Peaceful demonstrations had begun a few days prior, with students protesting America’s invasion into Cambodia. Incidents of vandalism and unrest began erupting. Shop windows were broken in downtown Kent, and the ROTC (Reserved Officer Training Corps) was set on fire. Fearing an all-out riot, the mayor asked Governor James Rhodes for assistance. Rhodes ultimately sent in the National Guard.
The rest is “history,” but whose history is it? After more than 40 years, the hurt is not entirely healed and the tragedy of Kent State is not forgotten. Among other questions left unanswered about the Kent State shootings are:
- Exactly which Guardsmen fired the shots.
- What motivated the Guardsmen to shoot.
- Who, if anyone, gave the order to fire.
- Whether the attack was planned or spontaneous.
Monday, May 4, 1970:
Tensions had been mounting between the students and the National Guard. According to reports, students had been throwing rocks, taunting the Guardsmen, and making obscene gestures. The soldiers appeared to be poorly organized. The release of tear gas only exacerbated the situation. The Guardsmen began to retreat but at a pivotal point, some turned to face the students again. Many assumed the firing position and aimed their rifles at students. Without warning, chaos erupted. In thirteen seconds, 67 rounds were fired, resulting in four young people dead (Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, William Schroeder, Sandra Scheuer) and several others critically wounded.
Scott Duncanson, of Westerville, Ohio, was a freshman at Kent State and in the vicinity of the shootings on May 4, 1970. I recently spoke with Scott and he shared his recollections of that day, and the thoughts and feelings that followed.
PT: What were your reasons for being at the site of the protest? Were you involved in the protest that day?
Duncanson: Several friends and I were interested bystanders. But there wasn’t a sharp line between bystander and participant in that particular situation. A lot of bystanders found themselves drawn into participation. My roommate and I made it a point to be there. Even though we weren’t determined to make something happen, we were determined to observe and know what was happening.
PT: For what purpose? Just because it was exciting, or different, or … ?
Duncanson: I can’t speak for my roommate. I was greatly disturbed by the events of the whole weekend. It was a little bit of a surreal environment, with armed personnel carriers on the corner, National Guardsmen stationed conspicuously here and there, and helicopters buzzing overhead. Obviously many people had different reactions to that. My combination of reactions I guess I could describe as alarm. I felt threatened. I thought it was pretty heavy-handed, the forcefulness of the response. And many factors entered into that. There was a political campaign going on; Jim Rhodes had a lot on the line. There was a great deal of suspicion back and forth.
PT: Were you solidly on one side or the other politically at the time?
Duncanson: If there were only two sides, I would have been … I don’t know if it’s accurate to say “on the left,” but I don’t know if there were just two sides.
PT: What was it like just prior to the shooting? Was there excitement, was there tension?
Duncanson: There was a lot of tension, I guess a certain kind of excitement, but not everybody was on the same page.
PT: What did you see and hear that made you realize that people had actually been shot?
Duncanson: I’m just past the crest of [Blanket Hill]. I look up to the crest of the hill and see that a small group of Guardsmen – maybe a dozen – have kind of stopped marching. And then I hear shots. This I did not expect and I guess the reflex action is to turn toward the sound. They continue to shoot and I hear more shots. I see one of the Guardsmen with a handgun sort of gesturing toward the guys with rifles as if he’s trying to make them stop. That struck me as very peculiar, that he was trying to get them to stop shooting.
PT: The older I get the more I realize that there’s hardly anything that’s black and white and the good guys and bad guys are not always clearly defined. In terms of Kent State do you have an opinion about that, a sense of who did something wrong?
Duncanson: From the best information available to me, I think it was abundantly clear that some of the Guardsmen on the top of the hill chose to kill students. Those weren’t warning shots and it’s doubtful to me whether they were following orders. I think it got real personal. I can’t peer into their souls and understand how and why it got personal or what they had in mind. They went rogue. Until proven otherwise I will take that to my grave. And they did wrong.
PT: I’m not sure how to ask this question. Later that day, that week, what was the mood like then? That’s a pretty broad question, I know …
Duncanson: I don’t know if there was “a mood.” If there were a thousand people there, there were probably a thousand moods. At first there was just numbness, shock, not knowing what to do or think or say. Some people had the presence of mind to address the situation and try to help the victims; those responses were in motion right away.
We were being ordered and herded out of the area. They treated it as a crime scene in a way, but the perpetrators were herding the objects of the crime, which struck me as bizarre. I mean, who did what to whom?
PT: Did you know anybody that was killed or injured that day?
Duncanson: An acquaintance was Allison Krause. She lived in Metcalf [Hall]. She and I had mutual friends. I didn’t know her personally but I’d see her around all the time.
PT: How did the experience of May 4, 1970 change you?
Duncanson: It’s hard to tell. Maybe I would have made the decisions I made anyway. Maybe I was already headed in that direction … but … it could have been me. Those four kids were just like me. It could have been my roommate. It could have been his girlfriend, my girlfriend. It was so unnecessary … I was a kid from the suburbs. Compared to a lot of people I’d had a relatively easy life, maybe comparable to Bill and Allison and Sandra and Jeff. But I got to grow up, and finish school, marry and have children, have a career, have adventures and go places, meet a lot of people and have this conversation right now. They were cheated in the flower of youth.
Funny thing: Sometimes moments just hit you between the eyes. I remember standing out on the front porch of Apple Hall Thursday night [April 30], and I said to my friend Jerry, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the war ended tomorrow?” You know, it’s a spring night, and you’re full of life, and you’re thinking big thoughts; and on the contrary, something very different happened the next day and the day after that and the day after that. There’s a phrase people used to use … “the war comes home.” And the war, in no uncertain terms, had come home.