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Four Dead in Ohio

By John Ketwig (reviewer)

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Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio
by Derf Backderf
(Abrams Comic Arts, 2020)

Many years ago, when people wrote letters, I received a moving acknowledgement of my book, …and a hard rain fell from Canada. The first version of the book, a hardbound by Macmillan, featured cover art designed as a high school yearbook page, featuring actual yearbook pictures of myself and five others, plus one photo of a Vietnam soldier peering out from under his helmet with eyes vets recognize as "the thousand-yard stare." Alongside my photo was my wife's likeness, and the gent who had written the letter recognized her immediately. Throughout high school, he had been seated directly behind her by the alphabetical spelling of their last names. The letter revealed that he and his wife were college students in 1970. After the Kent State shootings, they left America. He had achieved a prominent elected position in the Toronto city government, and as they watched the news throughout the intervening years, they had never wanted to return to America.

On April 30th, 1970, President Nixon announced that he had authorized US troops to enter Cambodia to destroy Communist supply depots and command bases. A passionate series of protests erupted across America, including the burning of an ROTC building on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. Two days later, on May 4th, 1970, 28 National Guard troops suddenly turned and fired their M-1 rifles, some into the air, some directly into the crowd of protesters.

Over just 13 seconds, nearly 70 shots were fired in total. Four Kent State students—Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer—were killed, and nine others were injured. Schroeder was shot in the back, as were two of the injured, Robert Stamps and Dean Kahler.

A seismic upheaval erupted on college campuses across America. Over 500 colleges and universities shut down, and 51 did not reopen that year! Students at 1,350 schools went on strike in protest, and the presidents of 37 universities and colleges drafted a letter to President Nixon urging him to clearly show his determination to end the Vietnam War. ROTC facilities at thirty colleges were burned or bombed. The Kent State campus was closed for six weeks. On the weekend of May 9th, four million Americans protested in the streets, including 130,000 in Washington, DC. President Nixon left town, spending the weekend at Camp David despite major renovations underway.

Numerous investigatory commissions and court trials followed, during which members of the Ohio National Guard testified that they felt the need to discharge their weapons because they feared for their lives. However, disagreements remain as to whether they were, in fact, under sufficient threat to use force. None of them went to jail. In a civil suit filed by the injured Kent State students and their families, a settlement was reached in 1979 in which the Ohio National Guard agreed to pay those injured in the events of May 4th, 1970, a total of $675,000.

Today, more than half a century later, the Kent State massacre is remembered as a landmark event of the widespread protests of the Vietnam War. After Kent State, protesters had to be fearful of being shot by the military or law enforcement. All across America, many felt the shootings had upped the ante. They armed themselves and turned to acts of violence opposing the continuation of the war.

I have seen books about Kent State and own a few of them. I discovered this book by accident and ordered it out of curiosity. I'm so glad I did! Kent State is a graphic history, a carefully researched non-fiction story of the events leading up to and after the massacre. Best-selling author Derf Backderf interviewed students, parents, survivors, National Guard soldiers, faculty, and Kent State security. He researched documents and many, many photographs. Then, he sat down with pen and ink and created this illustrated or graphic history book. The book measures 7 ½ x 10 ½ x 1 ¼ inches, almost big enough to qualify as a coffee table volume. There are 251 pages of artwork, many featuring incredible detail and amazing resemblance to photographs of the massacre. As a reader, I cannot begin to estimate how many hours, days, weeks, or months it must have taken to create the drawings, not to mention researching the history of what happened and assembling the many drawings into a realistic and factual story. This book is incredible, named a "Best Book of the Year" by the New York Times, Forbes, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and National Public Radio! I strongly recommend this book!

John Ketwig is the author of …and a hard rain fell: A GI's True Story of the War in Vietnam which remains in print after 32 years and 27 printings (Macmillan, 1985). A new book, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter, was published in 2019. John is a lifetime member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

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