Escalation of Vietnam war spurs upheaval on campus

Mike Wereschagin

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a 10-part series of stories highlighting each decade of the 20th century and how The Minnesota Daily covered them. The series will appear on Wednesdays leading up to the Daily’s 100th anniversary on May 1, 2000, and culminate with a special edition. We hope you enjoy this trip through time.

The fuse of a generation was lit on April 30, 1970, when President Richard Nixon announced an unprecedented escalation of the Vietnam war.
His address touched off a string of anti-war strikes, riots and protests nationwide.
Then, four days later, the fuse reached the powderkeg when four students died at the hands of 12 Ohio National Guardsmen.
By the next morning, hundreds of campuses nationwide erupted in rage, fear and sorrow.
At the University, thousands of students crowded onto Northrop Mall, blocked streets and occupied Coffman Union.
In St. Paul, the governor threatened to mobilize the National Guard to restore order on the campus.
And standing between the armies of students and guardsmen, University President Malcolm Moos struggled to keep the peace as the nation’s largest university hovered on the brink for seven days in May.
The situation began three days after Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. A strike committee of about 20 University students and professors formed with one goal — shut down the school.
The committee, led by former MSA vice president William Tilton, spent that Sunday printing leaflets and devising a strategy to mobilize the University student body against the ballooning Vietnam War.
Their strike began the next morning with an anti-war rally during which they declared Coffman Union “liberated territory” for strikers.
During the next week, dozens of students moved into the Union and made it strike headquarters, even organizing a day-care for the children of University employees on strike.
Tilton also announced a list of demands the strikers made for state and national legislators and the University administration.
Among the demands were the complete and immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Southeast Asia, official University condemnation of the war, removal of the ROTC from campus, and consideration by the Minnesota state Legislature to remove “all Minnesotans and Minnesota taxes from the federal government for the purpose of fighting this war.”
Despite the committee’s elaborate plans, however, only about 3,000 of the University’s 35,000 students responded.
But the events of May 4 would change all that.

Four dead in Ohio
Protests and small riots had been going on in Kent, Ohio since the Cambodian invasion was announced. To quell the disturbances, Ohio Governor James Rhodes called in the National Guard.
During a protest that Sunday, Guardsman Larry Shafer bayonetted two protesters, one a disabled veteran, who were shouting at him.
At a protest the next day, tensions between students and guardsmen reached the breaking point as soldiers pushed most of the protesters down Blanket Hill and into a parking lot. Then, as the troops retreated back over the hill, the tension snapped.
Without warning, the last 12 guardsmen on top of the hill turned, raised their M-1 rifles and fired 67 shots into the unarmed crowd.
When the smoke cleared, students Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer, William Schroeder, and Jeffrey Miller lay dead. Eleven others were wounded, including Dean Kahler, who was paralyzed after being shot in the back.
Then-Kent State student Alan Canfora was shot in the wrist by a guardsman in the same attack.
“This was a dangerous time to be a young person in America,” Canfora recalls. “It was like it was open season on college students.”

Storming the Union
At the University, attendance at daily protests doubled overnight as news of the killings spread.
Pro-war citizens from across the state flooded the governor’s office with calls and letters demanding he send in the National Guard to stop the protests.
University President Moos, however, refused to let armed soldiers on his campus.
Elmer Anderson was chair of the Board of Regents at the time and remembers sitting in on a meeting between Moos and the head of Minnesota’s National Guard.
“Moos said to the general that his men could come onto the campus if they were unarmed,” Anderson said. “The general got a little mad and told Moos that his men never go anywhere unarmed and Moos’ response was, ‘Then your men don’t go anywhere near this campus.'”
The general eventually backed down, Anderson said, and when the Guard came to the University the next day, they were unarmed.
In fact, during the week that saw the largest, most vocal student protests in the University’s history, the only instance of violence occurred when police officers fired tear gas canisters into a crowd of over 6,000 protesters that Thursday.
The mayor had sent in the police to disperse the demonstration at the behest of citizens demanding the protests be quelled. But no students were killed and no shots were ever fired.
Eventually, the University Senate voted to distance itself from the ROTC by mandating that drills could no longer be held on campus.
Moos cancelled classes every Friday for the remainder of the quarter, designating them days of reflection. He also offered striking students grading opportunities so they would not fail out of the University.
And though protests and rallies continued for the rest of the quarter, attendance fell sharply after that first week.
But the damage had been done, both to the University and the nation, and neither could return to the way it was before those seven days in May.

Mike Wereschagin welcomes comments at [email protected]