The Ohio National Guard uses tear gas to disperse student protesters at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. The scene turned deadly when guardsmen fired into the crowd, killing four students and wounding nine. (Kent State University archives via Reuters)

James Hill is a former senior editor at The Washington Post News Media Services.

(Da Capo)

For many of a certain generation of Americans, the events that unfolded on a then-obscure university campus in northeast Ohio on May 4, 1970, were the 67 shots heard round the world.

Yet with the exception of John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a teenage runaway screaming over the body of slain student Jeffrey Miller or the haunting lyrics of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” what happened that day at Kent State University has largely been engulfed by the haze of history.

Author Howard Means sets out to clear the air, and largely does, with his “67 Shots.” But not even Means’s excellent reporting can give us the essential answer regarding the four students who died, and nine others who were wounded, on that fateful day: Why?

Not that Means doesn’t try. Drawing on his own interviews, a small trove of books on the subject and a vast archival record, including the Kent State Shootings Oral Histories project now available online, he goes deep into the record. It is just that almost half a century after the fact, what occurred during those 13 seconds at Kent State is still largely in dispute and probably will be forever.

At the time, many of America’s campuses were either literally or figuratively ablaze as radical students set fire to ROTC buildings (Kent State’s ROTC building was torched on the Saturday before the shooting) and Vietnam War protests reached a climax after President Richard Nixon’s decision to expand the war into Cambodia. James Rhodes, the governor of Ohio, then locked in a tight U.S. Senate primary election race, dispatched National Guard troops to both the campus and the town.

Students had come to believe that the occupying army would never use live ammunition. Many of those who were in the vicinity of the shootings were mostly there to see what was going on (some were playing tennis). Yet communication on both sides was mostly nonexistent, there was rampant paranoia, and incompetence was everywhere to be found — a most lethal combination. And the Guard did not discriminate: One of the dead, William K. Schroeder, was an ROTC student; another, Sandra L. Scheuer, was heading toward her next class. Only Alison B. Krause and Miller were part of the protest.

Means is at his best explaining how all these factors produced such a heartbreaking result — and how it could have been worse had not one of the faculty marshals, a popular geology professor named Glenn Frank, cajoled the students to disperse as guardsmen were taking positions for a second salvo. “That’s when Glenn Frank rose to the moment never forgotten by those who were there,” Means writes.

Means, a former writer and editor at the Washingtonian, laments the lack of closure on Kent State: “The American government survives, the Constitution lives on, and the rule of law remains a sacred national principle, but on this case, justice has never been fully tested.”

We are left to know what we’ve always known, to quote songwriter Neil Young: “Four dead in Ohio.”

67 Shots
Kent State and the End of American Innocence

By Howard Means

Da Capo.
261 pp. $25.99