The Vietnam War was an event that split the generations, races, ethnicities and families in America. Nothing showcased this better than the student protests.
The war in Vietnam was a part of the larger Cold War conflict. Essentially, the United States was trying to stop the spread of communism, and in this case, the United States was doing it by trying to help the South Vietnamese fight off the communist North Vietnamese.
The war was a complicated matter for the United States, and as it wore on, it became unpopular with most Americans. One specific event that shook the core of America, especially its youth, was the Kent State shooting of 1970.
Protesting hit a high on college campuses as a result of President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia in order to try to combat the North Vietnamese, after he was elected for telling Americans he would end the conflict. In an attempt to show dislike for the war, students all over American colleges held protests and sit ins against the action.
On May 4, 1970, students gathered on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio at noon to protest just as they had during previous days. The protest still began despite the efforts of the college to spread flyers saying the event had been canceled; and continued even though National Guard units tried to disperse the students.
Though the protest of about 2000 students was meant to be peaceful, it didn’t remain that way. When the National Guard began to forcefully disperse students with their presence and use of tear gas, the demonstration turned into chaos.
While the guardsmen were able to force many to leave the commons area of the campus, they had to endure students throwing rocks and even the canisters of tear gas back at them.
As this went on, the guards and students began moving around the campus to parking lots and even the practice field; but as tensions rose, so did the fear many felt.
All it took was one shot, allegedly fired by Sgt. Myron Pryor using a .45 pistol against students. The other National Guardsmen then began firing on students. Overall, the actual shooting was extremely short, lasting less than a minute, but the impact was huge.
The shooting left four students dead and nine wounded. Many guardsmen claimed that fear let the shooting get out of hand, or that the National Guardsmen on duty were not trained well enough and shouldn’t have been given loaded weapons.
Christopher Vanneson, a Pierce College history professor, explained that while he is a strong anti-communist because of his childhood in communist Bulgaria, he doesn’t agree with the way the event was handled.
“I would have been very critical of the National Guard. I would have wanted them accused of the killing. The students may have been provoking in their behavior throwing rocks or whatever, but killing students is unacceptable.” Vanneson said. “Killing fellow Americans on what grounds exactly? They (the National Guardsmen) were fearing their lives? Again, from my perspective, there is no excuse, I would have condemned them.”
American reactions to this incident were harsh. Students began protesting in the United States, including the University of Washington in Seattle. The campus of Kent State was closed for six weeks. Both violent and peaceful protests forced more than 450 college campuses to shut down over the United States in the days following.
This event caused student resentment toward the Vietnam War and invasion of Cambodia to skyrocket. Five days after the shootings, over 10,000 people went on strike in Washington D.C. to show their disdain for American involvement in the war.
The effect of the shootings was clear when the Urban Institute released a national study saying that the Kent State Shootings were the main factor in the only nationwide student strike of more than 4 million students that shut down more than 900 college campuses.
While there were protests against the Vietnam War and the Cambodian invasion before the Kent State incident, the actions students took after the shootings were more drastic.
The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were a turning point for America and the Vietnam War, and with the addition of the Cambodian invasion, it lead people to wonder what America’s interests really were.
“From an orthodox Christian perspective, I am against violence and war. So, if I were to live in the United States at that time, and chances were I would have been a college student, I might have joined the demonstration against Vietnam,” Vanneson said. “This does not mean that I would get rid of my anti-communist sentiments, but that I would not think it was in America’s interests in the long run to fight the war.”
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