avatar
Four Dead in Ohio: Thirty Years Later


Mark Weisbrot

May

4 will mark thirty years since four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent

State University were murdered by Ohio National Guardsmen. It is no exaggeration

to call it murder, since the students were unarmed and– given how far they were

from the troops– could not have posed any threat. The closest of those killed,

Jeffrey Miller, was shot at a distance of 265 feet.

The

photo of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling beside his body, arms outstretched and

screaming in anguish, was etched into the national consciousness as a searing

image of the war at home.

The

campuses responded with an explosion of protest, with five million students

taking part in America’s largest student strike. Kent State was a turning point

in the history of the war– "a shock wave that brought the nation and its

leadership close to the point of physical exhaustion..," as Henry Kissinger

would later write in his memoirs.

The

war dragged on for five more years, and so we have recently been treated to a

series of ruminations on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its conclusion. But not

enough space has been given to those who got it right three decades ago: the

anti-war movement.

The

protesters put forth an alternative analysis of the war. It was not a war to

save the world from a "Communist threat," as our leaders told us, but

a colonial war. We took over the war from the French, who were trying to regain

control of their former colony after World War II. We refused to allow elections

in 1956, as provided for by the Geneva accords of 1954– because (as President

Eisenhower noted) we knew that our adversaries, led by Ho Chi Minh, would win

overwhelmingly.

Instead

we poured in arms and money, and then troops to support a corrupt, dictatorial

client state in South Vietnam. We could never "win" the war, because

most Vietnamese saw the United States as a hostile invader trying to take over

their country. And the South Vietnamese army was understandably demoralized. So

our involvement escalated, and we resorted to increasingly brutal methods–

including the bombing of civilians and defoliation of large areas of land. Two

million Vietnamese civilians were killed, mostly in the South, in addition to

more than one million fighters. As Nixon spread the war to Cambodia– his

invasion of which brought the Kent State protesters into the streets– our

bombing probably killed as many Cambodians as Pol Pot did, and helped create the

conditions for the holocaust that ensued there.

The

anti-war movement argued that these were heinous crimes that could never be

justified. "We have destroyed their land and their crops," said Martin

Luther King, Jr. "We have supported the enemies of the peasants. . . we

have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What

liberators!"

A

1990 poll by the Chicago Council on Foreign relations found that 71% of

Americans thought the Vietnam war was "more than a mistake; it was

fundamentally wrong and immoral."

Yet

the 25th anniversary has seen numerous attempts to find some middle ground, so

that we may "put the war behind us." Fifty-eight thousand American

soldiers died in Vietnam, and even more committed suicide after returning home.

Some say it is a disservice to the millions of veterans who fought there to talk

about the evils of the war.

But

many veterans do not feel that way. Barry Romo, national coordinator of the

Vietnam Veterans Against the War, reminds us that his was the only organization

of Vietnam veterans that existed 30 years ago– and the only veterans who took

to the streets were those protesting the war. "It’s unfair to those who

lost their lives, and their arms and legs, to pretend that the war had some

value. We were lied to by the government and the media– we should never have

been there. The most important thing now is for people to know the truth so that

it never happens again."

It’s

a compelling argument. Our government’s support for the mass atrocities in

Central America in the 1980s, which included arming the killers of tens of

thousands of innocents, might well have been avoided if we had owned up to the

truth after the Vietnam war. And since this more recent history, too, has been

swept under the rug, we are currently going down the same road in Colombia.

To

forgive is a virtue, but forgetting is an indulgence we can ill afford. Our

foreign policy establishment remains addicted to empire, and is possessed by a

hubris that is arguably even greater than the one that got us into Vietnam.

Until they learn the lessons that the anti-war movement tried to teach them, we

can expect more Vietnams ahead of us.

Mark

Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in

Washington, D.C.