Kent State and Vietnam
American involvement in Vietnam was a long, slow-growing phenomenon that began under President Truman. After World War II, France struggled to maintain control over its colony in Indochina against communist, anti-colonial forces led by Ho Chi Minh. When France decided to withdraw from Indochina in 1954 after 8 years of fighting against the Vietminh the United States was unwilling to leave the country to fall to communism, convinced it would be the domino that would precipitate the fall of the region to Soviet influence. Over the course of the decade from 1953 to 1963 Vietnam became the front line of America’s battle with Soviet communism, moving from measured containment to an avowed commitment to the survival of the Republic of Vietnam in the south against Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces in the north (Anderson 21). Successive administrations under Eisenhower and Kennedy increased US economic and military aid and personnel commitment to Vietnam. President Johnson secured the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Congress in 1964 authorizing “all necessary measures” and further escalated US commitment in Vietnam under his administration with the “Americanization” of the war significantly increasing the American troop presence in Vietnam. With the draft in place to supply men to send to Vietnam to fight and ambiguous battlefield results the war in Vietnam became increasingly unpopular (Anderson 45). During the 1968 Presidential campaign Richard Nixon ran on promises to bring the Vietnam War to a successful conclusion (Anderson 82).
Nixon’s chosen Vietnam strategy was Vietnamization. This meant the transfer of responsibility and initiative to Vietnamese forces which required a significant build up of RVN troops and supplies (Anderson 91). Many problems including professionalization and corruption issues plagued the efficiency of South Vietnamese forces and the US, as it had not mobilized for a long war, lacked the qualified manpower to address these shortfalls (Anderson 92). In an effort to reassure leaders in Saigon while avoiding committing more troops on the ground the Nixon administration continued prolific bombing campaigns along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and Cambodia throughout the month of March. These strategic actions were well known to the DRV leaders but the administration hid them from the American public (Anderson 92).
Nixon took the opportunity presented by Cambodia’s March 18th coup, which replaced the neutral leader with a pro-American general, to consider ground action in Cambodia. On April 30, the President announced on national television that he had authorized US and South Vietnamese forces to launch attacks into Cambodia at the request of the Cambodian government (Anderson 93). President Nixon insisted that this did not constitute and invasion but rather a “limited incursion.”
Nixon and his Secretary of Defense Henry Kissinger had anticipated a negative domestic reaction to the news. When Secretary of State William Rogers learned about the policy he predicted that it would “make the students puke.”(Anderson 94) During the typical weekend mix of anti-war protest and springtime partying on the weekend of May 2-3 Kent State students burned the ROTC building on campus. In reaction the governor ordered Ohio National Guard troops to campus. On Monday May 4, 1970 students gathered to protest the war and the presence of the troops on campus. The troops used tear gas to break up the crowd and followed the students down a hill. Some of the soldiers fired on students. Four students were killed and several others were wounded. Some of the victims were students who had been walking between classes and had not been involved in the protests.