Matt O’Keefe, Kent State
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the United States of America was in a time of crisis. The Vietnam War was a major topic of discussion throughout the nation everywhere from the media, work places and college campuses. In the spring of 1970 President Nixon ordered troops to invade Cambodia as a part of the Vietnam War. Cambodia was long seen as a neutral territory during the war but communists had been setting up bases in the country. The leader of Cambodia wanting to avoid more pressure from other countries ordered them to leave. Nixon saw this as an opportunity to strike and ordered a secret bombing mission called Operation Menu to take out these bases despite heavy opposition from Washington. This invasion caused nationwide protests.
One of the most infamous protests happened at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio on May 4th, 1970. For the past few days students had been holding protests and rallies showing their opposition to Nixon’s actions. They planned a big protest for Monday, the 4th. The university caught wind of this and tried to stop it by handing out leaflets saying the rally was cancelled. Despite this an estimated 2000 students attended the rally on the university commons. The National Guard was called in to disperse the crowd. They threatened students with arrest if they did not leave and when students still refused they released tear gas. They then proceeded to advance upon the students with bayonets on their rifles and the students began to flee. The National Guard troops followed a large group of students but took a wrong turn and found themselves stuck on an athletic field. They stayed for ten minutes and did not want to go back they way they came because they felt people would see it as a retreat. The students had come back in front of them and were about 100-200 feet away and began threatening them and throwing rocks and the tear gas canisters at them. The officers then began to fire because of what appears to be a miscommunication. 29 officers fired 67 rounds in a 13 second span. Some reports say there was a sniper who shot at the guardsmen, but this has been found to be not true. In all 4 students were killed and 9 others injured.
Students were protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia but things escalated into riots, which caused authorities to feel threatened, and in turn open fire. The events at these campuses led to a nation wide student protest that shut down hundreds of college campuses (History.com 1970). This movement showed that students could unite and get their voices heard including those at UMass and showed their resiliency and ability to overcome pressure from a force bigger than them to stand strong and tall for a position they deeply believed in.
The strike at UMass and surrounding universities was much less violent and riot-like yet had a very profound effect. This was a movement that took place from late April to May in 1970 that was organized by students and some faculty. Students who were involved did not go to class and held gatherings at various locations throughout the campus to try to get the word out about what they were doing to all students on campus. With a college campus being a central location filled almost entirely of students it was very easy to find people to get involved with the cause. Students would pass out flyers, write articles in The Daily Collegian, hold rallies, use word of mouth and other tactics to recruit people to become involved. They were effective in getting many people to join in though there were people who did not want to get involved as there are with any other movement.
This movement developed very quickly once news broke of the travesties that took place at Kent State and then Jackson State. Students hastily mobilized holding sit-ins and meetings to gather the troops so to speak. “They would gather in places like Orchard Hill, the Student Center and Union and various other places throughout campus (Dean Albertson’s History 384 Oral History Collection, 1975- 1977)”.
The story was the same nationwide as campuses were being closed daily in the wake of what happened at Kent State and Jackson State. “It is estimated that around 5,000,000 U.S. students joined the movement. In response to the killings at those schools, students start using the phrase “They can’t kill us all” to let Nixon and authorities know that they weren’t afraid of a similar thing happening at other schools because they knew the government and police couldn’t and wouldn’t be able to do that nationwide from a legal and human rights standpoint. Some universities took peaceful approaches while others took more violent ones that involved burning ROTC buildings down, firebombing and other forms of arson. The National Guard had to be called into numerous states to attempt to calm things down (Canfora, 2006)”. This was an issue that people felt very strongly about not only because they didn’t agree with the war, but also because the war directly impacted a lot of people’s lives. All those soldiers over in Vietnam were someone’s father, brother, sister or mother.
In unison with what was going on nationwide students at UMass continued to do their part. Various editorials and articles were written in the Collegian to keep students up to date with what was going on at other schools and with what was happening at UMass. Members of the movement began to reach out to colleges and high schools in the area to attempt to strengthen the movement. “One example was students going to Chicopee High School and meeting with the principal to discuss holding a rally there. They had already begun holding workshops to tell the kids how they could become involved. At first the principal agreed but later backed out. This didn’t stop students though as they continued to educated the high school students just now without the school backing (Dean Albertson’s History 384 Oral History Collection, 1975- 1977)”.
Another part of this movement involved occupying the ROTC buildings on campus. Students did this in response to the killings by the police in Kent State and to show how they were not happy with the troops being in Cambodia. They vandalized Dickinson Hall, which is the home of the home of the ROTC program, and broke windows and other things within the building (Joulwan, “ROTC: An Academic Focus).
Rallies were held daily to tell people to keep fighting even with mounting opposition and warnings from the school’s administrators. According to a journal entry by a student at the time found in the archives “Students were told that they would fail classes if they continued not to go and would not be granted exceptions (Radical Student Union Records)”. While this caused some students to drop out of the movement or deterred them altogether from joining at all, it only made the students really involved want to fight and protest the issue even more to let the world know that they did have a voice and that it was just as important as the one’s in Washington D.C. making these decisions that they deemed appalling and wrong. “Many student diaries and letters revealed that they accepted the repercussions that their actions entailed and were not going to let them deter them (Radical Student Union Records)”.
Throughout campus there was a lot of tension between students, administrators and authorities. “Many students were blocking out the people trying to lay down rules and this concerned them because above all else they wanted to keep things peaceful. They didn’t want anyone to get too pissed off that they would make some rash, ill-advised decision (UMass Amherst. Student Affairs, 1867-2007)”. Yet at the same time the police and university officials wanted to maintain control and this put them in a tough spot. The students knew they had the right gather and make their voices heard and weren’t going to listen to threats no matter how strong or empty the threat was.
In response to the university’s warning of them failing classes, many students took to talking with teachers or writing to them asking if they could just receive the grade they had earned up to that point in the class or simply just for a pass. In the archives I found dozens of hand written notes, some long and detailed and others just a few short sentences, to a professor Dr. Liu asking for this exception. “They explained that they believed that what was happening was bigger and more important than going to a class to take a final and pleaded with instructors to try to see it from their perspective and asking them what would they do if they were in the students’ shoes. Some teachers heard their voices and agreed to the proposals while others told them that if they continued not to go to class they would have to deal with the consequences and just accept the failing grade (UMass Amherst. Student Affairs, 1867-2007)”. This left students with a choice and many chose to continue the fight.
One student wrote in a letter, found in the archives, to another student in the movement that he would have to withdraw from the movement due to his parents’ warnings. He felt terrible about not being able to continue to fight but felt he had no choice if he wanted to remain in school. He said he would remain active in spirit but would be forced to withdraw from demonstrations and return to class (UMass Amherst. Student Affairs, 1867-2007). Instances like these angered some of the people more heavily involved in the movement, while other were more understanding, because they believed that everyone had something to lose and that they were all making sacrifices for something that was bigger than anyone of them.
The effects of this strike were even felt over in Vietnam as many soldiers wore black armbands to remember people killed at home and many even refused to advance into Cambodia because of what was going on on the home front. Rallies were held on military bases in ordinance with what people, specifically students, were doing back in the U.S. Veterans joined movement and some soldiers and military leaders just flat out refused to fight (Canfora 2006).
After the war, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, which was a major victory for students. It was also finally decided that students would receive a pass for missing classes and finals so nobody was harmed academically. This happened at hundreds of universities nationwide and showed that there was enough pressure and support for their movement not to punish them academically. It also may have been a way for universities to save face on the situation and not look like the bad guys in this instance. The troops stayed in Vietnam for a few years until a peace treaty was but protests did eventually die down across campuses but their were still going on nationwide until 1973.
Canfora, Alan. HISTORICAL IMPACT OF KENT STATE and THE NATIONAL STUDENT STRIKE – May, 1970. March 16, 2006. http://alancanfora.com/?q=node/8. April 7, 2011
Dean Albertson’s History 384 Oral History Collection, 1975- 1977. Call no.: MS 224. Special Collections and University Archives, University Libraries, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
History.com. Vietnam War, May 6, 1970. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/students-launch-nationwide-protest. April 7, 2011
UMass Amherst. Student Affairs, 1867-2007. Call no.: RG 30. Special Collections and University Archives, University Libraries, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Radical Student Union Records. Call no.: RG 45/80 R1. Box 16.5. Special Collections and University Archives, University Libraries, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Joulwan, George A. “ROTC: An Academic Focus.” Military Review: 11. Print.
“Three Decades Ago, Commencement Was a Sober Mix of Pomp and Protest.”