The photo that changed America: 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Kent State student Jeffrey Miller

John Filo/Getty Images

‘Four Dead in Ohio’

Fifty years ago, National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University, sending shock waves across America

Dean Kahler heard bullets hit the ground around him as he lay facedown on the grass, his hands covering his head. He was a student at Kent State University in Ohio, and the Ohio National Guard, recently summoned to the campus,  was shooting at him.

It was May 4, 1970. A few days earlier, guard troops had come to restore order after someone had set fire to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) building. Student activists were protesting the Vietnam War, spurred by President Richard Nixon’s recent announcement that he was expanding the conflict into Cambodia.

Kahler, an Ohioan only days past his 20th birthday, was just a curious bystander that afternoon. He had walked over to the campus Commons to observe the protests after class when suddenly the National Guard soldiers fired their M-1 rifles into a dispersing crowd of unarmed students.

“I could hear the bullets go zuuuup! right into the ground. It was probably within inches of my ear,” Kahler, now 69, remembers. “It wasn’t just one or two shots, it was four or five shots—until I finally got hit.”

Dean Kahler heard bullets hit the ground around him as he lay facedown on the grass, his hands covering his head. He was a student at Kent State University in Ohio. The Ohio National Guard had recently been called to the campus. Now the guardsmen were shooting at him.

It was May 4, 1970. A few days earlier, guard troops had come to restore order after someone had set fire to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) building. Student activists were protesting the Vietnam War. The protest was a response to President Richard Nixon’s recent announcement that he was expanding the conflict into Cambodia.

Kahler, an Ohioan only days past his 20th birthday, was just a curious bystander that afternoon. He had walked over to the campus Commons to observe the protests after class. Then suddenly, the National Guard soldiers fired their M-1 rifles into a dispersing crowd of unarmed students.

“I could hear the bullets go zuuuup! right into the ground. It was probably within inches of my ear,” Kahler, now 69, remembers. “It wasn’t just one or two shots, it was four or five shots—until I finally got hit.”

‘It was four or five shots—until I finally got hit.’

Kahler knew almost instantly that he’d been shot in the spine, because he was in very little pain. The bullet, he said, felt like a bee sting as he lost all feeling below the waist.

In just 13 seconds, 28 guardsmen fired 67 shots, killing four students. Nine others, including Kahler, were wounded.

The Kent State shootings 50 years ago shocked Americans and revealed the deep divisions between those who supported the war in Vietnam and those who didn’t. The trauma of seeing soldiers kill unarmed students further turned the tide of public opinion against the conflict.

Kahler knew almost instantly that he’d been shot in the spine, because he was in very little pain. The bullet, he said, felt like a bee sting as he lost all feeling below the waist.

In just 13 seconds, 28 guardsmen fired 67 shots. They killed four students. Nine others, including Kahler, were wounded.

The Kent State shootings 50 years ago shocked Americans. They also revealed the deep divisions between those who supported the war in Vietnam and those who didn’t. The trauma of seeing soldiers kill unarmed students further turned the tide of public opinion against the conflict.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images (Schroeder, Krause, Miller); Dr. W. Gordon/Courtesy of Audrey Scheuer (Scheuer)

The victims: (from left) William Schroeder, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, and Sandra Scheuer

The Vietnam Generation

U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a former French colony, had played out against the backdrop of the Cold War. After Vietnamese Communists defeated the French on the battlefield in 1954, Vietnam was partitioned into a Communist North and pro-Western South (see timeline, below). The following year, the U.S. began sending military advisers to support South Vietnam in its fight against the North. The 17th parallel, which separated the divided country, became symbolic of the West’s determination to halt the spread of Communism worldwide.

In 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson started sending combat troops into the region, a Gallup poll showed that 61 percent of Americans supported the war. At the time, military service was mandatory for men ages 18-26 if their draft number was called in a national lottery.

“[The war] touched almost everyone’s life,” says Mindy Farmer, director of the May 4 Visitors Center at Kent State University, which commemorates the shootings. “More than 58,000 Americans died in the war, so you almost certainly knew someone who died. You certainly knew someone who served.”

The horrors of the war reached American living rooms via the nightly news (more than 3 million North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese died in the war, too). Public opinion on the war had begun to sour by the late 1960s. Student protests sprang up in and around college campuses, notably at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University, and Harvard University.

U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a former French colony, had played out against the backdrop of the Cold War. Vietnamese Communists defeated the French on the battlefield in 1954. Afterward, Vietnam was split into a Communist North and pro-Western South (see timeline, below). The following year, the U.S. began sending military advisers to support South Vietnam in its fight against the North. The 17th parallel separated the divided country. It became symbolic of the West’s efforts to stop the spread of Communism worldwide.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson started sending combat troops into the region. That year, a Gallup poll showed that 61 percent of Americans supported the war. At the time, military service was mandatory for men ages 18-26 if their draft number was called in a national lottery.

“[The war] touched almost everyone’s life,” says Mindy Farmer, director of the May 4 Visitors Center at Kent State University, which commemorates the shootings. “More than 58,000 Americans died in the war, so you almost certainly knew someone who died. You certainly knew someone who served.”

The horrors of the war reached American living rooms via the nightly news. More than 3 million North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese died in the war, too. Public opinion on the war had begun to sour by the late 1960s. Student protests sprang up in and around college campuses. The most notable of these protests took place at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University, and Harvard University.

Kent State University Libraries. Special Collections and Archives.

Ohio National Guard troops move in on protesters at Kent State on May 4, 1970.

Students Taking a Stand

Students held demonstrations, in part, Farmer says, because they were being drafted but could not yet vote. At the time, the voting age was 21.

“You disagree with [the war], but you can’t vote. What do you do?” says Farmer. “[Students] knew about the importance of the First Amendment because they knew that that was the one way, if they were under 21, that they could show their discontentment with the government.”

Nixon had run in the 1968 election on a platform to end the Vietnam War. But after winning a contentious race, Nixon announced on television on April 30, 1970, that he was expanding the war by bombing enemy supply lines in Cambodia. Many viewed that as a betrayal of his campaign promise and an escalation of senseless bloodshed. More students across the nation started to make their voices heard.

After protesters near the Kent State campus set bonfires in the street, smashed some store windows, and clashed with local police, Kent’s mayor asked the state’s governor to send in the Ohio National Guard. As guardsmen arrived on the evening of May 2, the campus R.O.T.C. building was ablaze, and some protesters tried to prevent firefighters from putting out the fire.

Students held demonstrations, in part, Farmer says, because they were being drafted but could not yet vote. At the time, the voting age was 21.

“You disagree with [the war], but you can’t vote. What do you do?” says Farmer. “[Students] knew about the importance of the First Amendment because they knew that that was the one way, if they were under 21, that they could show their discontentment with the government.”

Nixon had run in the 1968 election on a platform to end the Vietnam War. But after winning a heated race, Nixon announced on television on April 30, 1970, that he was expanding the war by bombing enemy supply lines in Cambodia. Many viewed that as a betrayal of his campaign promise and an escalation of senseless bloodshed. More students across the nation started to make their voices heard.

Protestors near the Kent State campus set bonfires in the street, smashed some store windows, and clashed with local police. In turn, Kent’s mayor asked the state’s governor to send in the Ohio National Guard. As guardsmen arrived on the evening of May 2, the campus R.O.T.C. building was ablaze. Some protesters tried to prevent firefighters from putting out the fire.

Kent State University Libraries. Special Collections and Archives.

Dean Kahler speaks at a memorial for the  slain students in September 1970.

Tear Gas & Bullets

On May 4, an estimated 3,000 people gathered to hear speeches in Kent State’s grassy Commons, near the student union. Some were anti-war protesters, while others—like Kahler—just wanted to see what was going on.

When ordered to disperse by guard troops, most did, though a vocal few taunted the 77 guardsmen. Tear gas canisters were fired at the students, who threw them back. At least one protester threw a rock, bruising a guardsman’s arm. Bayonets were affixed to rifles, as the guardsmen marched forward. Just as the remaining crowd dispersed, the guardsmen seemed to be returning to their positions, but they suddenly turned and fired.

Two of the students killed weren’t even part of the protest. They were simply walking to class.

A few yards away from Kahler, the body of student Jeffrey Miller lay in an expanding pool of blood. Shot through the mouth, Miller died instantly. Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway, knelt over the body, her face contorted in anguish as she screamed for help. Student photographer John Filo captured the moment, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (see above) would send shock waves across the nation.

Musician Neil Young, inspired by the photo in Life magazine of Vecchio and Miller, wrote the song “Ohio” with protest lyrics that rang out: “Tin soldiers and Nixon comin’ / We’re finally on our own / This summer I hear the drummin’ / Four dead in Ohio.”

Initially, President Nixon was disturbed by the protests and worried that his Cambodia speech had ignited them. The White House released a statement calling the shootings “tragic and unfortunate,” yet also seemed to shift blame onto the protesters.

On May 4, an estimated 3,000 people gathered to hear speeches in Kent State’s grassy Commons, near the student union. Some were anti-war protesters. Others, like Kahler, just wanted to see what was going on.

When ordered to spread out by guard troops, most did. But a few of the students were vocal and taunted the 77 guardsmen. Tear gas canisters were fired at the students, who threw them back. At least one protester threw a rock, bruising a guardsman’s arm. Bayonets were attached to rifles, as the guardsmen marched forward. Just as the remaining crowd scattered, the guardsmen seemed to be returning to their positions. But then they suddenly turned and fired.

Two of the students killed weren’t even part of the protest. They were simply walking to class.

A few yards away from Kahler, the body of student Jeffrey Miller lay in an expanding pool of blood. Shot through the mouth, Miller died instantly. Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway, knelt over the body. Her face showed the pain she felt as she screamed for help. Student photographer John Filo captured the moment. His Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (see p. 18) would send shock waves across the nation.

Musician Neil Young was inspired by the photo of Vecchio and Miller featured in Life magazine. It led him to write the song “Ohio” with protest lyrics that rang out: “Tin soldiers and Nixon comin’ / We’re finally on our own / This summer I hear the drummin’ / Four dead in Ohio.”

At first, President Nixon was disturbed by the protests. He worried that his Cambodia speech had ignited them. The White House released a statement calling the shootings “tragic and unfortunate.” The federal government seemed to shift blame onto the protesters.

There’s hope in Kent State’s dark history.

The fuse had been lit. Over the next two weeks, anti-war protests erupted on nearly 900 college campuses, involving an estimated 4 million students. More than 120 schools called off classes in response.

“Rather than suppress student protests, the Kent State shootings spurred the largest student strike in United States history,” says Farmer of the May 4 Visitors Center.

After the shootings, an Ohio grand jury charged 24 students with rioting; one was convicted and two pleaded guilty.

But justice for the victims was slow in coming. In 1975, a federal jury exonerated the guardsmen who shot into the crowd. But an appeals court ordered a retrial. In 1979, before the new trial was set to begin, the state of Ohio reached a settlement, paying $675,000 to the victims of the shootings and their families. As part of the agreement, the guardsmen admitted no fault or responsibility but issued a statement of regret that read, in part: “In retrospect, the tragedy of May 4, 1970 should not have occurred.”

The fuse had been lit. Over the next two weeks, anti-war protests erupted on nearly 900 college campuses. The demonstrations involved an estimated 4 million students. More than 120 schools called off classes in response.

“Rather than suppress student protests, the Kent State shootings spurred the largest student strike in United States history,” says Farmer of the May 4 Visitors Center.

After the shootings, an Ohio grand jury charged 24 students with rioting. One was convicted and two pleaded guilty.

But justice for the victims was slow in coming. In 1975, a federal jury exonerated the guardsmen who shot into the crowd. But an appeals court ordered a retrial. In 1979, before the new trial was set to begin, the state of Ohio reached a settlement. The state paid $675,000 to the victims of the shootings and their families. As part of the agreement, the guardsmen admitted no fault or responsibility. Instead, they issued a statement of regret. It read, in part: “In retrospect, the tragedy of May 4, 1970 should not have occurred.”

Powerful Lessons

Kahler was paralyzed and has used a wheelchair since 1970. He still wonders what was going through the guardsmen’s minds and how they could have fired on unarmed civilians. Even 50 years later, there’s been very little open dialogue or reconciliation.

“That has not happened. We’ve been wanting them to come forward with their stories,” Kahler says. “But then again, as one of our lawyers pointed out to us, there’s no statute of limitations for murder.”

After a career in government and civil service, Kahler taught social studies at the middle and high school levels.

“My students would ask me, ‘The 1960s! Was it cool to live back then?’ ” Kahler says. “It was, but it was also a time when there was a lot of tension. There was a lot of anxiety as a teenager—you were scared, you were afraid.”

Kahler has come away with other powerful lessons.

“When the government feels that it can take advantage of its citizens, this is what can happen. It can turn on you and kill you or wound you, with very little consequence,” he says. “It’s about the abuse of power, and what can happen from that abuse of power. That’s the legacy of Kent State.”

For Farmer, there’s hope in Kent State’s dark history. She points out that less than one year later, politicians spoke of Kent State as they successfully argued for the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

“To honor the memory of May 4,” she says, “it’s important that young people, in particular, respect and protect their First Amendment rights and practice their right to vote.”

Kahler was paralyzed and has used a wheelchair since 1970. He still wonders what was going through the guardsmen’s minds and how they could have fired on unarmed civilians. Even 50 years later, there’s been very little open dialogue or reconciliation.

“That has not happened. We’ve been wanting them to come forward with their stories,” Kahler says. “But then again, as one of our lawyers pointed out to us, there’s no statute of limitations for murder.”

After a career in government and civil service, Kahler taught social studies at the middle and high school levels.

“My students would ask me, ‘The 1960s! Was it cool to live back then?’ ” Kahler says. “It was, but it was also a time when there was a lot of tension. There was a lot of anxiety as a teenager—you were scared, you were afraid.”

Kahler has come away with other powerful lessons.

“When the government feels that it can take advantage of its citizens, this is what can happen. It can turn on you and kill you or wound you, with very little consequence,” he says. “It’s about the abuse of power, and what can happen from that abuse of power. That’s the legacy of Kent State.”

For Farmer, there’s hope in Kent State’s dark history. She points out that politicians spoke of Kent State as they successfully argued for the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. That was less than one year after what took place on campus.

“To honor the memory of May 4,” she says, “it’s important that young people, in particular, respect and protect their First Amendment rights and practice their right to vote.”

TIMELINE Vietnam War

1954: Partition of Vietnam

After France loses control over its colonies in Indochina, Vietnam is partitioned into a Communist North Vietnam and a pro-Western South Vietnam. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sends military advisers to train the South.

After France loses control over its colonies in Indochina, Vietnam is partitioned into a Communist North Vietnam and a pro-Western South Vietnam. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sends military advisers to train the South.

Rue des Archives/The Granger Collection

President Kennedy discusses America’s goal of containing Communism in Asia, 1961.

1961-63: Escalation

As fighting between Communists and the South intensifies, President John F. Kennedy increases the number of U.S. advisers in Vietnam to 17,000.

As fighting between Communists and the South intensifies, President John F. Kennedy increases the number of U.S. advisers in Vietnam to 17,000.

1964: Gulf of Tonkin

After North Vietnamese torpedo boats are said to have attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress passes a resolution essentially giving President Lyndon Johnson power to wage war in Vietnam without a formal declaration.

After North Vietnamese torpedo boats are said to have attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress passes a resolution essentially giving President Lyndon Johnson power to wage war in Vietnam without a formal declaration.

Tim Page/Corbis via Getty Images

American troops in Vietnam, 1965

1965: First U.S. Combat Troops

Johnson sends the first American combat troops to Vietnam. By year’s end, U.S. troop levels reach 200,000, and by 1969, they hit a peak of 543,000.

Johnson sends the first American combat troops to Vietnam. By year’s end, U.S. troop levels reach 200,000, and by 1969, they hit a peak of 543,000.

1968: Tet Offensive/Peace Talks

In January, Communist forces launch the deadly Tet Offensive. Grisly TV images add to the anti-war pressure. In March, Johnson announces peace talks in Paris and tells the nation he won’t run for re-election.

In January, Communist forces launch the deadly Tet Offensive. Grisly TV images add to the anti-war pressure. In March, Johnson announces peace talks in Paris and tells the nation he won’t run for re-election.

Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

President Nixon visits U.S. troops in South Vietnam, 1969.

1969-70 ‘Vietnamization’