Commentary Magazine


Kent State, by James A. Michener

Lessons & Judgments

Kent State: What Happened and Why.
by James A. Michener.
Random House. 599 pp. $10.00.

Based on exhaustive local interviews and minutest scrutiny of all available evidence, Kent State was intended to be—and in a way perhaps is—the definitive account of those events which led directly to the deaths by shooting of four students on Monday, May 4, 1970, The reporting is scrupulous, comprehensive, and in many respects exemplary. James Michener uses the Kent State affair, moreover, to assess a state of social conflict all over America. He appears to recognize that the passions of Kent State do not quite make sense when the affair is read primarily as a protest against Vietnam, even though the Cambodia announcement certainly was the occasion, here as at countless other places of learning, for eruptions. The lines, such as they were, that still divided people in the spring of 1970 with regard to the war were in no meaningful sense the lines that divided them over Kent State, either in the town of Kent, Ohio, or in the country at large. Some have recently argued that the “generation gap” is not the “real” gap in this society. Maybe not, but it’s certainly one of the gaps, and always has been; Michener, being of a certain age, has the rough common sense to see this as somehow a major piece in his puzzle.

The book’s reception so far, however, has been characterized by a curious malaise. No commentator seems to find it very satisfying, but no two seem able to agree as to just why. Some see in it, or think they see, evidences of social bias, though the effort, at least, that Michener has made to be even-handed is generally recognized. I think myself that the even-handedness ought to be conceded. Indeed, I think that is precisely the problem. The driving urge to be “fair” and conciliatory has tied up all Michener’s analytical energies. There is, to be sure, “understanding” in abundance, but somehow it’s never quite the kind we need. Nor is Michener unwilling to pass out judgments—and that, too, even-handedly. But they’re too even-handed; the judgments have the effect of canceling one another out, leaving everyone disgruntled, all for different reasons.

A hard result, when that is all a man gets for his labors, especially when his ultimate aim is reconciliation. Nor does reconciliation, after Kent State, seem oversimplified as an objective; I, for one, am willing to take it as a kind of first principle for everything that is still worth saying on the subject. This means I am not primarily interested in deciding whether Kent State is a good or a bad book. It is a question, rather, of what there is about this book that virtually guarantees, if we were to try deriving formulas from its precepts, that no reconciliation will ever occur.

An essential part of the context in which the book was written is that it was commissioned by Reader’s Digest. That doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, what it might seem to mean. Nowhere might a more direct interest in genuine reconciliation be found than under just such auspices; there was as good a chance here as anywhere to bring it off, given good will and the right man with full sanction to go ahead and tell the truth as he saw it. Let’s concede the good will, and on the face of it they did pick the right man. A popular novelist, an experienced reporter, and a perennially sympathetic observer of the young, James Michener would make every effort to see all sides. If there were lessons to be learned—and by definition there certainly were—about the new lifestyles and the behavior, violent and otherwise, of the college generation, no one’s credentials for the touchy job of pointing them out should have been in better order than Michener’s. If there was anyone around whom the widest sector of the American public could still trust, who but the creator of Nellie Forbush?

And for Michener himself it must have been seen as a splendid opportunity. He might give the country a fair and reasonable account of an event that had generated almost as many lies, fantastic rumors, and wild speculations as John Kennedy’s assassination. Not only would he be able, through a credibility earned over many years, to schoolmaster Middle America in a gentle but salutary way (he would do his best to distinguish between justified public hostility to student hooliganism and the wildly irrational popular reaction that followed the Kent State shootings), but he might even succeed in playing mediator between the generations. The intention was an honorable one, doing credit both to Reader’s Digest and to James Michener. Nevertheless these very sanctions, their very spaciousness and generosity, appear to have done Michener in. Again and again they have blurred his perceptions and dulled his capacity not for understanding or for making judgments, but for selectivity: for selective understanding and selective judgment.

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Michener’s book is organized as a day-by-day account beginning with the vandalizing of the stores in downtown Kent on Friday evening and carrying the reader through all the key occurrences up to the actual shootings by the National Guard on Monday. The final chapters discuss the responses of the town of Kent and the nation at large to the killings, and they dispense some gratuitous and rather dithering advice on the management of campus violence. Along the way we get profiles of all the major characters plus glimpses of a host of minor ones, and Michener takes the occasion to discourse on Kent State’s background of student militancy, the often bitter clash between student and town life-styles (a number of rather colorful communes had developed around the university), and the various doings of the hard-cores. There is the full cast of SDS types, including such visiting moguls as Bernardine Dohrn, Kathy Boudin, and Mark Rudd. The university experiences most of the traumas already undergone by its more visible counterparts elsewhere: black agitation, a free- (or foul-) speech campaign, and a sit-in—or rather a lock-in—that left many students convinced that the administration had no real concern for due process in matters of student rights.

The hard-core radicals seem to be the one group that stands a bit outside Michener’s benign perimeter of understanding; he is never quite sure what to do with them or how they fit. He shows, convincingly enough, that there was such a group at Kent State and that they were fully determined to close the place down. But Michener can never quite make the connection—if there is one—between the known campus radicals and the trashing, burning, and rioting that led to Monday’s shootings. There are sinister hints about external forces. But though we keep seeing strangers on the fringes of the various crowds, sometimes in Che Guevara costumes (that should peg them, shouldn’t it?), no one is ever clearly identified as an “outside agitator” exercising any real or active leadership. And the burning of the ROTC building on Saturday—the one act that justified bringing the National Guard to the campus—was hardly the work of “professional revolutionaries.” It was the work of youngsters who seem never to have burned anything before in their lives, and a saturnalia of incompetence all around. Here they were, fumbling away for two hours before they could get the ramshackle wooden building ablaze, with the campus police, who could easily have sent them packing, nowhere in sight.

A point that Michener does make with considerable effect is that out of the four students who were killed and the one who was seriously wounded, only one approached even vaguely the category of “radical,” and none had any real connection with the organized radical movement on campus. His picture of these five young people is sympathetic and moving. Whether or not they qualified as a random sample of the Kent State student body, they are certainly familiar enough as personalities on any American campus. Concerned, angered, and confused by the presence of the National Guard on their campus, they had attended a mass meeting called for Monday noon and had refused to disperse when ordered to do so. None was involved in the trashings of Friday night or the burning of the ROTC building on Saturday. They were most emphatically not, as so many frightened and maddened Americans said afterward, a bunch of radical brats who got what was coming to them.

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But what is missing? Zealous and sympathetic reporting seems to be no guarantee of perceiving the interconnectedness of things. One curious blind spot here, I think, is that Michener lacks a sense of connoisseurship with regard to competence. Having no real appreciation for the nice functional distinctions between skill and bungling, and how much they can matter in a fluid social situation, means a poorly developed eye for those actions which are operative in some ratio to intention, and for those which are gratuitous, irresponsible, and wasteful. Fellow-feeling may go a long way to cover for that deficiency, but it can’t quite stand as an equivalent.

Michener makes every effort to understand—and to make us understand—the conflicting pressures on the various parties. On the mayor of Kent, who asked for the Guard; on Governor Rhodes, who was determined to keep the campus open; on Kent State’s president, Robert White, who returned from a weekend absence to find state authorities in charge of his university; on the two generals who accompanied the troops on their anomalous mission to Kent State; and even on the Guardsmen who did the actual shooting. Michener does his best to see things exactly as the participants themselves must have seen them, and to reenact the steady buildup of fear, tension, and mad frustration that led to the final climax. Nobody is condemned out of hand.

But why not? A serious act was performed here; a serious claim is being made on our attention, which presumably warrants the time and effort spent in preparing a very long book on a very serious subject, death. Michener concludes that it was “deplorable and tragic,” but that it was “not murder.” I hope we are not yet at the point where the public definition of that question must be left to the James Micheners, or even to the William Scrantons. If authority in this society is still legitimately located where we always presumed it was, then that is for a duly constituted and duly sanctioned tribunal—a military court-martial or a federal grand jury—to decide. This has not been done, and from all indications it isn’t likely to be. And until this failure is identified for what it is, and the issues of social cohesion and morality connected with it seen for what they are, we are not going to learn any lessons from Kent State. The principal issue here—as with the Calley case and the Chicago Panther killings—has to do with the standards whereby public authority, legal and moral, holds men personally accountable for their actions. That imperative, stated loud and clear with everybody listening, would be worth more to the audience Michener wants to reach than all his generalized understanding and even-handed judgments put together.

Michener’s account of the Guard’s movements from the time General Canterbury ordered them to break up the mass meeting to the point where they opened fire makes it abundantly clear that the troops themselves were never in any immediate danger. The number of students anywhere near them was very small; the rock-throwing was relatively limited (only one Guardsman was injured); and the “sniper” story was utterly without foundation. The troops’ main problem was actually that the students were too dispersed to be effectively managed, either by tear gas or by direct bodily force. But nothing that happened on the field could be offered as a rational basis for what followed. Instead of completing a withdrawal that was unhampered by the students, a group of Guardsmen suddenly wheeled about in unison and opened fire—lethal and murderous fire, not in the air but admittedly point-blank—on a scattered crowd the great bulk of whom were well beyond rock-throwing range. One youth, Jeff Miller—long hair, headband, probably shouting epithets—had his head blown apart by a bullet received full in the face. On the one hand, eighty yards is a long distance to throw a rock; on the other, anyone who has handled an M-l knows that with a rifle at that range it’s pretty hard to miss what you’re aiming at.

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It should go without saying that the question of “competence” in a given setting hardly embraces all the questions of morality which may arise in that setting. But it is at least related, and is, I think, a good place to begin if standards of performance in a role which a man marks out for himself, or has marked out for him, are to have any bearing on the question of whether he performs it responsibly

Take the president of Kent State University, Robert I. White. White happened to be off at a meeting of educators in Iowa City when he got news of the burning of the ROTC building. How does a university president behave in such circumstances, knowing from the experience of others if not from his own that the chances of bloodshed in a riotous campus situation will be considerably less as long as he can remain in personal charge of it than when it is turned over completely to outside authority? White seems to have had some inkling of this. But his plane was grounded because of bad weather. Would it be worthwhile to get a car and start for Kent as fast as it would take him? Perhaps not; it’s a pretty long trip. But why wasn’t he on the phone—conferring with the mayor, giving instructions to his vice-presidents, and so on—all through Saturday night? Why didn’t he insist on talking to the Governor, especially after the Guard was called, and on making every effort to keep Rhodes from taking total charge? If other institutional heads are to learn from this, a scorecard has to be made up for White. A sorry collapse of executive responsibility. should not Michener have said so?

Or Governor Rhodes. What does his scorecard on competence show? It shows a lot, but two things in particular. One is his taking over the operation without knowing the first thing about universities or how they function, and deliberately excluding the administrative officers who had been acting in White’s absence. The other is shooting off his mouth in front of reporters at the most sensitive possible moment. Rhodes was running for reelection. He lost, though it seems not for those reasons. He should have, and Michener should have said so.

Or the commanding general, Robert Canterbury. We needn’t ask how this man got to be a general; we can even take as given (though only for the sake of the argument) that Ohio was one of only two states that customarily permitted the use of loaded rifles in riot control. But what competent military officer would lead a group of tense, frightened troops with limited training into a combat situation—to say nothing of one consisting only of unarmed minors—with absolutely no check on fire discipline? Why no instructions not to load except under orders? For that matter, the basic weapon was intended to be tear gas; who was responsible for running out of it? Actually Canterbury shows at his worst after the firing, when the students became hysterical—as well they might—and refused to leave the hill. He thereupon insisted that if they were not off in five minutes he’d move the troops back out against them. Malice? Military brutality? “Military” indeed. I’d say he panicked and froze with the simplest formula he knew, which was a lot more dangerous for the cause of life and limb than a dim view of longhairs. Canterbury could not respond to the fact that his men had just shot fifteen students and killed four, or to the probability that if the faculty had not persuaded the rest to leave they might have ended up killing who knows how many more. A hideous bungling business from first to last, and Michener should have said so.

And finally, the troops themselves. As long as there remains any ground for suspicion that these men consciously intended in advance to do what they did—and there are such grounds—then this constitutes a question that has to be pursued until settled once and for all. Not unofficially, but officially. Why can’t Michener, without equivocating, say so?

So here is one lesson of Kent State that this book falls well short of teaching, and this is one major reason why the reconciliation we want is not to be had on Michener’s terms. When authority performs in the way it did here, the students of Kent State and all the rest of us have a good warrant for regarding it with contempt. Authority is legitimate when it meets certain tests. One test—admittedly a circular one—is that it be generally recognized and accepted as such. But it won’t be so recognized without the other test, which is that the officials of duly constituted authority, and all who act in its name, be held strictly accountable for what they do. If you are going to be a conservative here, Michener should have told John Middle America, be a real one. And the same thing might have been said last month to the Attorney-General.

But that’s only one condition of reconciliation, albeit a major one, assuming reconciliation to be desirable. (And remember, the whole argument is off if it isn’t.) The other lesson of Kent State is infinitely more difficult to define, let alone deal with. It has to do with the blind fury of the Kent townspeople, and of people all across the country, not at the killings but at the students. Michener’s way of handling this is to tell them that these students—certainly the ones who were killed—were for the most part decent and essentially stable young people, and that America should be ashamed of itself. I quite agree. But the problem is one that goes beyond Kent State and beyond this kind of exorcism.

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Generational tensions have always operated as a special kind of variable in American culture. Another such variable has been a chronic strain of anti-institutionalism that keeps bubbling up from all levels, especially in times of social malaise, and to which few of any age are really immune. But the impulse is expressed unevenly; it becomes less pure as time goes on, inasmuch as we find the custodianship of what institutional arrangements we have tending willy-nilly to fall into our hands—though with less than adequate ideological and psychological preparation—as we get older. At any rate, the intersecting and exacerbation of these perennial tendencies, from a number of causes, is what has been embroiling us for the past several years. And throughout it all, a self-righteous middle and upper-middle class (all ages) have as usual been doing most of the talking, not so much about society’s abuses as about each other, and mostly in recrimination. Much has been said with words, but much more has been said in ways other than with words.

The responses to Kent State were those of prepared minds—well prepared—in circumstances that add up to a real problem in sociology. Michener recognizes that it has something to do with “the counter-culture” and deviant styles of dress and behavior. The solution, he would like to say, is tolerance, forbearance, and understanding all around. But of exactly what? What were the social mechanisms involved in this response, and how does one account for them?

Let’s make it hopelessly simple, and keep it to matters of appearance and dress. Rule out sex and drugs for the immediate purpose, that being the less visible side, and assume that visibility is everything. What we have left is still one of the profoundest phenomena of social existence, ritual behavior. The enormous importance, indeed the indispensability, of ritual behavior in relation to the morale and solidarity of any social unit is a matter upon which social scientists can usually be roused to something like real eloquence. Ceremonial reaffirmations of social cohesion—funerals (Durkheim’s famous example), commencements, applauding at the theater, and so on—occupy much more of our energies than we realize. And we know by instinct that dress and get-up, simply from the extraordinary amount of attention given to it, constitutes one of the most precise forms of ritual behavior ever devised.

By the same token, deviant ritual behavior is in effect a ritual assault on communal beliefs, associative standards, and group solidarity, and is instantly reponded to as such with various forms of resistance. Something of the sort, in relatively harmless microcosm, happens every time Junior comes home these days with hair down to his shoulder-blades, or when he won’t go out to dinner with us or call on his grandparents in anything but a dirty T-shirt. The occasion seldom fails to be one of great symbolic importance. Nobody is fooled about that, whatever the settlement, and a settlement there must almost always be. But to be real, it must be in some way not imposed but negotiated, and that is where our lesson may lie. A settlement must among other things redefine ritual meanings, as well as establish the point at which Dad can stop protesting—ritually—to the rest of the world: “I know what you’re thinking, but the way he looks doesn’t mean what you think it means.” Somehow the cost in humiliation and sheer consumption of energy has to be recognized here as worth relieving.

But generalizing this problem to the entire American scene, and making it one of reconciliation, may be another matter. Making war is easy; it’s making peace that is hard, especially if the war is of a sort neither side can or should win. Let us eavesdrop on another of Michener’s characters, a graduate instructor at Kent State named Steve Sharoff. “If you demand that I give up the life style I have evolved . . . I mean the music and the hair and modern dress and the new freedom . . . well, you have to do one of two things with me. Either lock me up for life or shoot me dead in the street.” Having it put in that way, and in view of the inspired resemblance to Patrick Henry, we might suppose that Middle America, or the college hierarchies throughout the country, or the thousands of Ohio parents who wrote to President White about things at Kent State, or for that matter any red-blooded American, should logically be prepared to let Mr. Sharoff live his life the way he chooses. But they may not. They may take his terms for something other than peace terms; they may even think—whether mistakenly I can’t in this case say—that being left alone, with nobody watching or listening, is the last thing he really wants.

But back to generalization, which is safer: what was the original ritual content of this “style”? What does the symbolic language say to Middle America, and how wrongly does Middle America read it? There is something in it about “radical revolution,” about turning everybody’s standards and institutions upside down. Another message seems to be one of elitist contempt: the common herd of our great heartland, nothing if not egalitarian, need only look to see itself mocked. Still another is the message of moral superiority: I’m less corrupt, less bound by stupid inhibitions, and less prejudiced than you are. I won’t even look the way you do. (These items don’t all come to quite the same thing, and logically they should be separated, but Middle America has always had difficulty telling them apart.) Then throw in a few of those choice words so potent with symbolic witchery—especially from the girls—together with a dash of the self-righteous outrage typical of counter-culture politics, and the signals are out that someone is looking for trouble.

A fair scattering of our campus population seem willing to confirm that this is exactly what they do mean, and that they are prepared to take the consequences. If so, so be it—no reconciliation there. But their number, I should say, is hardly as great as Middle America thinks. With a far greater number there is a real ambiguity of intent, and a surprising vagueness of discernment as to just where authentic social action begins and where symbolic aggression against the hoi polloi and the old folks—some kinds of feedback being gleefully welcomed and less pleasant kinds simply filtered out—leaves off. So there has been genuine shock at the responses, from police actions all the way down to Dad’s blowup at Junior. What you’re striking at (we now seem to hear him saying) is merely my personal style, and that should be my own business. The answer, perhaps, is that if this is all it amounts to, then a negotiated settlement is in sight.

To be sure, there may be some fallacies remaining, and they can’t be wholly passed over. He’s still engaging in ritual behavior, and ritual, being a matter of group dynamics, is more than an individual affair or one of individual choice. The sanctions for the style with which he confronts the community have themselves come from another community: a college sub-community, as we know from the days when fraternities were still in style, is in its own way as coercive as any other. So it isn’t all that “personal,” though seeing it as a matter of group conflict hardly makes it easier to deal with.

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Still, there appear to be mechanisms of accommodation, of silent if not overt negotiation, already functioning in the larger society to assist in the partial absorption of a deviant style into the mainstream of fashion. And fashion does have its mindless—which is to say for our purposes, harmless and peaceable—side. Some of these mechanisms are fairly obvious. One is Madison Avenue itself, where the male models in the ads get hairier every day; another is the entertainment world, where everything is hairier; and there are even the sons of the hardhats and the returning Vietnam veterans. That brawny air-hammer apprentice with his headband may look like Sitting Bull, but he isn’t going to blow up the Pentagon. These indications appear superficial, but we wouldn’t always have thought so, and the power of symbolism, as I said, works in mysterious ways.

So a détente on aggressive ritual behavior may not be altogether unthinkable, as long as a way can be found to persuade everyone that it wasn’t, or at least isn’t, so aggressive after all. But this too has to be said ritually, as well as verbally; there are a thousand ways of doing it, even though Coming Clean for Gene might nowadays be carrying the thing too far. But as long as the “liberty or death” terms quoted above remain as a sticking point, as they did as recently as a year ago, a substantial portion of the original ritual meaning will persist (“This is what I think of your standards and the rotten world you’ve made”), and there will continue to be consequences. Deep forces will remain afoot, eluding the full control of either confronters or confronted, and that, I believe, is the other lesson of Kent State.

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