Tin soldiers and Nixon coming

Tin Soldiers

Tin Soldiers by David Chadwick

Tin Soldiers is a reimagining of the ‘Kent State massacre’ on 4 May 1970, when four students were shot dead by part-time soldiers of the Ohio National Guard during an anti-war  protest. Nine other students were injured and sixty soldiers wounded by bricks, bottles and other missiles hurled by protesters.

This tragic event sent shockwaves throughout the USA, forcing many universities and colleges to follow Kent State and shut their doors to their students.  

My novel plays out a similar situation in an imaginary scenario. For dramatic purposes, it takes a number of fictional turns but the personal crises are very similar: how might you react if you were looking down the barrel of a rifle at someone you went to school with? How would you feel if armoured vehicles came to town – along with military helicopters and two-ton trucks loaded with soldiers with rifles, bayonets and gas masks? 

Just as importantly, what if you were one of those soldiers and the people jeering and throwing rocks at you were former classmates? Sons or daughters of your employer? The boy or girl next door? If you feared for your life, would you pull the trigger?

The event that triggered the Kent State tragedy was Richard Nixon’s order to invade Cambodia. The country shared a long border with Vietnam and Viet Cong guerrillas often fled to safety over that border after attacking American and South Vietnamese positions during America’s involvement in the Vietnam War (1955-75).

TANKS ON THE STREETS – An armoured personnel carrier (APC) takes position in downtown Kent

The logic is easy enough to follow, but the real-world consequences were calamitous.  Cambodia was destabilised by the invasion, and eventually saw the rise of genocidal dictator Pol Pot. In the USA, the offensive was regarded by many in the political centre and on the left as the escalation of a ruinous war from which America should instead have been extricating herself.

One of the great rewards of writing historical fiction is discovering factual material that is so outrageous, so outlandish that you really couldn’t have made it up. This period in American history is perhaps the strongest example I have come across – and the bar is exceptionally high.

The small Ohio town of Kent, for instance, had a population of about 28,000 in 1970 but law enforcement was the responsibility of two separate police departments – one for the city and one for the campus. However, the no-nonsense generals commanding the National Guard didn’t recognize this demarcation. After being implored by a faculty member not to move against the campus protesters, Brigadier General Robert Canterbury replied, ‘These students are going to have to find out what law and order is all about.’

STUDENT ANGER – A young protester hurls an object at the National Guard soldiers on Kent State University campus

And despite the deployment to Kent of 1,400 guardsmen – that’s one soldier for every five households – General Canterbury ended up ‘apparently by accident’ marching onto the campus with a detachment of fewer than fifty guardsmen.

This followed one of the most astonishing meetings in the history of US higher education –  a meeting attended by National Guard commanders, senior police officers and ambitious politicians, but not one university representative. Among attendees was Ohio State Governor Jim Rhodes, polling badly in a race for the US Senate, and tough-talking county prosecutor Ron Kane, a man who knew a vote-wining situation when he saw one and harboured congressional ambitions of his own.

When reporters arrived outside the meeting room, clamouring for a press conference, Governor Rhodes wasted no time in using this grandstanding opportunity as a stepping stone to the senate. In a tub-thumping delivery, he claimed buildings ‘worth five and ten million dollars’ had been destroyed by arsonists. In fact, only one semi-derelict building, worth next to nothing had been set alight. Rhodes went on to denounce radical agitators as ‘worse than the Brown Shirts, the communist element and also the night-riders and vigilantes’. In a later statement Rhodes clarified that ‘ninety nine per cent plus of students at Kent State’ were not bent on its destruction and simply wanted an education. But the damage had been done. Word of his initial outburst spread fast, resulting in millions across America developing a massively exaggerated sense of the threat posed by radicals in the country’s universities and colleges.

HELD AT BAYONET-POINT – A distraught photographer is surrounded by guardsmen

So, when protest turned to rioting, the scene was set and the chaotic response of the authorities inevitable.  

Of course, the student body at Kent State was not blameless. Radical agitators were members of banned groups, such as the SDS – Students for a Democratic Society – and made no secret of their hostility to the ‘system’.

One of their leaders, PhD student Paul Probius, was convinced Kent State’s teachers were the lackeys of a corrupt and decadent establishment. ‘I work for the eventual overthrow of America’s political and social systems as we know them,’ he told  James A Michener, author of the acclaimed Kent State – What Happened and Why.

Another student referenced by Michener was decorated Vietnam veteran Jim Geary, a post-graduate history student who burned his discharge papers at a ceremonial burial of the US Constitution, which had been murdered, Geary claimed by Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. The event was organized by WHORE – World Historians Opposed to Racism and Exploitation, of which Bronze Star recipient Geary was a founding member.

Tin Soldiers

BLIND PANIC – Students run for cover as National Guard soldiers open fire

The question of whether the soldiers were ordered to open fire – and if so, by whom – was never answered by any of the enquiries that followed. There was talk of snipers on rooftops and of students waving pistols. But nothing was ever proved.

One certainty, though, is that the poignancy of this tragedy was intensified by many students and soldiers knowing each other, from school, from work, or from hanging around town. One soldier at least is known to have removed the name tag from his uniform for fear of being targeted by protesters.

In 1973, eight guardsmen were indicted by the federal government for violating students’ civil rights. But the charges were dropped and not one soldier was convicted for any offence. Nor were any students charged for the injuries they had caused, or the damage to the campus and the city.

This, though, is not to say nobody was responsible. If nothing else, the Kent State shootings should serve as an enduring warning of how catastrophe often attends ambition, intolerance and extremism. 

Pictures by kind permission of News Service May 4 photographs. Kent State University Libraries. Special Collections and Archives