Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when American politics was as polarized as it is now and dominated by a president as dishonest as Trump. President Richard Nixon may have lied less frequently than Trump, but the lies of “Tricky Dick” were arguably more deadly. Among the biggest and most blatant of those lies came into public view on April 30, 1970, when Nixon, who only two years earlier ascended to the presidency claiming to have a secret plan to end the Vietnam War, announced the expansion of that war: the US invasion of Cambodia (after having secretly bombed Cambodia). The announcement sparked outrage among the young, student strikes at 60 colleges and universities, and demonstrations, some violent, on dozens of campuses. Nixon further inflamed the political atmosphere by denouncing the protesters as “bums blowing up the campuses,” and local Nixonian politicos, most notably Ohio Governor James Rhodes, echoed such demagoguery, likening the anti-war student activists to Nazi “Brown Shirts.” Rhodes followed through on his angry rhetoric by calling in the National Guard to Kent State University, with tragic consequences.
On May 4, 1970, the Guard fired without warning on a crowd of unarmed anti-war protesters at Kent State University, in a 13-second barrage of 67 shots that killed four students and wounded nine. The killings sparked the most widespread student protests in American history, with demonstrations involving more than 4 million students, over 350 student strikes, the shutting down of some 500 colleges and universities, and 73 violent protests, resulting in some 1,800 arrests. Soon after Nixon learned about the shootings at Kent State, his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, told the president, “They’ll blame it on us.” Nixon agreed and quickly adopted a bunker mentality that shaped much of his approach to the backlash over the invasion of Cambodia.
Nixon’s private response to the Kent State tragedy, recorded in the diary of his top aide H.R. Haldeman, was chilling. Not a word of sympathy for those killed or wounded—or for their families. Instead, his focus was on political strategy: “Very aware that the goal of the Left is to panic us, so we must not fall into that trap” (May 6). Even Haldeman could not help noting in his diary that Nixon was “pretty cold-blooded” in planning to fire Interior Secretary Walter Hickel for expressing sympathy with the student protesters (May 7). Not justice but tribalism drove Nixon’s views on the investigation of the shooting: “Very concerned about press report that FBI said [National] Guard was at fault at Kent State. Called [FBI Director] J. Edgar [Hoover]…. P[resident] told Hoover to knock it down.… Really afraid we’ll end up putting the Administration on the side of the students and really doesn’t want that” (July 24). The political firestorm over the Kent tragedy forced Nixon to appoint a Commission on Campus Unrest. But rather than looking to the commission for lessons about how to avoid future campus bloodshed, Nixon sought to use it cynically to promote public backlash against student protesters: “wants Scranton commission to go ahead with open hearings because it keeps the student unrest issue alive through the summer and works to our advantage. Wants to be sure to get some really horrible types to testify. Then need to get our right-wing types to blast the whole thing. Gets a little involved but should work” (July 17).
Though Nixon tried to act as if the protests against the Cambodia invasion and Kent State shootings had not gotten to him, Haldeman knew better, noting that the president “obviously realizes but won’t admit, his ‘bums’ remark very harmful” (May 6), and that the protests had yielded “the weirdest day so far” (May 9), as a sleepless Nixon went to the Lincoln memorial with a few White House aides and Secret Service agents just before 5 am, in a final, belated, and bizarre attempt to reach out to student anti-war activists. Nixon talked to some protesters, awkwardly discussing college football and the importance of international travel. The president later recounted that one of the students told him, “We’re not interested in what Prague looks like. We’re interested in what kind of a life we build in the United States.” As the crowd began to grow, Nixon’s aides convinced him to leave. Before Nixon departed, he spoke to Bob Moustakas, a long-haired, bearded college student from Detroit. The two took a photograph together, as Nixon recounted that the student had “the broadest smile I’d ever seen.” Moustakas later compared the encounter to “when you’re in early high school and you’re having a party in somebody’s basement…the parents come down and talk to you…make sure the lights are on.” He concluded that there was a “conversation, but not much communication.”
While Nixon described the surreal Lincoln Memorial visit in positive terms, he continued his war on the anti-war movement, paying special attention not only to students but also to university administrators. Much like 21st century conservatives, Nixon believed liberal administrators were his true enemies, guilty of coddling young radicals. “The elite class in this country lacks character,” said Nixon, in one of his many tirades against university presidents who opposed his Vietnam policies and tolerated anti-war dissent. Calling them “flabby soft bastards,” Nixon argued that “limousine libs are really a danger” to the country; he covertly sought retribution, attempting to end federal funding to such universities as MIT that he felt were anti-war, longing to redistribute federal aid to campuses he viewed as hawkish and pro-Nixon.
Nixon’s public actions during that spring were a natural extension of his private rants.
Both Nixon and his bellicose vice president, Spiro Agnew, had been doing all they could to arouse antipathy between their conservative supporters, whom they valorized as America’s law-abiding “silent majority,” and anti-war protesters, whom they demonized as lawless countercultural subversives. The impact of this politics of resentment could be seen in the Ohio grand jury proceedings that in the name of “law and order” sided with the National Guard, including the killers among them, while indicting 24 Kent students and one faculty member.
Dean Kahler, a Kent student paralyzed by a guardsman’s bullet, experienced this resentment in its ugliest form. While recovering from his wound, the first card Kahler opened was inscribed, “Dear Communist Hippie Radical, I hope by the time you get this you are dead. We don’t need people like you.” Sentiments such as these led Rick Perlstein to conclude, in his magisterial work Nixonland: “Do Americans not hate each other enough to fantasize about killing one another in cold blood over political and cultural disagreements? It would be hard to argue they do not. How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet.”
But this may give Nixon too much of the blame for igniting America’s hatred-fueled politics, because when one factors in race, that hatred took root long before Nixon’s presidency. It is not the murder of white students at Kent but the Jackson State massacre, 11 days later (May 15, 1970)—in which two African American students were killed and 12 wounded by the Mississippi State Patrol, who, over the course of 28 seconds, riddled their dormitory with bullets as if it were a military target—that speaks to this older, deeper pattern of hatred, and its legacy of racist violence. Nixon’s cynical comments on Kent in the Haldeman diaries were loathsome, but so was the president’s silence on the Jackson State killings. The black lives lost on that historically black college meant nothing to Nixon either politically or personally. The massacre elicited much less protest (which came primarily from black campuses) and media coverage than Kent State.
Historians, too, have been slow to study the Jackson State shooting, and even slower to probe the Orangeburg massacre of 1968, sometimes mistakenly called “the black Kent State before Kent State” (it was a racially motivated massacre more similar to the Jackson than to the Kent State shootings) in which the South Carolina State Patrol killed three African American students and wounded 28. Nor have narratives of the student movement of the Long 1960s noted that this era’s violent campus upheavals began and ended with racist assaults: First came the segregationist riots at the University of Alabama (1956), the University of Georgia, (1961), and the University of Mississippi (1962), later the more bloody Orangeburg and Jackson State shootings.
To commemorate the Kent and Jackson State tragedies on their 50th anniversary, we offer accounts of Kent by historian Thomas Grace, author of Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long 60s (2016), who was himself among the wounded at Kent State, 1970, and of Jackson by Nancy K. Bristow, author of Steeped in the Blood of Racism: black Power, Law and Order and the 1970 Shootings at Jackson State College (2020), the first book by a professional historian on the Jackson State shootings since that tragedy occurred.