Fifty Years Ago This Spring: Millions of Students Struck To End a War in Vietnam

tags: Vietnam War, antiwar movement, Kent State, student protest

Steve Early was a participant in the May, 1970 student strike against the Vietnam war and later served as Vermont Field Secretary for the American Friends Service Committee. He is a longtime union activist and author of four books about labor or politics. He is collaborating on a forthcoming book about veterans for Duke University Press.

President Richard M. Nixon prided himself on the accuracy of his political prognostication. Nixon was never more prescient than fifty years ago this month, in a remark made to his secretary, just before delivering a White House address that announced a U.S. military invasion of Cambodia. “It’s possible,” Nixon told her, “that the campuses are really going to blow up after this speech.”

Blow up they did, as Nixon’s unexpected escalation of an already unpopular war in Vietnam triggered a chain of events culminating in the largest student strike in  U.S. history. 

In May, 1970, an estimated 4 million young people joined protests that shutdown classes at 700 colleges, universities, and high schools around the country. Dozens were forced to remain closed for the rest of the spring semester.

During this unprecedented campus uprising, about 2,000 students were arrested. After thirty buildings used by the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) were bombed or set on fire, heavily armed National Guardsmen were deployed on 21 campuses in 16 states.

At Kent State University in Ohio, Guard members who had just been policing a Teamster wildcat strike, shot and killed four students and wounded nine on May 4. Ten days later, Mississippi State Police opened fire on a women’s dormitory at Jackson State, killing two more students 

America’s costly war in Southeast Asia had finally come home with stunning impact, creating what a later Presidential Commission on Campus Unrest called “an unparalleled crisis” in higher education.

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