Tin Soldiers & Nixon Coming…

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.

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One Response to “Tin Soldiers & Nixon Coming…”

  1. Peter Billia says:

    I heard about your articles on the 1970 Outdoor Heps Track Championship from Barney Forsythe. Barney and I are 1970 Army classmates and track teammates. I was a member of two of Army’s winning 2-mile relay teams at Heps Championships and took 3d place honors in the 1000 yard run at the 1969 Indoor Championships at Cornell behind Keith Colburn and Steve Bittner.
    Thank you for taking the time to reflect back on those times. I loved being associated with the Heps and wish to this day that the academies were still part of that league. The late sixties were difficult times for all of us who experienced it as part of our college years. Those of us from the academies were deeply affected by events around us. We had to listen to the names of former graduates announced in our dining halls who were not coming back from Southeast Asia time after time. As the war continued, our time to serve was inevitable.
    Track and our association with the Ivy Schools was a wonderful diversion for us. I always cherished the times we had the opportunity to visit Ivy campuses and experience lives and establish lasting friendships and respect for the student athletes we competed against. The quiet bus ride home from Yale in 1970 was difficult for us. As seniors, we knew our track careers were drawing to a close and this would be our last opportunity to compete against our Hep friends. We had hoped politics would not interfere with our sport, but it did. I harbor no regrets for the Academies decision to quit the meet. For us, it was the correct one. Likewise, I’ve always respected the need for those in our generation to express their frustration with the state of affairs at the time.
    My graduating class of 1970’s motto is “Serve With Integrity”. None of us are serving in a military capacity anymore, but I am proud of what many have accomplished with their lives. As an example, we have a standing Govenor in Nevada, College President, MTV International President, professional doctors, lawyers, and many other careers which benefit the lives of others. I chose to become a Dentist and have had a successful private practice for the past 29 years. As a gift to West Point, my class created and permanently endowed a National Conference on Ethics in the Workplace which is attended by hundreds of college students and corporate leaders annually. We continue to serve the public and private sectors to make lives better for society as a whole.
    In 1982 I established my practice in a Massachusetts town that just happened to be the residence of Harvard’s legendary track coach, Bill McCurdy. Over the years, I was privileged to treat he and his family as we became genuine friends. We shared old photos and stories relating to our competetive rivalry in the late sixties. He confided in how much he respected the Army athletes as competitors and the feeling was mutual. As a testament to him, many of his former runners would come by from time to time to check on “coach” and he would invite me to come to his home to share those moments when there was possibly someone I would remember. We’d sit in his kitchen, drink beers, and talk about old times. Can’t remember all the former Harvard guys who came by, but Keith Colburn and Tim McLoone were there multiple times. The 1970 Heps was a topic that came up, but only briefly. There was regret expressed, but we had moved on and focused on better memories. Nothing more need be said. I’ll always cherish those meetings.
    I’ll never forget those years in the late sixties and our affiliation with the Heps. Except for that crazy and emotional day at Yale, they contain many of the best memories of my life. Keith’s decision, as Harvard’s Captain, to not accept the winning trophy in 1970 was a gesture I’ll never forget. The Academy athletes may have been absent from competition, but we were not forgotten….