Book Review: Kent State by James Michener

This is  an older review done for a college class a long time ago, found again as I was organizing some of my files this weekend.  I’m putting it here in case it will inspire more people to pick it up.  It was definitely one of those books that will leave an imprint on you.  DJG

Michener, James A. Kent State: What Happened and Why. New York: Random House Inc, 1971. Pp. 559

Kent State. A tragedy that shook the nation and caused several hundred universities and colleges to close their doors; a clash between two competing lifestyles resulting in students who openly discussed revolution and their parents who couldn’t understand it and took up arms against the younger generation. James Michener wrote this book in an effort to understand the events that took place on that fateful weekend at Kent State University, and more importantly, why they happened. In doing this, he tracks the lives of five students at Kent (Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder, Jeff Miller, Sandy Scheuer, and Doug Wrentmore) during these first four days of May 1970. He also explores all of the different facets of Kent State, the factors, motivations, and decisions that all contributed to the tragedy that became Kent State. The shootings themselves happened on Monday, May 4th, but the events leading up to it began with the rioting and trashing of Water Street on Friday the 1st.

The events that took place on Friday started in the late evening, with a group of rioters defacing Water Street property and then blocking traffic with a human-chain barricade. The police were alerted with news that a riot was in progress around 11:21pm, but it took another hour before they marched forth to start clearing the streets (52). By that time, the serious rioting had started, with the piles of garbage burning in the streets and the smashing of windows along Water Street. By 12:15am, the riot police slowly moved towards the affected area, at 12:35, Mayor Satrom declared a state of emergency, and at 12:57am, the Mayor was driven to the center of town so that he could announce the state of emergency and read the riot act. It took until 3am for the students to disperse and return to campus, at least those that had escaped being arrested. There were several reasons given for Friday’s rioting, it was spring and the students had gotten carried away with spring fever, it was President Nixon’s announcement that more troops going into Cambodia that had inflamed the radicals. It was organized by upperclassmen, it was organized by outsiders, the opinions of people who were present differ wildly. Michener suggests that it was a combination of both, a spring prank gone bad and a reaction to the speech Nixon had given. What is agreed upon by the majority of people present is that neither drugs nor alcohol was a factor (135). Out of 1000 rioters, only 14 arrests were made (136).

Saturday, May 2nd saw the burning of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building. At 7 pm a small crowd started to gather around the campus’ Victory Bell. As the crowd grew, the radical leaders started to circulate handbills speaking against ROTC. Around 8:10pm, the mob started to hurl rocks at the ROTC building before moving to an impromptu battering ram and tossing flares at the building. By 8:30, the building was ablaze. It was not a bad fire, easily extinguished, if the firemen had been able to make their way through the mob. All attempts to get through had been stopped by the students, who stole the hose nozzles, punctured holes in the hoses themselves, and in one case, had a hose hacked to pieces by a machete (195). Both extra police from neighboring cities and the National Guard had been called out. The presence of the Guard did help to prevent the burning of several other buildings. An 8pm curfew for town and 1am curfew for campus were initiated. No arrests were made.

Sunday, May 3rd was a day of contrasts. The morning and the afternoon, there had been a carnival like attitude among the students and National Guard. People were laughing and joking and having a good time. Sunday night saw more rioting, less flamboyant, but it was the watershed of the weekend, according to Michener. After the events on Sunday night, it was inevitable that some kind of conflict would happen on Monday.

Monday, May 4th was a bright sunny day and students were milling in the commons area in between morning and noon classes. By noon, there were between 800 and 1100 students gathered in the commons area. Tear gas was fired into the crowd. The order was given for the Guardsmen to regroup back at the ROTC building. At 12:24pm, with their escape route clear to the ROTC building, some Guardsmen trailing behind their colleagues, suddenly turned around, and brought their rifles up to the ready position. A single shot was heard and then a entire volley sounded. Twenty-eight Guardsmen fired, but only a few of them fired into the crowd. Many of them fired into the air instead. When the dust settled, thirteen people had been shot, four died of their wounds. The four who died were Allison Krause, Bob Schroeder, Jeff Miller, and Sandy Scheuer, students that Michener had tracked throughout the course of the book (411).

Unlike his other published works, this book doesn’t read like a novel. It is a sober piece of nonfiction writing, a well researched scholarly history complete with footnotes. Michener is careful to present not to spin the story to one side or another. He simply gives it to the reader as it was given to him, and what analysis he does do, he clearly shows the reader how he arrives at that point. Each section is divided up into explaining some of the backstory, the history behind certain movements, clarifying terms like “lifestyle” and “revolutionary.” The book has seven chapters, beginning with a brief view of Kent, Ohio and ending with a chapter dedicated to the significance of Kent State, not only for Ohio, but for the nation as a whole. For each event, there is an opening statement that simply gives the facts of what happened. There is no whitewashing, no attempts at justification, no analysis. It is a simple description of what happened when. After this opening statement, Michener includes several different viewpoints and interpretations of the events that unfolded, several of them contradictory. It is up to the reader to evaluate them and decide which they believe to be true (49). At the end of each chapter, Michener offers up what he considers to be his reasoned analysis of what happened. I enjoyed this structure, it gave me a very good grasp not only of the events that occurred, but also of the mindset of the various people involved.

This book is a product of research done in and around Kent State University from July to December 1970. The sources that the author used were all real people though some of the names were changed, and in every instance of that being the case, Mr. Michener states it plainly in the text. His sources came from the people of Kent, students, faculty, townspeople. Some of these sources were better than others. All of the dialogue in the book is as accurate as memory and notes can supply, and where there is instance of testimonies conflicting with one another, the contradictions have been allowed to stand as they are. Mr. Michener writes beautifully, his prose flows in an easily understandable way, and the organization of the book itself was very well thought out.

This book is very valuable. It provides a decent, if not troubling account of what happened during those first four days in May 1970. Every step along the path is outlined and explained and analyzed for a greater understanding of what took place and why it took place. In the foreword, Michener writes, “…You need to know what happened to you, so that you can prevent it from happening again” (viii). Kent State was a tragic accident and by becoming aware of it and what caused it, we can better understand how to avoid a recurrence of it.

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