Kent State 50 years later: Was terrorism involved?

50 years ago, 4 Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War were killed by US National Guardsmen: some protesters had burned an ROTC building

Civil disagreement is a fundamental right in Western democracies but what if it turns violent?

OTTAWA, CANADA — I am not quite old enough to really remember the Vietnam War. Yes, I was born at the end of 1960 but my knowledge and memories of the conflict are vague. I do recall that one of my older brothers’ best friends – I think he was a dual Canadian-American citizen – actually got drafted and went to ‘Nam. I saw him after he got back and he did seem to have changed, but I did not press him on what he saw and did there.

There is obviously no question that the war was hugely divisive in the US. What began as an ill-fated foray into ‘Communist’ containment in Southeast Asia mushroomed into a multi-decade war that ate of tens of thousands of American lives (and probably millions of Vietnamese lives). The litany of human rights abuses is a long one: the My Lai massacre, Agent Orange herbicide/defoliant plus whatever crimes the Viet Cong committed during and after the American deployment.

Opposition to the US involvement in Vietnam rose during the 1960s and ultimately led – probably, although there are undoubtedly many other factors – to the decision to withdraw in 1973. Many took to the streets in US cities or burned their draft cards or…moved to Canada. One of my favourite rock bands of the 1970s – Heart – saw its members emigrate to Vancouver, seeing that fine west coast city as preferable to the jungles of Vietnam (it is estimated that about 20,000 Americans came to Canada to escape the draft and 12,000 others in the armed forces deserted and entered Canada).

At times the opposition turned ugly and there is no incident more emblematic than the May 4, 1970 Kent State University massacre (50 years ago: my how time flies!). That post-secondary institution boasted a long tradition of radical protest and this day was no different. On that day protesters gathered to demonstrate against the presence of a Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building on campus (the ROTC was a major recruitment centre for the US military). University officials had banned the event, but students showed up anyway.

Then the worst case scenario unfolded

Just after noon, a group of guardsmen suddenly huddled together, retreated briefly, wheeled toward the right, turned in tandem and fired at the students for 13 seconds. Four students were killed and nine injured. Apparently to this day we still do not know why the guardsmen opened fire. In the eyes of many this was a use of force wildly disproportionate to whatever ‘threat’ the student protesters posed. It was a state agency gone rogue.

Or was it?

It turns out that three days earlier, on May 1, some demonstrators destroyed commercial property in downtown Kent and the following evening the campus building used by the ROTC was torched, probably by a very small fringe of ‘activists’. I don’t know about you, but these acts could very well be deemed as terrorism in my estimation.

Just after noon, a group of guardsmen suddenly huddled together, retreated briefly, wheeled toward the right, turned in tandem and fired at the students for 13 seconds.

Recall that terrorism is a serious act of violence perpetrated for political, religious or ideological reasons. What else were these acts of vandalism/destruction but political in nature? Those who ‘torched’ the ROTC building were definitely making a political statement, one that was most obviously anti-war. I know that Canada is not the US, but in our Criminal Code (Section 83.01 on terrorism) it says that an act which “causes substantial property damage, whether to public or private property” and is driven by politics is terrorist in nature.


I do not write this to justify the actions of the US military/civil defence on Kent State or in Vietnam: it is NEVER ok to fire wantonly on unarmed civilians. Those who shot should have been charged with murder and it did seem that people expressing dissent were targeted.

Still a ‘fringe’ did engage in seriously violent acts. What if someone – say a cleaner – had been in the ROTC building when it was ‘torched’? Would that have been justified given the larger goals of the oppositionists?

In the end, we have to call political violence what it is – terrorism. Picking sides because we like one more than the other is simply not good analysis.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

2 replies on “Kent State 50 years later: Was terrorism involved?”

Your view is definitely unique. I was a young officer candidate at this time. Two of my cousins (Wayne Caron & Maurine Caron) were K.I.A. It was not until decades later I learned a similar approach and definition that your apparently used here. Perhaps, we should go further back and compose an article about the ‘Sons of Liberty’ as a terrorist group during the global war called ;The American Revolution’. Their tactics and strategy throughout the time with the freedom-fighters forming a government. What do you say ?
P.S. My ancestors played both sides.

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