Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Tin Soldiers and Nixon's Coming": Kent State and the American Invasion of Cambodia

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the tortured path Richard Nixon took towards a withdrawal from Vietnam, the American invasion of Cambodia and the deaths of four students during subsequent protests at Kent State in Ohio May 4, 1970.

President Richard Nixon’s detente with the Soviets and diplomatic opening to the Chinese had less impact on the Vietnam War than he hoped. The Russians wanted the war to end. “[T]he Soviet Union was fed up with the war,” journalist Stanley Karnow wrote in Vietnam: A History. “Its massive aid program to North Vietnam, a region outside its true realm of interest, was draining its domestic economy.” The Chinese, at the same time, were worried about the massive buildup of Soviet troops along its border and sought a closer relationship with the Americans as a protection against Russian aggression. The Beijing government knew support of North Vietnam would complicate that objective.

Yet, the worries of the Russians and the Chinese were of no concern to North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese saw themselves as fighting a war of national independence, not as serving as pawns for communist super-states. The relationship between North Vietnam and Russia strained badly as the Kremlin increasingly urged a settlement. The Vietnamese, furthermore, had a difficult and often hostile relationship with China stretching back centuries.

Nixon had no grand scheme to cut this Gordian knot. As with détente and the opening to China, Nixon and Kissinger improvised. Nixon said repeatedly that he was seeking “peace with honor.” To the outside world this meant that the United States would not withdraw until it had guaranteed the survival of a non-communist South Vietnam. To Nixon’s inner circle, this meant getting out of Vietnam without making Nixon appear like he was “the first president of the United States to lose a war.” By the time he was sworn in as president, Nixon believed that a clear military victory in Vietnam was impossible but hoped he could leave behind a stable, adequately strong South Vietnam as American forces withdrew.

He hoped to achieve this through what the White House called “Vietnamization,” simply another application of the “Nixon Doctrine.” Nixon hoped to replace American soldiers in Vietnam with South Vietnamese troops heavily armed with U.S.-provided weaponry.

At the same time, Nixon tried to frighten the North Vietnamese into accepting American terms utilizing what he called “the madman theory.” As Nixon told Haldeman, “I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.

We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communists. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry – he has his hand on the nuclear button’ and [North Vietnamese leader] Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.

By April 30, 1969, the number of American military personnel in Southeast Asia reached a record 543,000. Troop levels would drop from this peak for the rest of the war. American hopes for an end to the war briefly perked up when Ho died on September 2, 1969, but the communist leader’s successors instead vowed to continue the struggle until “there is not a single aggressor in the country.”


Within weeks of the president’s 1969 inauguration, generals convinced Nixon to launch an intensive bombing campaign aimed at destroying North Vietnamese “sanctuaries,” supply routes and weapons depots the communists had created in neighboring, neutral Cambodia. Nixon kept the bombing campaign, dubbed “Operation Menu” secret from the public and even the Congress. From its launch in February 1969 until 1973, Operation Menu resulted in 3,600 missions dropping 500,000 tons of bombs on eastern Cambodia. Bombers also attacked communist positions in Laos as well. The Cambodian government led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk had been fighting a low-intensity war with communist forces that called themselves the “Khmer Rouge.” (The Khmers are Cambodia’s largest ethnic group while “Rouge” is French for “red,” the symbolic color of the international communist movement.)

The Khmer Rouge represented one of the most fanatical communist forces in the world. Their leader, Soloth Sar, went by the nom de guerre “Pol Pot.” Winning a scholarship, he briefly studied at a university in Paris, where he became a Marxist before dropping out and returning to his homeland. By 1962 Pol Pot rose to the leadership of the Cambodian Communist Party. He advocated the liquidation of the wealthy and the small Cambodian middle class as a means of purifying society from corrupt capitalism. His plans for Cambodia’s future included the mass evacuation of cities, the population forcibly relocated to the countryside where they would toil on communal farms. He also planned the mass murder of those who attended college and who were therefore “bourgeois,” ethnic cleansing of Cambodian minorities, and the abolition of all religion, including Buddhism and Islam.

In the early 1960s, Pol Pot waged a guerilla war against the Sihanouk regime but the Khmer Rogue won little territory and captured the hearts of few Cambodians. Prince Sihanouk could see the strength of the North Vietnamese Army and sought to avoid confrontation with these forces by avoiding an alliance with the United States. He allowed the North Vietnamese to use his territory to supply troops and provide hiding places outside the grasp of the United States military.

American planes began to follow and strafe Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers as they crossed into Cambodia, but sometimes they hit civilians. By 1966, Sihanouk claimed that “hundreds of our people” had been killed in American attacks. As American bombers caused approximately 150,000 deaths of mostly unarmed peasants during Operation Menu, from March 1969 to May 1970, the Khmer Rouge enjoyed more support and began to control more territory. The Khmer Rouge won increased popularity when America began Operation Menu. “[T]he carpet bombing of Cambodia’s countryside by American B-52s,” wrote historian Ben Kiernan. “ . . . was probably the most important single factor in Pol Pot’s rise.”

Nixon aides like Bob Haldeman always said that if there had been no Vietnam War, there would have been no Watergate scandal. In May 1969, the New York Times revealed the bombing campaign in Laos and Cambodia. Angered and wanting to know who revealed the secret military operation to the press, Nixon ordered FBI wiretaps of four reporters and 13 government officials. Without court authorization, these illegal wiretaps started the Nixon White House pattern of lawbreaking and violations of civil liberties, which would continue and expand until Watergate forced Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.


Nixon’s war plans depended on his ability to convince the Vietnamese that the American public was as resolute about the war as the communists. As historian Ronald H. Spector said, Nixon had most of the public with him regarding Vietnam early in his presidency. A May 1969 Harris poll revealed that only 9 percent of the American public would approve a peace settlement that left the door open to an eventual communist victory. “Like Johnson and Nixon,” Spector wrote, “the majority of Americans in 1968 and 1969 wanted to ‘get out” but ‘didn’t want to lose.’”

This didn’t prevent between 1 million and 2 million Americans from participating in the so-called “Moratorium,” simultaneous protests against the Vietnam War, on October 15, 1969. About 100,000 protestors participated in Boston Commons alone. Another 250,000 participated in events staged in Washington, D.C. Supporters of the protests wore black armbands and paid respect to servicemen who had died in the war. Future president Bill Clinton, on a Rhodes scholarship, helped organize a demonstration of 1,000 people who picketed in front of the American embassy in London. Protestors in Newton, Kansas, rang a bell every four seconds with each toll representing a fallen soldier while a funeral procession unfolded in Milwaukee. In Houston, the names of the war dead were read out, one reader pausing and choking up when he came upon the name of a friend.

Furious that the Moratorium protests might make him look weak to the North Vietnamese, Nixon dispatched his tart-tongued Vice President Spiro Agnew to smear the mass movement as the work of traitors. Nevertheless, as Time magazine put it, the middle class presence at the day’s events gave “new respectability and popularity” to the anti-war movement. Nixon dismissed the protests, insisting that, “Under no circumstances will I be affected.”


Irritated by Prince Sihanouk’s neutrality, the Americans supported Cambodian Gen. Lon Nol when he overthrew the Sihanouk government in 1970 and launched a more aggressive war against the Khmer Rouge forces. The Americans provided Nol with more weapons, but did not respect him enough to consult him before the United States launched an invasion of Cambodia in March. The American public was informed of the invasion on April 30, 1970. Nixon claimed that a super “headquarters for the entire Communist military operation in South Vietnam” lay in the Cambodian jungles and that destroying that base was a key to American victory. Anticipating a new round of protests, Nixon in a televised address delivered a call to arms aimed at his supporters in the continuing strife within America:

We live in an age of anarchy. We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last five hundred years . . . If when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world . . . I would rather be a one-term President and do what I believe is right than to be a two-term President at the cost of seeing America become a second-rate power and to see this nation accept the first defeat in its proud 190-year history . . It is not our power but our will and character that is being tested tonight.

After the speech, telegrams sent to the White House praising the president outnumbered those criticizing him by a 6-1 margin. While visiting the Pentagon, Nixon said of anti-war protestors, “You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world, going to the greatest universities, and here they are, burning up the books, storming around about this issue . . . you name it. Get rid of the war and there will be another [issue.]” On May 2, The New York Times informed the public of a secret bombing campaign that had begun in North Vietnam, the first such bombings in the North since Johnson had suspended the attacks in 1968. The bombing, and the invasion of Cambodia, angered senators and members of the House who believed that the president, by not consulting with the legislative branch before taking military actions, was essentially suspending the part of the Constitution that gave the power to declare war exclusively to the Congress.


Shortly after Nixon announced that U.S. forces had invaded Cambodia, anti-war protests opened at Kent State University in Ohio. On May 2, 1970, the students broke some windows, handed out handbills and chanted “Down with the ROTC! Down with the ROTC!” (ROTC stands for Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a training program for future military officers conducted at American college and university campuses, and which became a target for demonstrators during the Vietnam era.) The protestors set fire to the ROTC building and burned an American flag. Students then tried to set fire to the campus library.

On May 2, Ohio Gov. James Rhodes ordered state National Guard units to the campus and pledged to use “every force possible” to quell the disorder. Members of the National Guard removed their name patches when some activists began to look up their last names in the city directory and made threatening phone calls to family members. On May 3, the Guardsmen used tear gas to disperse a crowd in front of the university president’s residence. Guardsmen gored two students with the sharp edges of their bayonets while the protestors hurled rocks at the troops.

Close to noon on May 4, Guardsmen faced a hail of rocks thrown by the protestors. They fired canisters of tear gas and advanced on a crowd of angry students. “As students pushed into a building for cover, the troops accidentally marched into a fence and found themselves closed off from retreat and surrounded on three sides by students,” Perlstein wrote. “The Guardsmen feared they were out of tear gas and panicked as the protestors threw rocks and chanted, ‘Pigs off campus! Pigs off campus!’” At around 12:24 p.m. several of the troops dropped to one knee and fired in the direction of a group of students “in a parking lot beyond the fence,” firing 67 rounds in 13 seconds. Thirteen students, “mostly bystanders,” fell, with one paralyzed and four (Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Jeff Miller and Sandra Lee Scheuer) killed. Two of the deceased were 19 years old; the other two were 20. Many of the victims were not in any way involved with the protests and were simply walking to class when struck by bullets.

Later that week, governors dispatched National Guard units to 21 colleges and universities in 16 states while, to prevent protests, 448 campuses closed. Demonstrations took place at more than 1,100 schools with an estimated 2 million students going on strike. On May 14 at Jackson State College in Mississippi, an historically black college, two African American students died during an uprising when police fired into a dormitory. The Jackson incident received considerably less press coverage than the Kent State incident. Many in Nixon’s “Silent Majority” loudly cheered the action of the National Guard at Kent State and the crackdowns elsewhere and insisted the students, even if they were bystanders, deserved what happened to them. “It was a valuable object lesson to homegrown advocates of anarchy and revolution, regardless of age,” wrote one reader to Time. A Gallup poll indicated that 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for their deaths.

Angry that Mayor John Lindsay of New York lowered flags at half-staff in honor of the Kent State dead, 200 construction workers, so-called hardhats, charged into an anti-war rally, beating the protestors with fists, pipes and hammers. Many of the blue-collar workers shouted, “Kill the Commie bastards” and “Love it [America] or leave it.” It was later revealed that the New York City police knew the assault would happen and chose to stand by and let it unfold. A few weeks later, thousands of hardhats staged a patriotic rally in support of the war that reached New York’s financial district. Stockbrokers saluted the construction workers, showering them in ticker tape.

Nixon invited a group of building trades leaders to the White House where the president thanked them and received a hardhat labeled “Commander in Chief.” Hardhat violence broke out in spite of the fact that about 50 percent of blue collar workers by 1970 favored a withdrawal from Vietnam. The protesting hardhats saw the students as spoiled and privileged elites and resented what they saw as the students’ disrespect for God, the flag and country. Such gloating over the deaths of four young people repelled other Americans, whose children were attending colleges. The father of one of the Kent State casualties told reporters, “My child was not a bum.” A picture of a 14-year-old girl, Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling beside the body of a dead student and lifting her arms as if in prayer, won a Pulitzer Prize for the photographer John Filo. Printed in newspapers around the world, the picture became an iconic image of America at war with itself and inspired the rock star Neil Young to pen the song “Ohio.”

Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming/
We're finally on our own/
This summer I hear the drumming/
Four dead in Ohio/

Gotta get down to it/
Soldiers are gunning us down/
Should have been done long ago/
What if you knew her/
And found her dead on the ground?/
How can you run when you know?

“The song was banned from Ohio playlists at the urging of Governor Rhodes,”author Rick Perlstein wrote, “That helped send it shooting up the hit parade: one more scene in the new American civil war.” In October, a grand jury cleared the Guardsmen involved in the shooting, though it indicted students for arson and other offenses prior to the massacre. If Nixon’s political objective had been to divide and conquer the country, by this point it appeared he had won.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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