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What really happened at Kent State?

Aftermath of the Kent State Shootings
In 1974, two guardsmen examine a photo taken shortly before they fired into the crowd at Kent State.
In 1974, two guardsmen examine a photo taken shortly before they fired into the crowd at Kent State.
AP Photo/Julian C. Wilson

The news of the Kent State University shootings shocked the public. The school was closed for the rest of the semester, as were hundreds of other colleges across the country. The next weekend, 100,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to protest the troops being sent into Cambodia. When singer/songwriter Neil Young saw the photos taken at the scene, he wrote the song "Ohio" in commemoration of the tragedy.

The Nixon administration seemed to point fingers at the protesters for provoking the guardsmen. President Nixon's response to the shootings was simply, "When dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy," which struck many as cold [source: Lytle]. Nixon's Vice President Spiro Agnew said the tragedy was "predictable." And the president's speechwriter, Ray Price, expressed sympathy for the guardsmen, calling them "a bunch of scared kids with guns" [source: Wells]. According to a Gallup Poll, most of the American public believed the protesters were primarily to blame [source: Polner].

The guardsmen who shot into the crowd claimed they did so in self-defense; they felt their lives were in danger. They testified that the protesters advanced on them in a threatening way that warranted shooting. Some historians who've investigated the shootings have accused the guardsmen of conspiring to shoot into the crowd before they retreated back up Blanket Hill.

A presidential commission that investigated the matter concluded that the tragedy was "unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable" [source: Bills]. And a 1970 FBI investigation into the shootings found that the guardsmen were not in danger and they "fabricated" this defense [source: Polner].

The case went through court in several trials. The judge in the federal trial dismissed it early on because of the weak case brought against the guardsmen. An Ohio grand jury put blame on the university officials and protesters, but not the guardsmen. The civil trial was appealed several times before it was settled out of court in 1979. The victims and the families of the students killed received the collective sum of $675,000, which the State of Ohio paid [source: Bills and Bills]. The reparations came with a signed statement from the guardsmen in which they expressed their regret of the tragedy. No official apology was ever issued.

Today, there's much debate about who is to blame for the Kent State shootings. Nevertheless, all parties agree that it was an avoidable tragedy.

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