What was really pathetic is that it wasn't just the government--in fact, the Federal government weren't responsible, although as political hatreds run, lots of young people liked to blame Nixon. The Governor of Ohio, though, Jim Rhodes, had visions of a run for president, and wanted to appear tough and resolute. So he sent in the National Guard at a time when the situation was really returning to more or less a normal state. Someone had burned the ROTC buildings (World War II era "pre-fab" huts) at the end of the previous week, but it hadn't sparked the kind of situation they were looking for.
The idiot Rhodes, though, assured that there'd be a powder keg by Monday, and a fool sitting there with a lighted cigar. The Guard showed up, and set out to clear the streets, with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets. On Sunday night, some black students who had just come down to see what all the hooraw was were bayoneted (most in the buttocks) as the Guard ran them off. The Guard officers were incredibly stupid, too. On Monday morning, they surrounded the still smouldering remains of the ROTC buildings, for god knows what reason. Some student activists tried to work up a demonstration nearby, but no one was really interested. So the Guard officers, apparently disappointed by the lack of an opportunity to throw their weight around, moved one troop out, and ordered them to don their gas masks (perhaps they anticipated using tear gas to disperse students who weren't actually assembling?). They marched them onto a baseball diamond near the Journalism building, and they were followed by a handful of loud-mouthed, chanting demonstrators, probably not as many as a dozen of them. The shootings would have been much worse, but the clueless Guard officers had moved their troop of Guardsmen out of the center of campus, where what protesters there were were lazily assembling after lunch. Most of the people in the area were students moving between classes.
The Guardsmen had by this time been marched around until they were backed up against the chain-link fence behind home plate on the baseball diamond. They were probably sweating furiously in their steel pot helmets and gas masks. Gas masks make you feel claustrophobic and soon all you can hear is your own labored breathing. No one has ever admitted to firing the first shot, but you can be sure it wasn't a student. Guard officers claimed they didn't order the shooting, and tried to stop it. However, look at the photo below. It was taken by a journalism student in the Journalism building just after the shooting had started, and had now spread to Guardsmen other than those on the baseball diamond. On your left, at the front of this group of Guardsmen is an officer, with his .45 automatic in his hand, shooting. Doesn't look good for the claims the officers subsequently made. You might also note that only a few of the men behind him are firing--most of them are hesitating, most of them don't even have their weapons leveled.
Nixon screwed the pooch with an indifferent reaction to the shootings. His press secretary more or less said that this is what you could expect when dissent got out of hand. By the end of the scholastic year about 900 universities and colleges had closed. This incident (which was sparked by the administration's invasion of Cambodia) did more to radicalize the nation than any other single event. It made many people who were previously just liberal into militant radicals. It also hardened the conservatism of many other people.
Jim Rhodes had screwed his political career nationally, although it took him a few days to realize it. He was actually laughing and joking with reporters after
the news of the shootings reached Columubus. Within Ohio, however, it actually helped him with conservatives--he eventually served four terms as governor of Ohio. He was defeated on this fifth attempt, though. There is a statue to him outside the James Rhodes state office tower in downtown Columbus, on Broad Street, opposite the State Capitol building. It's a bronze showing a man in a mid-20th century business suit carrying a brief case. Most people who walk past it each day don't even look at it. Forty years on, most people who walk past it don't know who Jim Rhodes was, except that there's a building downtown named after him. Most people in Columbus these days probably only have a vague idea of what Kent State was all about.
Of the four killed, two had been demonstrators, but they were among the great majority who were atually dispersing when fired upon. The two other students killed were simply walking to class, and one of them was, ironically, an ROTC student. Most of those shot and killed or wounded were 100 yards or more away. It's a little hard to see what threat they posed to the Guardsmen. I think that more than anything else, everyone in authority from the Governor on down simply reacted very badly. The odds are pretty good that had the Guard never been sent to Kent State, the demonstrations would have petered out, as they had already done over the weekend before the Guard arrived. But after that event, campuses exploded. Nothing of course, was concerted, because there was no "commie conspiracy" (something a lot of conservatives believed, and may believe to this day)--but it was the largest mass of student demonstrations in the nation's history. Campuses were shut down all over the country, and many students reported going home to parents who told them that if they (their children) were confronted by the Guard, they (the parents) wouldn't care if the Guard shot them. What had been know as the generation gap became an unbridgeable gulf for many millions of Americans.