By: Kevin McPherson
They say history repeats itself, today we see unrest in urban communities over police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement. Forty five years ago the outrage was over the shooting of four college students at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, 1970. The students had been protesting the Nixon Administration’s policies in Southeast Asia, and specifically the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The protests lasted three nights and tensions grew when martial law was declared following the burning of the on-campus Army ROTC building. The next day the size of the gathering grew larger and tear gas was used to disperse the students who then admittedly began volleying rocks or whatever they could get their hands on at the Guardsmen. It was at this point that the Guardsmen fired their weapons into the crowd, killing four college students. Americans expect our Armed Forces to be a force for peace and stability. We place trust and respect in the uniform understanding that they are serving and protecting our freedom. When that trust is violated as it was on May 4, 1970 the country responded with anger and disbelief. President Nixon’s own Committee on Campus unrest described the events as “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
The events on that day in Ohio sparked nationwide outrage especially on college campuses where students felt a solidarity with those at KSU. The movement even reached Andover, Massachusetts where students here at Merrimack College staged a protest and a march to voice their opinions on what was happening in this country. The shootings occurred on a Monday, and on Tuesday May 5, 1970 Merrimack College students joined the nation in expressing their anger over not only the shootings in Ohio, but also the movement of troops into Cambodia. This cause brought together a fairly divided nation while also serving to draw a line between those protesting and those who supported the Nixon Administration in its Southeast Asian pursuits.
I sat down with Dr. Michael Rossi of the Communications department who was a student at Merrimack at the time of the shooting and of the protest. Dr. Rossi said that he had participated in the protest along with a mass of other Merrimack students. According to Dr. Rossi one of the biggest selling points for the gathering was that these students were choosing to skip class which was an uncommon occurrence on campus in 1970 according to him, “The world was very different back then… Merrimack students weren’t cutting classes so that itself was kind of momentous. Even in the spirit of the time it was a little more conservative here then you might expect.” Dr. Rossi went on to describe a rather peaceful protest and he doubts that many students were in their classes at all that day. Following a rally on campus, students marched to downtown Andover. In this moment in Merrimack history students came together to make a difference in this world and forced people to question what they believed in while staying true to what they believed in.
Why is it that today we still fight the longest war in United States history yet there is far less civil unrest about that very war in the Middle East then there was about the one in Vietnam? In the 1970’s the protests reached as far as Merrimack College and today there is very little questioning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The question of why we were in Vietnam was not easily answered especially as the war spilled into the 70’s. The war was part of a complicated Cold War policy of keeping Communism out of Southeast Asia especially necessary after the fall of China. There was a great fear among the US leaders that, after Korea, there would be a domino effect in the region if Vietnam fell. That is a complicated answer most people did not want to hear during the war especially when so many kids were being sent to their death unwillingly through the draft system. Compared to the situation today where the answer to the question “what are we doing over there?” can be overly simplified by the answer “we were attacked.” While the policy, action, and situation in the Middle East are for more complicated than simply implicating 9/11 it is easy to calm unrest and win public support by saying this is a necessary war to defend the dignity of the United States. Wars are won and lost in the eyes of the public. Public opinion and support for a war a huge unrecognized factor in war which is why propaganda during World War I and II were so widely used and pictures from the bloody battles were generally censored from public view. A phenomenon started during the War in Vietnam where the media became imbedded with theses soldiers and the horrors of battle were seen every night on the news. Today’s culture has become complacent with the wars in the Middle East because for the first few years “we were attacked” was a completely acceptable answer and now we continue to fight these wars out of habit. We see the scenes of these battles only towards the end of a news broadcast or as a special report that very little people watch and nothing gets done about. I am not saying we should riot in the streets but complacency at this time is rampant and the public should be asking meaningful questions of our government and our leaders.
Why is it so hard, as a nation, to accept men in uniform killing civilians when civilians kill civilians in astronomical numbers every day? There is tremendous respect throughout the country for the men and women in the military and on our police force yet when those people push the boundaries of their responsibilities and open fire on citizens they find tremendous backlash. We especially see that in today’s society. The City of Baltimore recently lit itself on fire in anger over the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Police officers and all throughout the urban community there is outrage over police brutality. Maybe it is because within our police officers and military personnel we place an immense amount of training, power, and equipment and with that power we trust that their judgment has advanced past that of an ordinary citizen. We trust their judgment to be better than our own in times of stress. People say “with great power comes great responsibility” but power also comes with tremendous culpability and accountability. We, rightfully so, hold the uniform to a higher standard than the general population however we must also always remember that they are still people themselves and while they are honorable people they are still capable of human error.