This story was originally published by the Ohio History Connection on May 17, 2017. It is being republished here through a collaborative agreement.
“Tin Soldiers and Nixon’s Coming.
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming.
Four Dead in Ohio.”
Inspired by the events that unfolded on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970, the folk-rock group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released their soon-to-be hit single, “Ohio,” in the summer of 1970.
The famous hook from their song (quoted above) referred to the the deaths of four Kent State students that sparked national outrage and came to symbolize the division and uncertainty of the American public over their country’s role in the Vietnam War.
By 1970, thousands of Americans were already actively protesting the war in Vietnam.
In the spring of 1970 several new developments, including the ending of college deferment, and the April 30 announcement that the U.S. and their South Vietnamese allies had executed an “incursion” into the nation of Cambodia, increased the intensity of the protests across the nation.
On May 1, 1970, students at Kent State University, located in Kent, Ohio, held an anti-war protest. That evening, several violent incidents took place on campus including rocks and bottles being thrown at police officers, and thieves and protestors breaking windows and looting nearby stores.
On May 2 the mayor of Kent declared a state of emergency and requested the Governor of Ohio, James A. Rhodes, send National Guard troops to the city to help maintain order.
When the first guardsmen arrived in the evening they found the ROTC building on campus in flames. It is unclear who set the fire, but as firefighters arrived to extinguish the blaze they were harassed by protestors, who were still gathered and cheering as the ROTC building burned. The National Guard troops resorted to dispersing tear gas into the crowd to maintain order.
By May 3, about 1,000 National Guard troops were on the Kent State campus and tensions remained high.
On May 4 classes resumed and another protest was scheduled for noon of that day. The school tried to stop this new protest, but the protestors still gathered.
Just as it had been on the previous days the protestors, both students and non-students clashed with the National Guard troops. But on this day, 29 guardsmen, purportedly fearing for their lives, opened fire on the protestors with live ammunition. A total of 67 shots were fired, and in the end, nine students were wounded and four were killed by the gunfire.
Fearing violence and outrage on their own campuses, many colleges and universities cancelled classes for the remainder of the 1970 school year. Rather than leading to a decline in protests, the tragic shootings at Kent State lead to a rise in anti-war demonstrations and caused a wave of public backlash against the government.