Last night the National Broadcasting Company presented what the Edmund Wilsons of the television art call a "dramatization" of the 1970 Kent State shootings. For more than a decade American forces were in Vietnam. Forty-seven thousand one hundred ninety-two Americans were killed in combat. One hundred fifty-five thousand four hundred nineteen were injured. Eight million seven hundred forty-four thousand served there. Since our withdrawal, several million Southeast Asians have perished, and hundreds of thousands now risk lives to get the hell out. Yet the events animating the imaginations of television's Chekhovs and Ibsens have been tales of American ignominy. It moves me to wonder.
Why, for instance, does NBC feel the need to do a melodrama on Kent State? Through all those years, involving all those men, could there not have been a few instances of American gallantry or prowess? Would they not make engrossing drama also? Of 225 million Americans, how many have thirsted for a "dramatization" of this tragedy? Is this really what the people want to watch?
NBC's Kent State melodrama could have been written into dozens of other events of the 1960s and the early 1970s, and ordinary Americans would have watched attentively. However, to a highly ideological elite in the television industry, Kent State has become the Pearl Harbor of their youth.
"Where were you when you heard they bombed Pearl Harbor?" is a question with peculiar resonance for a generation of Americans. "Where were you when you heard about Kent State?" is the equally resonant question for younger Americans; yet these younger Americans compose not a generation but an elite, an activist element who, from college campuses, opposed the Vietnam War. Today the Asociated Press tells us that a 14-year-old runaway captured in a famous photograph as she knelt over the body of a freshly fallen student "became a national symbol of outrage." The truth is somewhat more complicated."In 1970 . . . the public had thought the Kent State shootings justified and the Justice Department had disposed of them with a perfunctory investigation," the historian Alonzo L. Hamby has written in his cool, scholarly history of recent America, "The Imperial Years." Yet for an articulate minority there was indeed a sense of outrage, and now that minority is intent on attributing that outrage to an entire nation.
I do not know where I was when I first heard about the shootings at Kent State, but I know where I was a couple of days later. I was in Chicago taping a television talk show with John Filo, the young photographer who took the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture of the kneeling girl. I remember the conversation vividly. There were others on the show-Pete Rozelle of the National Football League, a sportswriter and the head of the National Organization for Women. The primary topic of dicussion was not Kent State -- though Filo had just come from there -- but women athletes and their relations with the National Footbal League. To Rozelle's apparent surprise, the two groups were not on good terms. The woman from NOW was very much of the opinion that female football palyers could be just as effective as men in the NFL were it not for "institutionalized sexism," cradle-to-grave discrimination -- the kind that stunts women from birth! That afternoon Kent State was given short shrift.
When we did discuss it, there was no outrage. Rather there was bewilderment and sadness. To this day, I believe a sense of sadness is most fitting. We can be sad over the loss of life at Kent State and the deaths of our soldiers in Vietnam. Of more immediate concern, we can be sad over the shabby treatment of the veterans of that war, and over the gruesome condition of the South Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians now living and suffering under their heroic North Vietnamese liberators.
As for the Associated Press' talk of national outrage over Kent State, it is at one with NBC's harping on this tragedy. Both are examples of the stupendous propagandizing brought down on the American people every day. The sobering fact is that the American people are one of the most strenuously propagandized people on earth.
Is the average Russian any more strenuously propagandized? His history is always being revised. From billboards and by broadcast media, he is instructed on the seemly sentiments and wholesome thoughts of the hour. But how different is it here? Our history too is revised, and even our language is being tampered with. Boys are taught women's ways. Girls are taught manliness. We bus our children. We engineer their society. We send them to the school shrink. We keep them from the dangerous influence of prayer.
Yes, I believe it is arguable that the ordinary Yank is as heavily propagandized as the ordinary Ivan. Yet, as Solzhenitsyn tells us, in the Soviet Union no one really believes. With the ardor of missionaries, its members inculcate their visions and their values into us. A Kent State Massacre is one of those visions. Questioning its accuracy is an assault on dogma.