On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced a new campaign into Cambodia as the latest strategy to overcome the Viet Cong who had been operating outside of the recognized combat areas. The war in Vietnam had already dragged on for years, and, rather than seeing this as a clever move of aggression to end the war according to Nixon’s Madman Policy, the American public feared that it was reigniting a fire that had been dying. College students were especially among those upset as the exemptions that had protected them from the draft had changed in 1969.
Protests at Kent State University in Ohio began the next day. Initially, it was a peaceful demonstration with a ceremonial burying of the Constitution, which protestors felt had died in the face of administrative action. Students went back to class as the day went on, but that Friday night the protest turned violent. What began with a bonfire and a few tossed beer bottles exploded after police responded to a shattered bank window. Bars were ordered closed early, which only turned out more people to join the mob. Police eventually broke up the riot with tear gas.
Over the coming days, threats and outbursts washed over the town, centered on the university campus. City officials appealed to Governor Jim Rhodes, who called out the National Guard to restore security. Rather than judging the violence as a symptom of overall unrest, Rhodes announced that the activity was spurred by a few who “move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community. They're worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes.” He threatened to obtain orders to end demonstrations and declare martial law.
Rather than quelling the protestors, Rhodes’s speech prompted a sit-in that Sunday night. Soldiers carried out orders to disperse the students, stabbing a few with bayonets when they did not comply with the newly instated curfew. Two thousand students attended a noon protest. When a policeman attempted to read them the order to disperse, he was driven away by shouts and rocks. The National Guard soon arrived with bayonets fixed.
The push by the Guard drove the students out of the Commons. Students fled out of their way but regrouped as the soldiers returned. They threw more rocks and returned tear gas canisters. Suddenly surrounded, the guardsmen acted erratically and aimed their guns. According to later court cases, the soldiers were fired upon by a sniper. Other witnesses said that it was the guardsmen who fired first: sixty-seven shots that left four students dead and nine injured.
Faculty raced to appeal for a sense of calm after the tragedy, but students began a counterattack with Professor of Geology Glenn Frank being hit in the face by a thrown empty gas canister. Students with improvised weapons like bats and trashcans assaulted the soldiers, who resumed shooting while attempting to retreat. Arsonists soon started fires in buildings around the Commons, and the riot spread. More National Guard stormed into the area, at last securing it with over seventy-eight dead and countless wounded.
The events of Kent State proved contagious. A student strike swept the nation, shutting down campuses and sponsored more shootings and stabbings. National media fed the frenzy with powerful images of fallen students, yet polls showed the average Americans either blamed the students themselves or held no opinion; only eleven percent blamed the government. Counter-demonstrations, such as the Hard Hat Riot in New York City, only contributed to the violence.
One hundred thousand protestors marched on Washington, where their leaders were met by President Richard Nixon. Nixon held similar views to Governor Rhodes that the instigators were only a few communist-agent “bums” acting against the “silent majority,” who supported the war in Vietnam. As the riots settled, Nixon called for a President's Commission on Campus Unrest, which investigated.
For further investigation (and to avoid future violence), Nixon put into effect the Huston Plan. It was a comprehensive outline of actions by the FBI, CIA, DIA, and NSA that would secure the authority of Nixon’s administration. J. Edgar Hoover, who had begun his career battling gangsters through PR, initially argued against the plan, but he caved seeing how much damage had been done to Kent State, which closed permanently soon after the riots. Under White House aide Tom Charles Huston’s plan, the agencies performed wiretaps, burglaries, mail-seizure, and even firebombs on a list of enemies as they rooted out campus leaders. Political prisoners were shipped to a specially-built facility in the West.
The usefulness of the Huston Plan was evident when investigative journalists could prove no connection between a break-in at the Watergate Hotel and the White House, embarrassment said to have ended their careers. Afterward, it proved capable of even choosing elected officials. California Governor Ronald Reagan was politically destroyed after an intensive IRS investigation when he challenged Spiro Agnew before the Republican primary in 1976. Later that year, the character of the Democratic candidate, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, was devastated in a scandal involving prostitutes. Republicans continued in office until the 1990s, when the Democrat Bill Clinton proved able to have any scandal slide off his back. Under new leadership, he “cleaned house” in many of the agencies responsible, causing an intelligence overhaul that would later be blamed as opening the country up to terrorism.
In reality, the faculty successfully intervened. Prof. Glenn Frank gave a twenty-minute appeal, stating, “If you don't disperse right now, they're going to move in, and it can only be a slaughter.” Students were convinced and left the Commons. For many Americans, Kent State stands to this day as a warning of government overreach, as does the resignation of President Nixon in 1974 following the Watergate Scandal.