It would take a book to delve into every aspect of the debate on the question of conspiracy in the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970 and many have been written. One of the most recently published came from author and investigator William Gordon (a 1973 Kent State grad) in 1990, who posed the conspiracy question in the title of his book when it was republished in 1995 as, “Four Dead in Ohio – was there a conspiracy at Kent State?”
Like many of the other accounts, Gordon’s investigation does indicate some suspicious circumstances surrounding the fire at the campus ROTC building on the night of May 2, the event that caused Ohio Governor James Rhodes to call in the National Guard, which in turn led to the tragic deaths of May 4. Some writers and activists have suggested that
authorities colluded to allow the building to be burned in a “Reichstag fire” strategy to justify calling in the National Guard.
Gordon describes how numerous student attempts to set the building ablaze failed and how local authorities didn’t seem to put much effort into stopping the students. But Gordon also notes the discovery in his research that campus police chief Donald Schwartzmiller was alleged by six other officers to have been drunk and unable to take command during the burning of the ROTC building on May 2.
“Theorists who claim the ROTC fire was a set-up from the get-go take a major leap in logic when they claim that just because they thought they were unsuccessful in torching the building, therefore mysterious, unseen agents provocateur, from God knows what government agency, had to have finished the job for them,” declared Gordon in a recent interview.
“In the book I did not delve into it as much as I should have, but one could just as easily argue that by the time the police finally showed up, the fire was still smoldering and rekindled by itself,” continued Gordon.
“I left the cause of the fire as a mystery, because even though there way too many strange circumstances surrounding it, and it’s clear the fire could have and should have been put out, all I could do with the evidence is throw my hands up and just ponder the possibilities,” says Gordon.
A piece of evidence in his own book that Gordon seems to ignore in drawing these conclusions is that Kent State Police Detective Tom Kelley gave an interview to the Akron Beacon Journal, published on August 8, 1973, in which Kelley admitted speaking with an NBC camera crew on the afternoon of May 2 as they were preparing to leave campus.
“Don’t pack your cameras,” Kelley told them, “we are going to have a fire tonight.”
As to the shootings, Gordon’s book ultimately absolved Nixon and Rhodes but concluded, “there was no conspiracy among the enlisted soldiers but there probably was a localized order to fire issued by one of the officers at the scene.”
Curiously, Gordon’s book has been the only one on the subject consistently stocked in the Kent State student bookstore this school year. In it, Gordon writes, “Just because Richard Nixon despised protestors and might have wanted a crackdown against protestors of his Vietnam policy does not mean he did any more than fantasize about it. A
president who could not spy on Democrats in the same city without getting caught was probably not capable of having choreographed a murderous confrontation between hundreds of soldiers and college students on a few days notice.”
Former Kent State student and May 4th Task Force co-founder Alan Canfora feels this is specious reasoning. Canfora, one of the nine students wounded by gunfire from the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970, believes there was indeed a conspiracy that went all the way to the White House.
“Many of us are convinced that Nixon and Rhodes agreed upon a plan to perpetrate a massacre of militant Kent State anti-war students,” said Canfora in a recent interview.
Canfora acknowledges that there is as yet no “smoking gun” that would provide definitive proof of such conspiracy, but he’s spent 35 years pondering circumstantial evidence which he and associates find compelling data for further consideration.
Most historical accounts of the events of May 4, 1970 imply that the radical environment at Kent State had only erupted after President Nixon’s April 30 announcement that the U.S. would expand its Indochina war by invading Cambodia. This perception supports an idea that the National Guard was called upon in a relatively spontaneous manner.
But such accounts ignore the fact that anti-war and anti-Nixon sentiment in the student community at Kent State had been building over some time – a radical environment on campus had been growing at least since the 1968 advent of the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society(SDS), which was a major player nationally of the New Left that had drawn intense government scrutiny toward its activities.
The Kent chapter’s radicalism grew to such a point that it was stripped of its charter as an officially recognized student group on April 8, 1969, after a confrontation between SDS activists and the university.
“It was a hotbed of creative energy and talent and political radicalism,” says alumnus Gerald Casale in the spring ’05
edition of The Burr, the school’s student magazine. Casale, best known as a founding member of the band Devo, was a senior in 1970 and a member of SDS. “Berkeley and Columbia had nothing on Kent State,” remarked Casale in The Burr.
Alan Canfora was also a member of SDS, though he says he was a relatively new and shy member.
“I went to all the SDS demonstrations in ’68-’69,” says Canfora. “I never spoke at the meetings though – I was a new guy and considered myself just a loyal foot soldier in the anti-war fight. I was in awe of those guys.”
Canfora went on to note that a number of members went on to join The Weathermen, a radical group that did advocate violent means to achieve their philosophical ends. But Canfora says such means were contrary to the peaceful protests favored by most anti-war students at the time. Canfora says Nixon had reason to have developed a grudge against Kent State activists well before 1970, pointing to three events in particular.
In October 1968, Nixon gave a campaign speech at the University of Akron which was attended by members of Kent State’s SDS who repeatedly attempted to disrupt Nixon’s speech by chanting slogans against him.
“I went with the College Democrats and we were down on the floor just chanting, ‘debate, debate,'” says Canfora, referring to Nixon’s refusal to debate Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. “But in the balcony there were 200 SDS people repeatedly disrupting the speech, chanting anti-war slogans.”
“(Nixon) also encountered a group of approximately 150 hecklers that began their jeering as soon as he approached the lectern and did not quiet down until Nixon left the stage,” read the October 15, 1968 edition of The Daily Kent Stater. “The hecklers were composed of Humphrey backers on the main floor and members of Kent’s Students for a Democratic Society in the far left balcony. This latter group gave the candidate no peace as they continuously chanted such things as, ‘we want the truth,’, ‘law and order’, ‘no justice,’and ‘Chicago.'”
The next incident that Canfora points to is Nixon’s inauguration parade in Washington D.C. on January 20, 1969, which was also attended by members of Kent State’s SDS.
The January 21, 1969 Daily Kent Stater led with a headline that read, “Hecklers Mar Nixon’s Day,” and reported that three Kent State SDS members were among those arrested.
Canfora singles out recognition of the Kent State SDS’ superior protest efforts being of such a high degree that they were also reported in the Akron Beacon Journal. In the Beacon-Journal’s January 21, 1969 article entitled, “81 Arrested During Inaugural Parade,” the final paragraph reads:
“Leaders of the Kent State University SDS, one of the most well-organized and militant groups in Washington for the anti-inaugural festivities, attempted to curb the obscenities by starting other chants. They did not object to obscenity they said, but found no reason for its use in a non-political manner.”
Third, Canfora points to definitive proof that Kent State’s SDS was on Uncle Sam’s radar by citing hearings held by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Internal Security on June 24 and 25, 1969. The subject of the hearings? SDS activities at Kent State during the 1968-69 school year.
These hearings are detailed in the July 1970 issue of American Legion magazine in an article which tries to blame the SDS for the May 4 killings, accusing the group of consciously working toward achieving a violent conflict to produce martyrs. The story notes an April 21, 1969 article in The Daily Kent Stater that spelled out SDS strategy’s goal as “a major confrontation.”
Canfora feels that the article takes a leap in logic in its presumption that a desire for confrontation equates to desire for martyrs. It also prints an erroneous Guard report that, “a tape recording… indicates a lone shot fired 10 or 11 seconds before the Guard opened fire.” Analysis of tape recordings from May 4 have since proven this false.
Canfora also points out that many students suspected that the government had undercover agents on campus attempting to infiltrate and monitor SDS activities. Canfora makes specific mention of part-time Kent State student Terry Norman. Canfora says that Norman would attempt to come to SDS meetings and, “some people in the group would invariably stand up and say, ‘we’re not gonna start this meeting until that (MFer) gets out of here.'”
In his book, William Gordon notes that Norman came to be known as an undercover informant for both campus police and the Akron office of the FBI. Gordon notes speculation by some that Norman may have acted as an agent provocateur on the day of May 4 and possibly on the night of May 2.
While he doesn’t pinpoint Norman, Canfora found the ROTC fire suspicious for many reasons. Canfora says the SDS had attempted to burn the ROTC building numerous times over the years and always failed. He finds it suspicious that such a fire only finally succeeded after the SDS had been broken up by the university.
Norman’s role on the campus remains controversial. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover even went so far as to lie about the bureau’s relationship with Norman. In 1970, Hoover responded to an inquiry from Congressman John Ashbrook, and claimed that, “Mr. Norman was not working for the FBI on May 4, nor has he ever been in any way connected with the bureau. Norman later told investigators, “that statement is false.”
Commands from the White House?
Webster’s dictionary says that to conspire is, “to agree together, especially secretly, to do something wrong, evil, or illegal.” Ohio Governor James Rhodes initially denied that he made contact with the White House during the week preceding May 4. But in 1975 trial testimony, Rhodes admitting that he did have two private conversations with the White House in the week preceding May 4, 1970. This is not in and of itself evidence of a conspiracy between Rhodes and Nixon. But activists like Canfora find it revealing. If there was no conspiring, then why did Rhodes feel the need to lie about the calls in 1970, asks Canfora?
“I think it’s clear that Rhodes, who had been way behind in his Republican Senate primary race, discovered that when he was calling out troops, his points started to rise,” says Columbus-based attorney Benson Wolman, who was executive director of the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union when the ACLU represented the Kent State victims’ families during their trial appeal in the mid-70s. The primary race that Wolman refers to took place on May 5, 1970.
“I do think that he was engaged in active policy of escalating the confrontation for political gain,” continued Wolman. “But did he say, ‘shoot some students’? No, I’ve never seen any evidence of that.”
While “smoking gun” evidence remains elusive, certain circumstantial evidence continues to arouse suspicion amongst activists. On the day before the shootings, Governor Rhodes held a widely-publicized news conference where he denounced KSU anti-war protestors as, “…worse than the communists…the worst type of people we harbor in America… we’re going to eradicate the problem!”
While this quote does not inherently imply Rhodes planned for anyone to be shot, it does indicate that he planned for decisive action to be taken, regardless of the peaceful nature of the protests.
Troop G – green guardsmen or experienced “death squad”?
A May 18, 1970 story in Time magazine on the shootings reported, “Though the units had served in riot situations before, most of the lower-ranking enlisted men had no war experience. The Guardsmen at Kent had apparently not paid much attention to whatever training they had been given. ‘Some in my platoon,’ said one of the troopers, ‘have never handled a rifle and hardly know how to load it.'”
This information is contradicted later in the article by then Kent State journalism professor Charles Brill, who said the Guard looked like a firing squad.
“An Army veteran who saw action in Korea, Brill was certain that the Guardsmen had not fired randomly out of individual panic,” said the Time article. “They were organized,” he said. “It was not scattered. They all waited and they all pointed their rifles at the same time. It looked like a firing squad.”
Alan Canfora corroborates this view with what he has learned about Troop G, the ones who fired the shots on May 4. Canfora cites an anecdote he didn’t learn of until years after the incident.
“In 1987 or so, I met a guy who was in the Ohio National Guard in the ’60s,” says Canfora. They struck up a conversation about May 4 and the former guardsman asked Canfora if he had ever heard of Troop G. “Of course,” Canfora remarked, “that was the death squad!”
Canfora’s new acquaintance confessed to being a former member of Troop G, who was kicked out of the Guard in 1969. But the man told Canfora that he was a part of Troop G during the ghetto riots in the Hough and Glenville areas of Cleveland in 1965-66.
“The same guys that shot you guys at Kent State were the ones that shot the people in Cleveland,” said the ex-guardsman. “They were experienced killers.”
The fact that Troop G had controversial involvement in quelling the Cleveland riots is corroborated by a quote from U.S. Senator Stephen Young in the Akron-Beacon Journal on July 27, 1966 where he referred to the Guardsmen involved as being, “trigger happy.” Troop G’s presence at the Cleveland riots was confirmed in a sidebar story noting they had been dispatched for the assignment.
Another piece of little known evidence comes from Charles A. Thomas, who worked for twelve years at the National Archives and was selected to study films of the Kent State shootings. In “Kent State/May 4”, edited by Scott L. Bills (KSU Press), Thomas reported that, “it looked very much as if someone had doctored the evidence to minimize any impression of the Guard’s brutality and to plant the spurious notion that the soldiers had been confronted with a raging student mob.”
The debate has raged on for 35 years with many pundits weighing in on both sides of the conspiracy issue. The highly respected, late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson chimed in during his 1994 post-mortem for Nixon, when Thompson wrote, “He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. Army lost in all of World War II, and he denied it to the day of his death. When students at Kent State University, in Ohio, protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the National Guard.”
At this point, the debate is likely to rage on indefinitely, unless a former guardsman or government official decides to come forward with revealing testimony upon their deathbed.