By Andy Franklin, NBC Nightly News
The news came as a shock, even in an era when shocking news was commonplace. National Guard troops deployed on a college campus had actually opened fire on an unruly crowd of antiwar demonstrators. It was May 4, 1970 – a Monday – at a place called Kent State, somewhere in Ohio. American troops, firing live ammunition at unarmed American kids, hitting 13 of them. Four students were killed, including two who weren't event part of the protest. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even now, forty years later, it seems hard to believe. For me, revisiting the story of Kent State to produce Brian Williams' piece for Nightly News meant reopening an awful chapter in our history, and remembering that our country was not only at war in Vietnam back then; it was increasingly at war with itself.
It was a time when the president and vice president of the United States voiced open contempt for student protesters. Oh, they said they just meant the really radical ones, but that distinction was lost on most people at the time – including the pro-Nixon construction workers – hard-hats, everyone called them – who made sport of beating up anti-war demonstrators in the streets while waving American flags and chanting "USA! USA!"
For its part, the anti-war movement had grown shrill and venomous by 1970, after years of effort and frustration. Among the majority of earnest and well-meaning protestors were some real nasty characters, intent on making trouble – even violent trouble – while talking up revolution. Things had gotten ugly. Both sides were talking past each other – demonizing each other.
The war had gone on too long, at too great a cost. Just about everybody agreed on that. Richard Nixon had been elected in 1968, at the height of the war, on a promise to end it. But fifteen months after taking office, he went on national television to announce that he was widening the war – sending American troops into neighboring Cambodia to go after Vietcong sanctuaries. (It was April 30, 1970 – ironically, five years to the day before the fall of Saigon). The news triggered a firestorm on college campuses across the country, including Kent State, but it's worth remembering that those who objected also included top members of Nixon's own administration.
Four days later, the tragedy at Kent State laid bare just how bad things had gotten. It would be comforting to look back now and say those four deaths served as a wake-up call, that both sides called a "time out" and got busy repairing what were now violent and deadly divisions in the country. Sadly, that's not what happened. Instead, feelings of animosity and mistrust hardened on both sides. And the war went on for another five years.
Video: Watch the report from NBC Nightly News
One of the most interesting things I came across while researching this piece is a quote from President Nixon's own chief of staff Bob Haldeman. He wrote in his 1978 book, "The Ends of Power": "Kent State…marked a turning point for Nixon; a beginning of his downhill slide toward Watergate." I'd never seen that connection made so directly before, much less by Haldeman himself. He says Nixon was convinced the antiwar movement had been infiltrated by subversives and communists, and he was frustrated that the intelligence community wasn't working harder to expose them. Haldeman says this frustration led the president to assemble a secret, off-the-books intelligence operation of his own, run from the White House. That operation was later used for political ends, such as the Watergate break-in. And we all know what a bad idea that turned out to be.
Another fascinating footnote: Four days after Kent State, Nixon held a nationally televised press conference, and nearly every question was about the war, Kent State, and the awful mood in the country. As he spoke, thousands of protestors were descending on Washington for a massive anti-war rally the next day. Troops were in the streets, and the White House was ringed with buses to keep out demonstrators. Again and again, Nixon was asked why he wasn't doing more to improve relations with American students. He left the news conference that Friday night with those questions ringing in his ears, and spent a restless night making scores of phone calls into the wee hours. Some time before five o'clock Saturday morning, the president impulsively decided to go to the Lincoln Memorial with his valet, Manolo Sanchez. The Secret Service scrambled, and off he went, with just a staffer or two in tow. Nixon spent about half an hour at the Memorial, chatting quietly and somewhat awkwardly with stunned and groggy demonstrators gathered there. It's a bizarre and little-known episode in the Nixon presidency, ("the weirdest day yet," Haldeman called it in his diary that night), and since no press was along (and cell-phone cameras had yet to be invented), there would be no visual record that it ever happened – except for one young protestor who just happened to have a camera handy. His name was Robert Moustakas, and he managed to photograph Nixon's pre-dawn visit, despite the low light and the suspicious looks his long hair and beard drew from the president's security detail. (Nixon even invited Moustakas to pose with him for a snapshot there on the Memorial steps). One of his photos was obtained by UPI and seen the next day on front pages across the country. But I always wondered what else Mr. Moustakas had captured on film. I was able to track him down, and he generously agreed to let us have a look at the rest of the roll he shot that morning. Several of those images appear in our Nightly News piece for the first time anywhere. But that's not the best part. This is: the camera Moustakas used that day forty years ago was borrowed from a friend, who had purchased it at an Army PX – in Vietnam.