Power to the Students

Donald A. Downs

The student protest movements of the 1960s initially reflected the optimism that characterized that decade’s birth. Inspired in part by the civil rights movement, which demanded that racial discrimination be made illegal, students across the academic landscape called for an end to in loco parentis on campus and pressed to be accorded the freedoms and responsibilities of adults, including the right to vote. The 1964 Berkeley student revolt that launched public awareness of the movement—there were less renowned antecedents—began by focusing on freedom of speech and personal autonomy, but the movement at Berkeley and elsewhere took darker turns as the decade wore on and the issues became vexed and even intractable, especially regarding race and the war in Southeast Asia.

By the early 1970s the student movement had mushroomed and fractured, resulting in competing liberal, radical, cultural, militant, and even conservative orientations. Violence erupted at several universities, leading to death at such institutions as the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Jackson State University. But Kent State was—and remains—the quintessential example of campus violence after poorly prepared National Guardsmen gunned down four students on May 4, 1970. The infamous shootings came in the wake of days of intense protests after President Nixon declared his intention to bomb North Vietnamese positions in Cambodia. This round of protests began with the torching of Kent’s ROTC headquarters right after Nixon’s nationally televised announcement; other fires soon spread around the campus and town. After the shootings, campuses nationwide shut down to avoid further violence.

To this day I vividly recall the antiwar priest at Cornell University who interrupted a campus “teach-in” on Cambodia and ominously informed my fellow students and me of what had just transpired in Ohio. An unsettling hush swept over the large gymnasium where we were gathered, with everyone wondering what would happen next. Just a year earlier the campus had been beset by racial turmoil that came perilously close to erupting in major violence.

In Kent State:Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties, Thomas M. Grace presents a thorough and often dramatic retelling of the Kent affair and more. Grace was a “third-quarter sophomore” at Kent who was politically active within the campus Left and actually witnessed the shootings from medium range. Accordingly, he writes as a “participant” and “observer”; at the same time, he has undertaken prodigious study of primary and secondary sources, resulting in a thoroughly researched inside analysis of what happened at Kent and elsewhere. The book is a valuable contribution to the history of those times for these reasons, even if Grace sometimes gets bogged down in distracting details. (Alas, such is often the case with historical writing these days.) In the end, however, the reader does not lose the forest for the trees. Though organized chronologically, each chapter emphasizes the political and social themes most prominent at the time, making the book as a whole much more than a narrative of events.

Writing history as participant and observer has many advantages, but there are downsides as well. Let me begin with the positive. Grace’s involvement in Kent politics adds authenticity and accuracy to his depiction of events, and allows him to offer insight into the background politics that preceded the shootings and their effect on later political movements and individual careers. As a Kent activist himself, Grace’s ability to get inside the minds and motives of those who were part of the protest and those who fomented it is compelling; he presents a thorough analysis of the politics behind calling out the National Guard, the guardsmen’s viewpoints, and the disastrous aftermath of events. And his portrayal of the actual shootings is gripping, revealing the intensity of the confrontation and how decisions had to be made in the face of uncertain, quickly changing circumstances. (The medley of bullets took place in about twenty seconds.) Wherever one stands regarding the protesters, the fact remains that the Guard was ill-prepared for what it encountered. One of the students killed was simply leaving a classroom, while another, ironically, was a high-ranking ROTC cadet who had been observing the main protest from the outer ring of protesters.

Grace covers the myriad interactions between Kent State antiwar leaders and national mobilization efforts, including marches in Washington, national interchanges between antiwar and radical groups, and related meetings. The complex web of radical and antiwar activity is on full display. As he acknowledges, other scholars, including historian Kenneth J. Heineman and author Tom Wells, have addressed the protest politics at such blue-collar-type schools as Kent State, or have written about Kent State itself. Grace’s distinctive contribution is to delve more fully into the social, economic, and political backgrounds of Kent’s campus activists. He does a good job of showing how the events of 1970 were the culmination of a broad tapestry of factors. For example, Grace pays special attention to “how the labor, civil rights, peace, and antiwar struggles in Cleveland and the presence of Old Left groups there, all served to influence the emergence of a movement on the Kent campus.”

This approach also illuminates three broader aspects of the political history of the Left in America. First is how the New Left both grew out of but also conflicted with the New Deal coalitions of its fathers and mothers. Most New Deal liberals and coalitionists were initially supportive of the Cold War consensus after World War II, and were much less inclined to question the roots of liberal democracy in America. Grace delineates the alliances and the tensions that arose between these two broad factions over time, especially as some aspects of the New Left became more radicalized, violent, and anti-American.

Second, Grace traces the different factions and tensions within the campus movement itself. Kent became host to a prominent Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) group, which broke into factions—the Progressive Labor faction, the Action faction, and the later violent Weatherman faction—at Kent and elsewhere. Grace also treats the more hippie-oriented groups, who concentrated on cultural and attitudinal change rather than on political and economic restructuring. Readers who went to college in the sixties will feel nostalgic, for better or worse, or both.

Third are the subtle, complex relationships among groups who focused on the draft and the war (such as the Kent Committee to End the War in Vietnam) and leftist groups who viewed the war as a symptom of deeper and even irredeemable national flaws. Though the antiwar movement grew, tensions among factions remained, because most students, even at Kent, did not favor revolutionary change.

Also useful is Grace’s treatment of the relationship among the campus Left, the Kent State administration, and the town. During the tumultuous sixties the administration, as at many institutions, was caught in the crosswinds of the conservative town of Kent and the more liberal-radical university (the old town/gown dichotomy, but greatly exacerbated). Grace recaps in detail the vicissitudes of interactions between student activists and the Kent administration, as well as tensions within the latter. For example, he carefully covers both racial and antiwar and economic politics. Among other things, the Kent administration often strove to accommodate the Black United Students, Kent State’s version of the broader national black student movement, in order to separate them from radical student activists—an effort that bore at least a modicum of success. As at many other schools at the time, the racial group at Kent largely went its own way, forming alliances when it deemed them strategically useful. Not surprisingly, Kent’s president Robert L. White added his name to a growing list of fallen administrative leaders by resigning in the wake of the 1970 shootings.

Overall, Kent State is a penetrating and instructive account. And it starkly reminds us of two things: how liberal democracies can be torn apart by ill-advised major wars that are poorly conducted, and how the resulting turmoil can be exploited by radical groups bent on undermining the status quo. But some lacuna that stem from the overtly radical politics of the author, evidently unchanged from his college days, merit attention.

First, while Grace is right to condemn the actions of the Ohio Guard, he does not sufficiently question the highly provocative actions of the most militant protesters. In the days leading up to the shootings, student militants committed acts of arson that were criminal and dangerous. Such actions no doubt contributed to the climate of lawlessness and trepidation on the Kent campus.

Then there is Grace’s relative blindness to the moral shortcomings of some on the left, which leads him to come across as disturbingly untroubled regarding hardcore leftist groups enamored of brutal, repressive Communist leaders such as Castro, Che Guevara, and, of course, Ho Chi Minh. America’s broader commitment to the Cold War receives no moral credibility, even though the Soviet Union epitomized a tyrannical state with belligerent, worldwide ambitions.

In a similar vein, Grace does not appear to fathom how the violent aspects of the student movement helped to energize the conservative movement that ultimately prevailed nationally with the advent of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. This reaction is portrayed with telling force in historian Rick Perlstein’s magisterial Before the Storm:Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill and Wang, 2001); and it was not always “reactionary” but in many ways an entirely reasonable sociopolitical response to extremity and unreason on the other side. Though Grace never mentions this, it is interesting to note that in 2008, Mark Rudd, the most famous SDS Weatherman, confessed during a reunion commemorating the Columbia University student revolt of 1968, “Stupidly, we thought revolution was imminent. Our rage blinded us. I now believe that the war in Vietnam drove us crazy.”1 In 2012, Rudd also publicly approved of the ROTC’s return to Columbia after its exile during the late 1960s, acknowledging that having Ivy-educated officers in the military is, on balance and after all, a good thing. Grace entertains no such second thoughts.

Finally, and most important, nowhere does Grace question the fallout of all this business on higher education in America. Kent State:Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties presents a dynamic portrayal of the exploitation of a university for overtly political purposes, while never addressing whether this undermines what a university is supposed to be. In Kantian terms, Grace does not object to the use of the university as a means to serve political ends, or to such things as the shouting down of speakers. Berkeley political science professor Albert Lepawsky presciently struck at the heart of the coming dilemma in a campus speech he delivered during the heat of the debate over the free speech movement in 1964:

The main task we face is preserving the University not merely as a free political community but primarily as an institution which is privileged to be an intellectual sanctuary within a greater society that is now in political flux. After all, the university’s prime mission resides not in political activity but in the cultivation of the intellectual freedoms.2

Sadly, the leading student activism on campus today has forsaken this intellectual mission of the university in favor of a dogmatic identity politics-based notion of social justice. And unlike the student movements of the sixties, the new activism disparages free speech and intellectual diversity as hindrances to its goals. Though the Vietnam War called out for protest, some of the seeds for the new campus intolerance were laid in the campus politics of which Kent State was a component. Two wrongs do not make a right.

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