Home Campus Vietnam-era protests ignite and change Ohio college campuses forever

Vietnam-era protests ignite and change Ohio college campuses forever

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Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Kent State Shootings and its impact on Ohio University.

“I’m thinking: ‘Why are they shooting at me? I’m a hundred yards away, I didn’t do anything. I wasn’t even threatening them,” Kent State University alumnus Dean Kahler thought when — five decades ago — National Guardsmen fired at him as he dove to the ground. “Then all of a sudden, I get shot.”

May 4, 2020 will mark 50 years since National Guardsmen opened fire on dozens of unarmed college students at Kent State who were protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War and the ground invasion of Cambodia. The shooting killed four students and wounded nine others, including Kahler, who was immediately paralyzed from a gunshot wound. 

The event disturbed college campuses both in Ohio and across the nation.

On April 30, 1970, days before the shootings, former President Richard Nixon announced via television broadcast that thousands of American troops entered Cambodia in order to maintain the country’s neutrality during the war in Vietnam. The U.S. had been fighting communist influences in Vietnam since the mid-1950s, eventually putting combat forces on the ground in 1965.

Students across the nation were stunned at Nixon’s announcement. Dread loomed over college campuses, where many feared that more young people would be drafted into the war. 

Kent State was one of those colleges. Kahler, a freshman at the time, watched the televised announcement at the now-shuttered Robinhood Inn, a bar in Kent, Ohio.

“Why would you be expanding the war instead of ending the war?” Kahler remembers many students and Kent residents asking. “It just means more of our friends are going to get shot, and maybe us, if we have to be drafted at some point in time,” he said.

A few hours southeast of Kent, on the same night as President Nixon’s announcement, students started a trashcan fire, burning garbage and an American flag, outside of the Baker Center on Ohio University’s campus in protest. 

It was one of the many Vietnam War protests that rocked campuses all over. Back at Kent, the tension was boiling over. 

On May 2, Kent’s Mayor Leroy Satrom requested that the National Guard occupy campus after rumors that radical protesters planned to burn down several buildings, including the ROTC building. By the time the guardsmen arrived, the ROTC building was on fire, burning as people cheered around the flames. 

Kahler was already at his home in East Canton, a village south of Kent, to celebrate his 20th birthday. He was in the backseat of his parents car as they drove him back to school when they were stopped in a line of traffic outside of Kent State’s campus and accosted by a military sergeant. 

Once they finally made it through the military checkpoint on Kent State’s campus, Kahler’s parents dropped him off at his dorm, Tri-Towers. 

“They gave me a hug and a kiss and said, ‘Stay out of trouble.’ I said ‘I will’,” he said. “I can tell there was a little bit of trepidation on their faces and in their hearts.” 

After he had settled in, Kahler grabbed his camera to check out a gathering behind the administration building where students planned to “napalm” — a flammable gel that is used in bombs — a dog. When he arrived, there was only discussion — no dog, no napalm. 

Instead, students took a detour to each dormitory, encouraging their classmates to join the protests. Kahler dropped his camera off at Tri-Towers and continued on with the group. 

He was sitting on the corner of Main Street and Lincoln Street when he heard someone yelling through a bullhorn that Kent State President Robert White and Mayor LeRoy Satrom would be arriving on campus in 30 minutes. 

“Well, 30 minutes arrived and the only thing I saw that was here, that had increased, was the fact that there was now two helicopters flying with spotlights, and more National Guard troops,” Kahler said. “I didn’t like the looks of this.”

Moments later, tear gas shot into the crowd of protestors. Students scattered, running in all directions. Kahler ran toward Rockwell Hall Library, dashing through a cluster of pine trees with other students until he reached his dorm. 

On the day he would eventually be shot and become paralyzed, Kahler called the English department to tell them he wasn’t going to class. Instead, he was going to check out the protests. Protestors were gathered in the common area beside the Student Union when they were asked to disperse. 

“I was amazed at how many people were there. I mean, it was quite the distraction from college, from going to classes,” Kahler said.

After students began throwing stones at the National Guardsmen positioned around the protests, the officers retreated to the practice football field. 

“The students just got out of their way. They were right there in front of the students, they were right there with the students. There was no threat,” he continued.

It was when National Guardsmen opened fire that students began retreating themselves. 

News of the shootings quickly spread to campuses all over the country, including Ohio U. Andy Alexander, a journalism visiting professor at Ohio U and former editor of The Post, first heard the news while reporting on non-traditional lectures taught by university professors on College Green amid the Vietnam protests.

“‘We’re going to have a heck of a time keeping the lid on demonstrations here at Ohio University,’” he recalled thinking at the time. “Because that really mobilized people.”

Three-thousand students gathered the day of the shootings to protest the assault on Kent State students.

“I think, generally, students at Ohio University were stunned,” the former editor said. 

Students at Ohio U asked the academic community to participate in a two-day strike to honor the victims and devote themselves to the de-escalation of the war in Vietnam, according to an archived issue of The Post published May 5, 1970, the day after the shooting.

Ohio U student protestors pledged to “keep cool” and remain calm in the wake of the shooting, according to the May 5th issue of The Post. They did so for fear that the Kent State massacre could repeat itself at Ohio U if protests turned violent, according to Alexander.

Despite peaceful intent, Nelson Commons, a dining hall, was firebombed, causing an estimated $120,000 in damage, according to an archived report from The Post; students also illegally occupied the old Chubb Library, now Chubb Hall. 

It wasn’t until the two consecutive nights of rioting on Union and Court Street that the Ohio U administration made the decision to shut down and evacuate campus. Police officers pepper sprayed students to push them out of the streets; students retaliated by hurling bricks and stone, shattering the windows of Athens storefronts and campus buildings.

On May 15, 1970 — eleven days after the Kent State shootings — Ohio U President Claude Sowle decided to close the university until the beginning of the summer quarter.  

The final night of rioting grew violent as more stones, rocks and bottles were thrown at police forces. Officers threw tear gas back. In response to the escalation, Athens city Mayor Raymond Shepard called the National Guard to move in; they were already pre-positioned outside of the city.

“What students woke up to was the smell of tear gas hanging over all of Athens, and as dawn came, you would wander Uptown, and in every single parking space, Court and Union and down the streets, in every single parking space, was an armed National Guard, standing,” Alexander said. 

Both Kent State and Ohio U shut down and didn’t reopen until the summer term, giving students and faculty time to reflect on what happened. As for Kahler, he returned to school the following fall quarter.

“I was truly thankful that I was alive. I still have my brain, and I still have my hands and I (could) still go back to school, and I could live somewhat of a normal life,” he said. 

Editors Note: A version of this story was previously published in The New Political’s 2020 Winter Magazine.

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