Howard B. Means. 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2016. 288 pp. $25.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-306-82379-4.
Craig S. Simpson, Gregory S. Wilson. Above The Shots: An Oral History of the Kent State Shootings. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2016. xi + 254 pp. $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-60635-291-5.
Reviewed by E. Timothy Smith (Barry University)
Published on H-1960s (November, 2017)
Commissioned by Zachary J. Lechner (Thomas Nelson Community College)
Shots Heard 'Round the World'
Nearly fifty years after the killing of four students and the wounding of nine others by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University, several books have been published in the past year including the two reviewed here. While their methodologies are different, both the Howard Means book and the Craig Simpson and Gregory Wilson collaboration emphasize the confusion (both before and after the shootings), the rumors, the divisions, and the debate over who was responsible. In addition, the two books place the events at Kent in the historical context of the 1960s and the Vietnam War and follow the story through to the 1979 settlement reached with the families of those killed and those wounded by the Guardsmen on May 4, 1970. The focus of both is the days following the April 30 announcement by President Richard Nixon that US troops were expanding the Vietnam War by invading neighboring Cambodia. That announcement led to campus upheavals around the nation, including in Kent, Ohio. Beginning on May 1, the Friday after the announcement, there was a small protest during the day on the Kent campus and evening disturbances in the downtown area around bars where college students congregated, leading the mayor of Kent to request National Guard assistance. These events were followed by the burning of the ROTC building on Saturday and the Sunday visit of Governor James Rhodes to Kent, where he issued a series of inflammatory statements about eradicating student unrest. Finally, on Monday, May 4, came the large protests that ended in the fatal confrontation.
Howard Means is a former syndicated columnist and the author or coauthor of ten books including a biography of Colin Powell. In this well-researched account, he draws on previously published materials, the May 4 Collection at Kent State Special Collections and Archives, the Kent State Shootings Oral Histories project (also in the Kent State Archives), the Kent State Project Records at Yale University, and personal interviews he conducted with persons connected to the shootings. Means begins his book in a unique way, with a discussion of the deaths of twenty-four US service members on May 4, 1970, thus linking the unrest at home with the war in Vietnam.
As he discusses the unfolding of the events from Friday to Monday, Means frequently refers to the confusion that followed the Guard’s occupation of the campus and the city of Kent. While Governor Rhodes insisted to the university president Robert White that he keep the campus open, the reality was that the Guard was in control. However, Means writes, it was not clear what the Guard “was or was not allowing on the campus where they now served in effect as military governor” (p. 48). To make the confusion even more dangerous, there was uncertainty over whether a rally would be allowed by the Guard. Means also discusses one of the more controversial issues surrounding the shootings: was there a conspiracy among the Guard to shoot or was there an order to fire? The reemergence of an audiotape in 2007 that a student recorded from a dormitory room window has led some to claim evidence of an order to fire, but Means concludes that even with the sophisticated technology used to evaluate it “the tape remains muddled at best” (p. 82). With respect to the stories told by the Guard that they were protecting themselves from rock-and-brick-throwing students, he suggests that the outcome of the barrage of bullets does not comport with a threat to the Guard's safety.
In discussing the immediate aftermath again, Means highlights the continuing danger to angry and confused students who had to be calmed down and dispersed by faculty marshals, the rumors that Guardsmen had been killed, and the anger of the town toward the students (a common view was that Guardsmen should have shot more students). He notes that the university was deserted by the community for which it was the prime economic engine. Means also covers the long-running court battles by the parents of the four dead students and the wounded and the decision by the university to build a gym annex on land near to the site of the shootings in 1977. Here Means has made an error in asserting that the university chose another site. That was not the case. Under pressure from the state, the university constructed the building where originally planned.
This book is very readable and should be read by those interested in what happened that day in May 1970. While not shedding any new, conclusive light on why the Guard opened fire, Means does thoroughly examine the events immediately surrounding the shootings and places them in the context of what he calls “the raging waters of the 1960s” (p. 213).
The Simpson and Wilson book takes a different and fascinating approach to the shootings and aftermath, but with more detail on the aftermath and attempts at memorialization than the Means book. Simpson is an Indiana University Manuscripts archivist who was previously a librarian at Kent State University Special Collections and Archives, where he managed the Kent State Shootings Oral History Project. Wilson is an associate professor of history at the University of Akron specializing in Ohio history. In Above the Shots the authors rely on the oral histories of the May 4 Oral History Project that include sixty-nine interviews over a ten-year period and forty more between 2005 and 2010 to explain the different memories that have emerged through the years. These include those of students, Kent residents, Guardsmen, Kent State presidents and administrators, and the Kent mayor. There are two introductions to the book. The first, by Simpson, explains the Oral History Project and notes the efforts of the authors to “present a multitude of perspectives” (p. 8). The second, written by Wilson, discusses more of the methodology involved in using oral history to construct individual and collective memory; studies on memory; and psychology.
Above the Shots is somewhat comparable to an earlier book edited by Scott L. Bills, Kent State/May 4: Echoes through a Decade (1982, 1988) that includes a number of interviews with participants, including those involved in the struggle against the building of the gym annex. Above the Shots, however, takes events at Kent State over the course of the 1960s and notes how “the politics of the 1960s grew more intense” (p. 39). Simpson and Wilson cover material through the years leading to 1970, as has Thomas M. Grace (one of the Kent students wounded in 1970) in his Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties (2016), and follow it through the long aftermath.
Uniquely, Simpson and Wilson take varying memories, found in the interviews, and construct a collective memory of the events from a variety of perspectives, including that of university, which has struggled with its acceptance of the shootings. “These oral histories reveal the deeply personal and emotional memory” of the events (p. 217). For example, Guard Capt. Ron Snyder in a 2012 interview insists that what happened on May 4 was a riot, not a demonstration, which allows for the framing of the memory narrative into an interpretation that “helps to justify the Guard’s response” (p. 99). The same is true about the size of rocks or other materials thrown at the Guard. Simpson and Wilson note that “so much remains in dispute among the narrators” (p. 121) because they may have been influenced through the years by statements or memories heard from other people or gathered through the years from the news or the trials, or from individuals who were simply lying. The authors note that over the years, “some rumors have evolved into more formal allegations,” approaching psychological truth for some (p. 157).
The final section of Simpson and Wilson's book deals with the efforts at the memorialization of the events of May 1970, noting that the various efforts at commemoration and the narrators’ memories demonstrate divisions over the shootings and that “the memory of the 1960s and its political and cultural clashes remain contentious” even to the present (p. 182). Among the most contentious of the issues that followed was the decision of the university to build the gym annex. Simpson and Wilson note that the changing of geography of a site can influence the memories of an event, which contributed to the opposition to the annex’s construction. Ultimately the university, not without controversy, approved the building of a memorial and the opening of a Visitors Center in 2012.
Taken together, 67 Shots and Above the Shots, are valuable contributions to the understanding of the Kent State shootings. While different in their strengths, they both broaden the historical understanding of those events and bring in more narratives by students, townspeople, administrators, and the National Guard, and demonstrate the political and social divisions that tore apart the United States in the 1960s.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-1960s.
E. Timothy Smith. Review of Means, Howard B., 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence and
Simpson, Craig S.; Wilson, Gregory S., Above The Shots: An Oral History of the Kent State Shootings.
H-1960s, H-Net Reviews.