The Fourth of May

By Brian Brennan

On May 4, 1970, four students at Kent State University were shot to death by Ohio National Guardsmen during a heated anti-war protest. For those attending Youngstown State University, this event was particularly heartrending; one of the dead, Sandra Lee Scheuer of Boardman, had attended summer school at YSU only the year before.

Student rage led to strikes and demonstrations on many American college and university campuses. YSU was no exception.

It all began on the other side of the world. U.S. combat forces had been heavily engaged in Vietnam since 1965, fighting the communist North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong guerilla forces. The stated objective was to limit the spread of communism and to preserve the independence of non-communist South Vietnam.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon promised to gradually reduce America’s involvement in this unpopular war. In April 1970, however, Nixon ordered the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a communist supply route that ran north-to-south through neighboring (and neutral) Cambodia. U.S. and South Vietnamese ground assaults followed. It looked as if Nixon was actually expanding the war instead of containing it.

To make matters worse, the military draft was modified. Now selections would be made through lottery. Men born between 1944 and 1950 were affected — college deferments were also abolished.

Students were horrified by Nixon’s actions.

At Kent State, enraged students took to the streets on May 1. Both public and private property was threatened — in one case, the ROTC building was torched.

To restore order, Ohio Governor James Rhodes dispatched the National Guard. On May 4, these part-time (and relatively untrained) soldiers faced an oncoming rush of livid demonstrators. Out of tear gas and pelted by rocks, the National Guardsmen opened fire. In addition to the four students killed (two of whom, including Scheuer, were not even part of the protest), another 11 were wounded.

The country was stunned — and furious — at the events of May 4. Unrest led to the closing of many Ohio colleges and universities. At YSU, President Albert Pugsley called for a two-day period of introspection (a “teach-in”) whereby all course work would be set aside in favor of discussion relating to the tragedy. Pugsley and others addressed an open rally, seeking to come to terms with events. Some demanded the eviction of ROTC from YSU. The Newman Club asked the campus community to cancel the upcoming spring weekend festivities.

Dissatisfied with the official university response, SCAR (Students Committed to Academic Reform) called for a general student strike. A poorly organized candlelight vigil was held, but some wanted to stage a march on the downtown. Others opted to advance upon the Christy National Guard Armory on Rayen Avenue.

The following month, Nixon withdrew U.S. forces from Cambodia, hailing the campaign as a great success. Yet, popular outrage remained. Later, a presidential commission found the actions of the National Guardsmen to be unjustified. Meanwhile at YSU, students returned to class. Pollock House (where ROTC was quartered) remained undamaged, and spring weekend festivities took place as scheduled.