of the Kent State Massacre, is tragic to witness. Not that it amounts to much, as writing on the left opens a journalist to many slings and arrows, but I have been accused of associating with the wrong people by a primary actor in the massacre’s documentation for my association and friendship with Laurel Krause and the author of Four Dead In Ohio, 1995, William Gordon. I recently learned that anti-Semitism has also entered these bizarre machinations, an even stranger development if true, since three of the four martyrs at Kent State were Jewish. Nothing may be sacred, but I do not want to overstate the importance of their religious affiliation because it is unimportant here, but anti-Semitism is of great importance in the contemporary U.S.

Getting back to the CIA, the premier spy agency of the U.S. government: The missing element or connection in all of this is the agency’s horrific and murderous torture and assassination program during the Vietnam War called the Phoenix Program. These are not the modern-day CIA black sites, bad enough in terms of torture, murder, and disappearance, but a history of mass murder in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

The Phoenix Program that the CIA ran in Vietnam with the cooperation of the militaries of the U.S., Australia, and South Vietnam was an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate and weaken the Viet Cong, a primary fighting force of the North Vietnamese government. The murder, rape, assassination and general mayhem of the CIA program made the actions of organized crime in the U.S. look like child’s play. “By 1972 (the war ended in 1975) Phoenix operatives had “neutralized” 81,740 suspected VC operatives, informants and supporters, of whom between 28,000 and [to] 41,000 were killed” ( Alfred McCoy, A question of torture:CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, 2006).

Compiled here is a partial list of CIA interventions. Since this is a secret agency of the U.S. government, the extent and all details of these interventions are unknown, but they all would have been bloody and vicious if the CIA’s known interventions are taken into account as in Chile, Vietnam, Cuba, Indonesia, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Afghanistan, and Iran.

CIA Interventions:  Korea, Iran, Iran, Guatemala, Syria, Indonesia, Congo, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Indochina, Chad, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Somalia, Yugoslavia, and the War on Terror.

The conclusion here is that the CIA conducted and conducts viciously lethal attacks against those who may or may not intend to harm the U.S. Intelligence was tragically lacking in the inability to thwart the attacks of September 2001, and the CIA’s response to its own failures has been viciously violent and without cause in several cases. Iraq alone is a prime example of the latter. These examples are the best argument against selecting anyone with a connection to the CIA to lead the May 4th commemoration at Kent State, even a person who is a superior professor and may have been doing work for the CIA of a professional nature rather than the criminal and illegal (under the rules of war) kind. Tragically, however, even the work of an honorable and professional nature can often lead to mayhem.

I would like to return to what we know about the Kent State Massacre. Several National Guardsmen from Company G that occupied the campus on May 2, 3, and 4, opened fire on unarmed protesters who were countering Richard Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Guardsmen had been called to the campus after someone (or a number of people) had burned the ROTC building to the ground. The Guardsmen opened fire on the students from a hill, killing four and wounding nine, following a clear, verbal order to fire upon the students issued by someone associated with the Guard in a command position (either an officer or noncommissioned officer, or other person in a leadership role). The order to fire is discernible on the Strubbe tape recording (analyzed by forensic sound experts Stuart Allen and Tom Owen at the request of the Cleveland Plain Dealer) recorded from the ledge of a dorm room window above the demonstration. I do not believe that a conspiracy existed before the shooting occurred, but I strongly believe that the Guardsmen who fired on the students agreed to fire in unison either on the practice field below Blanket Hill where the shots were fired, or when they reached the crest of Blanket Hill and turned in unison and fired their weapons.

We know that hate against those who protested the war at Kent State came from high places including the president of the United States, the governor of California, the director of the FBI, and the governor of Ohio, among many, many others.

Laurel Krause was further subjected to unbelievable torment as she stood watch with her family at the hospital where her beloved sister Allison lay dead, hearing some who passed by her say that they, the Guard, should have killed more students.

My experience as a member of the National Guard (not in Ohio), and use of an M-1 rifle as a member of an honor guard (besides training in using a gas mask) leads me to the conclusion that during the antiwar protest, very specific actions had to be followed by the Guard when the lethal effects of their actions are viewed. The Guard unit could not have turned and fired on students in unison from Blanket Hill without a verbal command. It would have been impossible in the noise and turmoil of the occupation and demonstration to have acted in unison without a command.

As the 50th-year commemoration of the massacre approaches, we must beat the swords we harbor in our hearts into plowshares. Militancy in protest does not mean that we abandon decency. The martyrs, Jeff, Allison, Sandy, and Bill would have it no other way. We must put aside the constant backbiting and animosity to honor their memories, the legacy of those wounded, and the students killed and wounded just over a week later at Jackson State. The Vietnam War and empire had come home. “Long live the spirit of Kent State and Jackson State!”


Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).