There are events in everyone’s life that affect our views and attitudes even if we are not personally or even indirectly involved. One of the events that impacted the course and development of my political views happened 40 years ago today — the shootings at Kent State by the Ohio National Guard that left four students dead.
My political ideology, such as it is, is heavily influenced by the era in which I grew up. In my pre-teen years, a school program hooked me up with a pen pal in the Marines in Vietnam. The letters and photos he sent stopped after about a year and he no longer responded to my letters. Rather than making it back home to Chicago, he was killed in Quang Nam province on February 6, 1968, during the Tet Offensive. While I have among the world’s worst memory capacity, I know that because I remember his name to this day and made a special point of finding it on the Vietnam War Memorial.
It wasn’t that much later that I was watching the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention on TV. Even a 12-year-old kid had to wonder what was going on and what Vietnam was doing to Americans and America. Add in what else was happening in the nation over the next couple years and some of the music I would stay up late to listen to and I was on the path to a fairly committed left wing political ideology.
Had Kent State never happened, it’s likely I would have stayed on that path. Still, to this day I remain shocked, sad and disheartened by what happened there 40 years ago today. A kid can understand a soldier getting killed in a war. It’s also easy for a kid in a lily white state to wonder if there’s some political propaganda when the Black Panthers claim the cops are killing them. Blame for the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy could be laid at the feet of a couple lone wacko gunmen. But when the government starts shooting college kids protesting the Vietnam War, the bridge I was crossing seemed to be in flames behind me. I don’t know that I ever looked back again. The disclosures of the coming years — the Pentagon Papers, COINTELPRO, Watergate and Nixon’s “enemies list,” to name a few — gave me little reason to.
Granted, any loss of innocence to which Kent State contributed is far less than what those involved suffered. Still, it deepened the chasm between what I had been taught America was about and what was happening in the world. America wasn’t supposed to kill citizens who disagreed with the government. Now some of my views may have stemmed from being naive, but I’m proud to say some of that naiveté remains, along with a strong anti-authoritarian streak to which these events contributed.
To this day, thinking of May 4, 1970, brings back both sorrow and anger. There is no doubt it always will.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
Neil Young, “Ohio”