I’ve been thinking a lot about the date May 4.
If you remember last week, I wrote about the opening of my daughter’s new museum, the American Museum of the American Civil War, which opened on Saturday, May 4. That will always be a special day moving forward for me, as it was something special I got to experience in the life of my daughter. I know what it meant to her, so it will always be something I will bookmark in my memory.
Of course, there is always the Star Wars connection, as in May the 4th be with you. Always. I was a huge fan of the Star Wars movies when they came out, and all my children became fans by proxy as they grew up because I was always watching the movies on VHS or DVD with them as they grew up.
But this week I want to take you back in time to a seminal day in American history, a date which was infamous in its implication for America and ultimately led to the speeding up the end of the Vietnam War.
I want to take you back in time 47 years. It was May 4, 1972. It was, and still is, one of the darkest days in American history.
Let me tell you a little bit about the back story of the times.
The Vietnam War was slowly grinding its way towards a conclusion. After the Tet Offensive in 1968, and the shocking images of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army invading the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon in 1968, the American public turned away from a continuation of the war and demanded the government put an end to it. After President Richard Nixon took over in 1969, he vowed the United States would find “peace with honor” and began to extricate United States forces from South Vietnam. The impression in the public’s mind was we were going to get out of Vietnam in a few years or so.
Then came April 30, 1972. President Nixon went on national television and announced to the world that the United States was escalating its presence in Southeast Asia with an incursion into Cambodia to try and stop the flow of arms and material along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in that country.
Many of the college campuses across the United States (including many American high schools), erupted in protest. People of my age and a few years older were aghast at the expansion of the war. Protest rallies were held across the country, and in many places, there was violence.
But no one could’ve foreseen what was going to take place on May 4, 1972 and what it led to.
It happened in rural Ohio, a quiet bucolic part of the Midwest where family values and love of country are paramount. After the invasion of Cambodia, students at the local university erupted in anger and started a series of protests on that Midwest campus. A building was fired, and the governor of Ohio called in the National Guard to protect the property.
Then, on May 4, as students were holding a protest on the campus, gunshots rang out—over 60 in all. When the smoke cleared, four students at Kent State University were dead, and 12 more were wounded with one permanently paralyzed. Many of the victims were innocent bystanders or were walking to class and were shot down. The incident at Kent State, as horrific as it was, set off more protests and anger. In New Mexico, the state national guard bayoneted a number of students during protests, although none of them died. A few days later, state police in Mississippi shot 14 black students at Jackson State University who were protesting there, killing two of them.
It was a time that changed Americans, as parents across the United States had to reflect on the thought their children were at risk on American campuses. Investigations into the shootings determined that the reaction and force taken on the campuses had been excessive, and lawsuits raged long into the future.
For me, I was a teenager and nearing the age of being eligible for military service. I followed those events leading up to the 4th of May and beyond with great interest, primarily because as I neared the age of military service I thought the Vietnam War would be over by the time I turned 18. When Nixon invaded Cambodia, it unleashed a torrent of rage, frustration, fear and anger across the spectrum of the country.
When I learned of the students who died at Kent State, it upset me more than you will know. I wept for the victims, but it also infuriated and scared the hell out of me at the same time. For a boy about to face the crucible of serving his country in a war that was supposed to be just about over, it was tough for me to process.
Looking back over the decades this past weekend, I was surprised that it was 47 years ago. It did not seem like that long ago. I was also surprised by the feelings and emotions that still run through me as I think about the anguish, confliction and heart break of those times.
I still am not able to process what happened, but I only pray we never have to see the likes of those times again. And for the men and women who served during those years, God bless you all. You were the best and brightest of our generation, and I admire you all and thank you for your service. Welcome home.