Kent State: Conflict Within the Nation
By Eric Chen
Joe Esterhas and Michael Roberts
Joe Eszterhas and Michael D. Roberts were both reporters for the Cleveland Plain Dealer for few years. Eszterhas has written screenplays for hollywood movies such as Basic Instinct. He also has written other non fiction books Hollywood Animal and Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith.
The events that happened on May 4th at Kent State shocked the nation and showed the divide between the nation’s people. People were starting to lose confidence in the Vietnam War and wanted to bring back the soldiers that were deployed there. Because of this many people began to protest against the war, especially college students. No one ever thought that their own government would point guns at them and actually fire at them. On May 4th at Kent state the National Guard shot at a group of protesters and killed four while wounding nine people. After the event there were many different opinions of why it happened and whether or not it was justified. Joe Eszterhas in his introduction said, “...I’m still proud of the fact that Thirteen Seconds dared to speak the unspeakable…”.1 In the work Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State, Joe Eszterhas and Michael D. Roberts writes about the events leading up to the shooting and the background of the victims.
The events that lead up to May 4th are introduced in the first section of the book, such things as the Reserve Officer Training Corps building burning and why the National Guard were called into Kent State are all explored. The school’s history is one whole section in the book, it gives information on the context of the school’s environment and how the students there were like. Previous protests about the Vietnam War conducted by the Students for a Democratic Society were also mentioned in the first few chapters of the book. One of the mentioned protest was on April 1965, “It was the first mass protest against the Vietnam War by the SDS.”2 There was also a big event that happened before that was called Campus Day, when alumni of Kent State came back. The first few section are just context of event before the tragic event. The book stated that in 1968, drug trafficking existed on campus to a certain degree. The writers also stated that only twenty two percent of the students actually supported the Vietnam War. Next, the book describes the events of Friday May first, it started with Nixon’s speech on the invasion of Cambodia which enraged some of the students. They believed that there was no reason for America to be invading Cambodia and that it shows a repressive government. Because of this the students went into town, they sprayed painted on few buildings and destroyed multiple shops. After that the next chapter focuses on the SDS and how in the past they were protesting the Vietnam War. Later in the book the authors cover information on the major people involved and the two days before the shooting.
Later sections of the book are specifically about people in high positions that were involved in the event. Sylvester T. Del Corso was profiled in one section of the book, who at the time was the Ohio National Guard Major General and how he affected the events at Kent State. Even though he was never at Kent State, “It seemed as if much of the bitterness and rage over the shooting in Blanket Hill came to settle on one man…”.3 That one man was Del Corso, the chapter talks about his personal life and his military career, how he got to his position. The day before the shooting are described through the eyes of multiple people and how the tension between the protesters and the National Guard was rising to a peak. The National Guard shot tear gas into the crowd with regularity, also catching innocent bystanders. Several people suggested that the school be closed down due to the rising tensions. One major figure that is focused on is the Governor of Ohio and how he dealt with the crisis in his state. Many of the people in Ohio liked him and voted for him. He was an archetypal politician and a good promoter, and wouldn’t tolerate the disorder that was happening at Kent State. The next part, was about the day of the shooting and how even though they were not permitted to meet, many students began to gather to protest. It depicts the shooting and how the confrontation started all the way to the end of the day. The reactions of some of the National Guard after the event are recorded and so are the life and deaths of the victims at the end of the book.
There were four people that were killed by the National Guard that day, each one has a chapter dedicated to their lives. The book also focuses the chaplains and how the National Guard felt about what they had just done, not just the victims. Many of them felt guilty over the deaths of the students and it didn’t sit right with them. One was a graduate of Kent State who couldn’t believe that he was there again but as a National Guard. Allison Krause’s life is detailed in another section of the book, who was killed even though she wasn’t even part of the protest. She was an innocent bystander that happened to be there to see the protest. She didn’t support the war in Vietnam and also didn’t support the violence at Kent State, she believed that there could’ve been a more peaceful way of dealing with the problem. Her quote that, “Flowers are better than bullets,” is a famous quote that reflected her attitude towards the war in Vietnam.4 The next victim was Sandy Scheuer, the chapter talks about her personality and her background. Also it accounts where she was before May 4th and on that day. The book ends with detailed accounts of the lives of two out of the four victims, and the following aftermath of the Kent State shooting.
Most of the victims were people that weren’t even part of the protest or just bystanders in the event. Chapter 13 is about William Schroeder, an existential person, who was part of the ROTC program at Colorado. But later on , “ He found himself more and more in conflict with ROTC.”5 Schroeder began to see the faults in what the ROTC stood for but still held his ethics. He thought that the burning of the ROTC building was terrible but he understood why. The last victim was Jeff Miller, a kind person that wasn’t supportive of the use of violence. He was a bystander when he was shot on the right side of his mouth. He was a very kind person, and the chapter details his life and how he wasn’t someone that would want violence. The authors depicts the death of two young men at Kent State and the subsequent aftermath of the shooting.
The investigations that were conducted after the shooting happened on May 4th were covered in the book. Three major investigations were conducted by the U.S. Justice Department, while the FBI conducted a general inquiry. The book looks into the aftermath of the Kent State shooting and what happened to the family of the deceased after May 4th. The book also acknowledges how the deaths of the victims were being treated as the student’s own fault.
The authors’ thesis for the book is that they want to make sure that the victims are not the ones to be blamed for their deaths. They want to justify the victim’s death as the government’s fault because that is what they believed happened. The two authors include background for the motivation of the protest and the perspective of the people involved in the event such as the governor of Ohio and the Major General of the Ohio National Guard. The author Joe Eszterhas believes that it was Nixon who was responsible for the tragedy that occurred at Kent State, “Nixon and his allies didn’t actually pull the triggers of the Guardsman’s weapons, but they might as well have.”6 The authors portray the students, that were killed, as people who didn’t like violence and innocent bystanders that didn’t have any part in the protest. The author wants the American population what their government had done, which was killing four American citizens. By justifying the fact that it was Nixon who had caused the death of four young students at Kent State they make sure that their legacy is passed on instead of being forgotten. The authors also want to make sure that the right people are blamed for the death of the students.
Both authors worked as reporters for the Cleveland Plain Dealer a Cleveland newspaper during the time of the event and both were assigned to cover the story at Kent State. Because they were reporters, they most likely were motivated to look for the truth of the situation. Both were American so they were not outsiders looking at the situation. They had been reporters for a few years when they were tasked with this story. Michael D. Roberts specifically had previously reported on assignments from Vietnam before. Michael D. Roberts said, “ The collective experience Joe and I possessed played an important role in how we approached the story.”7 At the time, the Vietnam War was still going on and people began to realize that there was no reason to be there. People were less supportive of the Vietnam War since all the violence was shown on TV and other media. It was not only students at Kent State protesting the war but also most American were not happy with the Vietnam War during that time period.
This work has received some reviews by people that mostly say it provides a good firsthand look at Kent State. the Kirkus review stated that the book was, “...this is a very able account of the tragedy at Kent State by two reporters for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.”8 Another review stated that it did have some information that wasn’t true but that most of the information provided was correct. One Kent State University professor, “Dismissed this book as another journalistic quickie.”9 Even though he dismisses the book, after finishing the book, thought that it provided great information on the four students that were killed and Major General Del Corso. The two reviewers at first thought that it was a short piece of work, but that didn’t matter because the mass amount information that is given holds the book together.
The book provides a firsthand look at what happened at Kent State and provides numerous pieces of information for context. Allowing a chapter to focus on one victim at a time allows the reader to fully understand what the person was like, instead of clumping all the people that were shot together. But separating the four days by adding chapters about major figures, disrupts the flow of the book. Though adding the people in between the days allow some clarity as to who they are mentioning in the chapter. By doing so the reader may have forgotten small details of the day before. Michael D. Roberts said that, “ We divided the book between us, each responsible for certain chapters and personae.”10 This means that because it’s two writers they may not have meshed their different parts together as well as it could have been leading to it seeming a little choppy between chapter. The adding of the investigations and the aftermath helped add some closure to the book. Also by separating the events into four separate days, the reader is able to see how the events are connected and how they lead to one another .Each chapter is separated differently, yet is still connected to one another. For example one section may cover the governor, because he will have a major part in the next section. The authors also added key quotes from friends, family, and even the victims that help connect the reader to the pain that they were feeling for the ones they have lost. Both authors did a good job at providing information on what happened through context but needs to allow the book to flow a bit better.
The authors believe that at the time there was a growing divide between several different groups within the nation. Young people were starting to protest against the government and the action it took. Michael D. Roberts said that, Not since the Civil War, a hundred years before, had America found itself so torn and divided as it was in the 1960’s,...”11. He believes that the situation of the Vietnam War lead to a divide between many people in America on whether they had a reason to be there or not. Also the ethical problem of killing innocent people in Vietnam lead most people to hate the war in Vietnam. The concern over Vietnam is a continuation of the 1960s, the struggle to end the war quickly and stop the unnecessary bloodshed. The authors inserted many references to other protests in the 1960s against the Vietnam War to draw multiple parallels between those in the 1960s and the one at Kent State. They make sure to point out that it was not only at Kent State that people were protesting the Vietnam War but all across America. The author gives quotes from people that thought it was correct for the National Guard to fire at the students to kill them. The authors put in such quotes to show the differing opinion on Kent State by several people. To show that they thought the students were causing trouble and were violent. Another example is the high school that one of the victim graduated from, some students wanted the flag to be at half mast. Some students believed that they shouldn’t do such a thing because her death to them, was her own fault. So in order appease both sides, the high school had two flags one at half mast and another one all the way up. The author believed that America was divided between the problems of the 1960’s and it continued into the 1970’s.
The book Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State provides enormous amounts of information as to what happened and the background of individual victims by separating the book into chapters that cover one specific day and specific person. This it allows the reader to have a clear understanding of the facts presented in the work. But the book doesn’t flow very well because certain chapters that focus on key figures are in between the chapters focusing on the four separate days, which make it hard to remember the small details, but most reviewers thought the book had a lot of information that proved to be useful. The quote by Allison Krause that, “Flowers are better than bullets,” would resound through the nation after the shooting reflecting the attitude of the war in Vietnam.12 The novel justified the deaths of those killed and showed the true reason as to way such a terrible thing would happen, the book set out to tell the facts and accomplished just that.
3 - 4