Kent State University looks to Cambodia to reflect on the tragedy that became a seminal moment in the anti-war movement.
At the start of nearly every tour at the May 4 Visitor’s Center at Kent State University in Ohio, a guide will ask guests what events they think triggered the 1970 campus protests. “Most of them answer the ‘Vietnam War’,” says Mindy Farmer, the center’s director. “Very few know that it was actually President Nixon’s announcement of the very unpopular Cambodian Incursion.”
The Vietnam War seems like distant history for a generation raised during the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet one of the most enduring events that has glued itself to the American consciousness is the shooting at 12:24 pm on May 4, 1970 at the university, where Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed students, some of whom had been protesting the unpopular war and President Richard Nixon’s announcement four days earlier of a planned invasion into Cambodia to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines.
On top of the four students killed, nine were wounded, with one suffering permanent paralysis from the chest down.
“Is dissent a crime?” the father of Allison Krause, one of the four killed during the shooting, asked at her funeral. “Is this such a reason for killing her? Have we come to such a state in this country that a young girl has to be shot because she disagrees deeply with the actions of her government?”
Forty-six years later, the school is taking an opportunity to examine the state of dissent across the world and focus on the connections the shooting had to Cambodia, both in terms of the anti-war effort it galvanized and the effects of Nixon’s actions on Cambodia.
For three days at the end of April, the university held a series of events called “Cambodia after Kent State”, featuring talks with Cambodian genocide survivors, film screenings and discussions with NGOs working in Cambodia today. The goal, Farmer says, was to show the links between Cambodia and Kent State.
Although historians have been making the case for decades that the US bombing campaign across Northern and Eastern Cambodia helped energize the flailing Khmer Rouge forces that would eventually take over the country, the university is hoping to educate a new generation of Americans on the dangerous, though often unintended, consequences of wide-reaching US military intervention.
“The shootings that occurred at Kent State University on May 4 have a legacy and lesson that far transcends the immediacy of a single place in time,” says Dr. James Tyner, a geography professor and director of the Institute of the Study and Prevention of Violence at the university who has spent the last 20 years researching the economics of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. He has been working with the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) on ironing out the conditions and circumstances that led to the country’s darkest years under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
“We want to use this opportunity to consider broader questions of social movements, student activism, peace and reconciliation, and the memorialization of violence both at Kent State, Cambodia, and beyond,” he said. “Too often, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War in general, and of America’s relationship with Cambodia, are only superficially discussed—if at all.”
The events on May 4 and the war pushed on America by President Nixon and his predecessors, he said, illustrated many lessons that US presidents and foreign policy advisers continue to ignore in favor of military efforts that often fail to achieve their stated goal.
“It becomes very easy, for some, to talk about going to war, expanding an aerial bombing campaign, supporting the use of torture during interrogation. These issues are all extremely important in contemporary American politics, and it is essential that we learn from the past,” he added. “It is necessary, through educational outreach programs such as ‘Cambodia after Kent State’, to bring home the human costs of war and armed conflict, and to acknowledge that death and destruction continue for many generations after the violence ‘officially’ ends.”
An understanding of the aftereffects of US foreign policy is not the only function of the events. Dr. Tyner said the resistance that the young anti-war protesters faced while demonstrating, even after the shooting, are similar to those opposing more recent activism efforts in the US, such as the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, as well as union-led protests in Cambodia.
The governor of Ohio at the time, Jim Rhodes, called the protesters “un-American” and threatened to “eradicate” them a day before the shooting. Polls taken after the Kent State shooting showed a significant amount of the American populace believed the unarmed protesters were as much at fault for the shooting as the National Guardsmen who opened fire on them. But as more and more college campuses and civil society organizations vehemently protested against the war following the shooting, the public’s approval of it plummeted.
In 1965, a Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans agreed with the war. But by 1971, the number had dropped to 28 percent. Most US involvement in Vietnam ended between 1972 and 1973, and by 1975 the war was officially over.
“I believe the legacy of Kent State University remains profound. There was and is a sense that student activism may affect institutional and structural change,” Dr. Tyner said.
The plight of those killed and injured on May 4 is ever more poignant in light of recent events in Cambodia, where the government has kicked off what some see as an outright attack on civil society organizations, protest groups and basic tenets of free speech. “Defamation” and “incitement” lawsuits have put opposition leaders and protesters in prison and forced some, including opposition leader Sam Rainsy, to flee the country entirely.
“The lessons of May 4 illustrate that collective effort is required; that movements are based on solidarity. Many pressing issues—exploitation, oppression, intolerance, prejudice, and discrimination—are deeply entrenched and require the concerted efforts of many individuals. For the younger generation, instant results are expected. However, students must learn that change cannot happen overnight,” Dr. Tyner said.
“The story of Kent State is in many respects a global story. It is a story about the quest for tolerance and openness. It is a story about peaceful coexistence and a shared humanity that far too often is sacrificed for the cause of economic gain and political ideology.”
Ohio National Guardsmen fire tear gas as they approach a crowd of
protesting students on May 4, 1970. Kent State Universityy