Four Dead in Ohio

Photograph Source: David Wilson – CC BY 2.0

If you are old enough, you will recognize that snippet from a song by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  If not, I am here to tell you that on May 4, 1970, four students were shot to death by members of the Ohio National Guard on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio.  Nine others were wounded.

The students weren’t doing anything wrong. Actually, they were doing something right. They were peacefully assembled to protest the U.S. war on Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia.  They were part of an eruption of nationwide campus protests that followed President Nixon’s announcement that the United States had launched a bombing offensive of Cambodia.

I was myself a draft resister and a war protester at the time. But I wasn’t at Kent State or any other campus. I was not even in the United States. I was in a tiny village just south of Hanoi in northern Viet Nam.  I was a member of a four-person delegation of peace activists.

Starting in 1965, people-to-people-diplomacy groups went routinely to see for ourselves what the war looked like from the “other side.”  From 1965 until the war ended in 1975, about 200 Americans joined such delegations.

Of course, there were those who branded us traitors and accused us of siding with the enemy.  I never felt that way.  I was against the war because, among other things, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that the Vietnamese were my enemy.

To this day, I remember the troubled and sad demeanor of our Vietnamese hosts when they informed us of the Kent State killings.  In a very powerful way, it brought home the truth that the Vietnamese held no animosity toward the U.S. people.

They were the invaded country being massively assaulted with chemical weapons and the biggest bombing campaign in history. And, yet,  despite everything the U.S. war machinery was doing to dehumanize them,  they mostly did not respond in kind.

I have thought many times about that somber moment in that village over the years.  Looking back, it seemed that the Vietnamese understood better than our group how the Kent State murders would prove to be a turning point.  They were right.  When I got back home, many people I had previously known as fence sitters had become adamantly opposed to the war.

Sadly, many who participated in antiwar activities have since developed an inferiority complex about our huge and important movement.

At a 2017 Ann Arbor screening preview of his upcoming PBS series about the war, filmmaker Ken Burns asked the soldiers in the audience who had served to stand and be acknowledged.  They did so, to considerable applause.

Ever the troublemaker, I then stood up and shouted as loud as I could that I was a proud veteran of the antiwar movement. An embarrassed silence ensued from Mr. Burns and the audience.

That’s not surprising. The celebration of war and aggression is deeply rooted in our history and culture. And the fourth branch of the government, the Pentagon, together with its allies remain engaged in a decades-long effort to belittle the broad and deep opposition to the war on Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia.

Their campaign hasn’t worked on me. I am as opposed to U.S. militarism as I ever was. So, of course, every May 4th is a sad day.

But those memories also provide a potent and inspiring call to action: Our nation once gave birth to a peace movement so powerful that even white protestors were shot in an effort to stop it.

If our nonviolent movement was that strong once, it can be so again.

It won’t be easy.  Building peace is difficult anyplace but especially so in the United States.  Before Viet Nam and since Viet Nam the U.S. military has invaded many counties and killed millions of people with little opposition.  Clearly the struggle against the Viet Nam invasion was an historical aberration.

Ours is a warrior nation.  Always has been.  We are taught from an early age to take pride in the revolutionary war that created our country in the first place.  Our first General was our first President.

We learn the stories about how the Winchester rifle wielding pioneers won the West.  Our Civil War killed as many as one million souls.  And left us with deep animosity that persists to this day.

Throughout our culture,  from Civil War reenactors to movies and sporting events,  we venerate war and military service.  Of course, we worship guns too.  I had to smile recently when I saw the early Covid 19 pictures of people lined up at gun stores.

Well,  of course,  I thought.  We have been trained for centuries to think that whether it is Native people,  civil rights activists,  elementary school students and teachers,  antiwar protestors or even presidents (Lincoln,  Garfield,  McKinley,  Kennedy)—there is no problem that can’t be shot to death.  (For most anything else,  we have an abiding faith that there can be a pill or an injection.)

War is also our national go-to metaphor.  War on poverty.  War on Drugs.  War on Coronavirus.  War on everything except,  of course,  war itself.

It’s obvious that if you love war,  you also have to love the whole idea of having enemies. We do very well at that too.  That’s one reason sixty-three million people are so loyal to Donald Trump who wallows in enemy creation.  No enemy in sight?  No problem.  Invent one or several.

Historically,  enemies,  both foreign and domestic,  are preferably people of  color.  Which is part of what made the Kent State shootings such a shock.  Later in the month of May,  1970 two black students were killed and others wounded on the campus of Jackson State college in Jackson,  Mississippi.  In August of 1970, four Chicanos were killed and others wounded at a huge protest in Los Angles.

To this day,  Kent State gets far more attention than either Jackson State or the deaths at the Chicano march.  Same as it ever was.  White lives matter more.

White lives mattering more was a big factor in my opposition to the war as being racist in the first place.  Many observed that the casualty rate in Viet Nam was disproportionality higher for soldiers of color.

Far fewer took note of the significance of slaughtering people of color because they were “communists,”  while having a cold war against “communists” who were white.  Equally important,  this extended a pattern that went back to the very origins of the United States.

Here’s how I put it in an essay published in 1969.

The settling of the West did not stop at the Pacific Ocean, but continued on to Hawaii, the Philippines, Samoa (still called American Samoa), Japan, China and ultimately Viet Nam. Many of the same generals who fought to the Pacific also fought in the early Pacific campaigns. And although the reasons for expansion changed as the nation became industrialized, the process of expansion is so inexorable that the United Stated has never had any “foreign policy” whatsoever, at least regarding the Pacific.

United States Pacific and Asian involvement is, perhaps more obviously than is usually the case, simply an extension of domestic policy. In this sense, the United States is in Viet Nam because it is in California.

(Emphasis added. THE NEW LEFT—A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS,  Priscilla Long Editor,  Porter Sargent Publisher, p 130 )

I would not write that exactly the same way today.  But the essential idea of the US as perpetual conquistadors certainly remains the same.  Clearly, however,  that perspective remains a minority point of view.  Those of us who share it have failed,  so far at any rate,  to prevail in “the marketplace of ideas.”

The resistance to the expansionist/imperialist analysis has two big components.  One is that the white way of thinking is designed to organize everything in fragments.  The connecting of dots is discouraged.  Any flaw,  deviation or imperfection in foreign or domestic policy is always happening for the first time.  Or even if it has happened before,  it’s portrayed as the result of discreet factors of that time and circumstance.

The second factor is that any acknowledgement of the role of settler colonialism or the importance of slavery as the foundation of the Republic is frowned upon.

Property owning white men (who control the country today no less than was the case in 1776) understand that virtually any systemic analysis or critique could easily lead to demands for systemic change.  They don’t want that.  For various reasons, neither do large numbers of ordinary citizens.

Media,  politics, and educational institutions work to confine efforts for change within narrow boundaries.  What’s allowed is mostly ritualized conflict between those who support the status quo and those who advocate for incremental and piecemeal reforms.

(By way of example,  I submitted shorter and somewhat different versions of this article to the At War section of the New York Times and several other “mainstream” publications.  All of them rejected it.)

Reforms,  even when they are achieved,  are virtually never permanent or “settled” questions.  I call this regression-to-the-mean.  For example, by any metric,  the Pentagon is stronger in 2020 than it was in 1975 when the Vietnamese successfully reclaimed their country from the U.S. invaders.  As much as the antiwar movement exposed the role of the CIA,  at least since 9/11 they have expanded not just the vast use of torture but the entire scope of their worldwide operations.

Of course the current granddaddy of all regression-to-the-mean examples is the ongoing overthrow of the presidency of Barrack Obama.  I fault myself as among those who should have should have better anticipated and prepared for that.

It is seriously sad that having had more than 50 years since Viet Nam to work on it,  so many are reduced to the pathetic spectacle of accepting Joe Biden as the best we can do.

Fortunately,  that is not the whole story.  Let’s look back to the distinction the Vietnamese made between the U.S. government and the people.  Just as was the case in the early 1960’s,  there is a giant antiwar sleeper cell within the population.  Then as now, it is waiting for the alarm clock to go off.

Despite the all war,  all violence,  all world domination never ending drumbeat from the most sophisticated propaganda machine in the history of the world—millions upon millions do genuinely long for peace.

How do we know?  It’s simple.  We can tell from how much effort the thoroughly bipartisan pro war forces put into repressing any discussion whatsoever of what are euphemistically called “national security” issues.  The topic is essentially off limits in Presidential debates.  It is off limits in the mainstream media.  It is off limits in discussion of the national budget.  It is not permitted to talk about much trouble the military has in meeting its recruitment goals.  Genuine discussion of militarism is the most taboo topic of them all.

That very fact makes every day is a good day to celebrate the almost miraculous existence of the Vietnam antiwar movement,  as well as to evaluate its failures and limitations.

May 4,  however, is an especially appropriate day to focus on what we have learned and still need to learn fifty years later.

Most of all,  every May 4,  is a good day to ring the bell for peace.

Starting at 3 PM on May 9, he will participate in a webinar marking Peace and Civil Rights 50thanniversaries.  Register here to join the Webinar:

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based activist and writer. He is a former Communications Director of the UAW. He and Karin Aguilar-San Juan co-edited, The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-War Movement.