Forty years ago this morning, clean-cut former Eagle Scout William Schroeder — with a notebook in hand — was walking to class when a shot from an M-1 rifle, 125 yards away, tore into his back, pierced his lung and exited his shoulder. Rushed to the hospital, all live-saving attempts failed and the high school basketball and track standout was dead at the age of 19.
He didn’t go alone that day. Three other unarmed students — none who had yet turned 21 — were shot and killed at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard, placed there by a governor running for the U.S. Senate on a “law-and-order” platform.
It was a defining and desperate moment for a generation of young people. Just two years before the hopeful voices of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy had been silenced by assassins’ bullets. Kids with whom they’d grown up were being cut down in a faraway land for reasons they couldn’t understand. Now, the warmth and comfort of the college campus was giving way to government-issued gunfire.
Neither before nor since the spring of 1970 has there been such a striking contrast in the venerable institutions of the Ivy League and the U.S. military academies, which made up the Heptagonal Games at the time.
A simple glance would have yielded no obvious change at the academies, but upon closer inspection inside Memorial Hall in Annapolis, for example, newly-framed photos of the graduates killed in Vietnam were displayed on large easels. Plebes would be shocked the first time they would witness hardened seniors staring at the images with tears streaming down their faces.
Even a quick scan of the Ivy-covered campuses gave an appearance unlike before. Rebellion carried the day. The previous spring in Ithaca, for example, there had been an armed takeover of a campus building by black students which resulted in the cancellation of exams.
But by 1970, the atmosphere had grown even more tense. The anti-war movement — already growing stronger — was getting added fuel from more radicalized factions. At the same time, race relations were coming to a boil as the government was working overtime to squash the black power movement by waging war with the Black Panthers. Government distrust, especially at America’s colleges and universities, was at an all-time high.
Yale President Kingman Brewster shocked the establishment in late April when he issued a personal statement to the school’s faculty regarding an upcoming Panther trial in New Haven. “I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States,” he said. “In large part, the atmosphere has been created by police actions and prosecutions.”
While many state and national officials were condemning Brewster’s declaration, President Richard M. Nixon, reportedly for the fourth time in the month, was screening the film Patton which featured George C. Scott’s award-winning portrayal of controversial Gen. George S. Patton. The following day, in one of his “go-for-broke” moments, Nixon elected to send troops into Cambodia, a sovereign country that he had been covertly bombing for a year.
Nixon’s efforts to keep the Cambodia incursion quiet didn’t work and within days he addressed a national audience on television, not only confirming the mission into Cambodia, but adding that “even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.”
The following morning, May 1st, Princeton President Robert Goheen issued his own statement:
“President Nixon’s announcement of the decision to extend U.S. military efforts in Cambodia has shocked and alarmed a great many of us in Princeton. A large proportion of the University community shares, as I do, deep dismay — almost a feeling of betrayal — over this decision and wishes to make clear its response to an action that affects us in such important ways.
“The collective expression of sentiment against President Nixon’s action and against the war, represented in the strike action called for last night, is consonant with the views held by many of us. I sympathize with that action, so long as the proposed strike is not coercive and does not for an extended period of time interfere with the basic educational commitments that involve us all.”
While those sentiments were being shared on other campuses, two in particular were on the brink of riot. On the ‘Strip’ in Kent, as bars let out that night a spontaneous anti-war rally broke out in the streets. Windows were broken, a bonfire began. The stage was unknowingly being set for the events of May 4.
And at Brewster’s stately Yale, tanks were taking up positions along the streets of New Haven as an organized May Day rally in support of the Black Panthers was scheduled. Although tensions were high, the rally was peaceful. But late that evening, bombs ripped through the school’s hockey rink, blowing out glass windows and cracking an arch in the ceiling.
While things would ease in New Haven over the weekend, Ohio Governor James Rhodes sent his National Guard to Kent. Taking time to call the protestors “the worst type of people we harbor in America, worse than the brown shirts and the communist element,” he also stirred tensions by claiming that he would “use whatever force necessary to drive them out of Kent!”
Forty years ago this morning, his Guardsmen, with bayonets affixed to their rifles, opened fire with unnecessary force. It was Monday morning. Outdoor Heps was slated for Saturday. In New Haven.