Previously undisclosed FBI documents suggest that the Kent State antiwar protests were more meticulously planned than originally thought and that one or more gunshots may have been fired at embattled Ohio National Guardsmen before their killings of four students and woundings of at least nine others on that searing day in May 1970.
As the nation marks the 40th anniversary of the Kent State antiwar protests Tuesday, a review of hundreds of previously unpublished investigative reports sheds a new — and very different — light on the tragic episode.
The upheaval that enveloped the northeastern Ohio campus actually began three days earlier, in downtown Kent. Stirred to action by President Nixon's expansion of U.S. military operations in Cambodia, a roving mob of earnest antiwar activists, hard-core radicals, curious students and others smashed 50 bank and store windows, looted a jewelry store and hurled bricks and bottles at police.
Four officers suffered injuries, and the mayor declared a civil emergency. Only tear gas dispersed the mob.
An exhaustive review later concluded that this unrest on the streets — the worst in Kent's history — was "not an organized riot or a planned protest."
But the FBI's investigation swiftly uncovered reliable evidence that suggested otherwise. Among the strongest was a pre-dawn conversation — never before reported — between two unnamed men overheard inside a campus lounge later that night. Their discussion was witnessed by the girlfriend of a Kent State student and conveyed up the FBI chain of command 15 days later.
"We did it," one man exulted, according to the inquiry. "We got the riot started."
The second man expressed disappointment at being excluded from the riot's planning. "Wait until tomorrow night," the leader replied excitedly. "We just got the word. We're going to burn the ROTC building."
This was 20 hours before the ROTC headquarters on the Kent State campus, an old wooden frame building, was, in fact, burned to the ground.
"What about the flare?" the second man asked before the leader spotted the coed listening to them and abruptly ended the conversation. Dozens of witnesses later told the FBI they saw a flare used to ignite the blaze.
Now largely forgotten, the torching of the ROTC building was the true precursor to the killings at Kent State because it triggered the deployment of the National Guard to the fevered campus.
That deployment climaxed in bloodshed on the afternoon of May 4, 1970, with the guardsmen, clad in gas masks and confronted by angry, rock-throwing students, firing their M-1 rifles 67 times in 13 seconds, killing Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder.
A report submitted to Attorney General John Mitchell in June 1970 stated "there was no sniper" who could have fired at the guardsmen before the killings.
Numerous witnesses corroborated this.
A female freshman provided the FBI with a sworn statement that "there was no shot before [the guardsmen's] volley, and there were no warning shots fired." The Justice Department's internal review cited statements by six guardsmen who "pointedly" told the FBI that their lives were not in danger and that "it was not a shooting situation."
Yet the declassified FBI files show the FBI already had developed credible evidence suggesting that there was indeed a sniper and that one or more shots may have been fired at the guardsmen first.
Rumors of a sniper had circulated for at least a day before the fatal confrontation, the documents show. And a memorandum sent to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on May 19, 1970, referred to bullet holes found in a tree and a statue — evidence, the report stated, that "indicated that at least two shots had been fired at the National Guard."
Another interviewee told agents that a guardsman had spoken of "a confirmed report of a sniper."
It also turned out that the FBI had its own informant and agent-provocateur roaming the crowd, a part-time Kent State student named Terry Norman, who had a camera. Mr. Norman also was armed with a snub-nosed revolver that FBI ballistics tests, first declassified in 1977, concluded had indeed been discharged on that day.
Then there was the testimony of an ROTC cadet whose identity remains unknown, one of the pervasive redactions concealing the names of all the FBI agents who conducted the interviews and of all those whom they interrogated. Although presumably angry over the demonstrators' destruction of the campus ROTC building, the cadet's calm, precise firsthand account nonetheless carries a credibility not easily dismissed.
Before the fatal volley, the ROTC cadet told the FBI, he "heard one round, a pause, two rounds, and then the M-1s opened up."
The report continued that the cadet "stated that the first three rounds were definitely not M-1s. He said they could possibly have been a .45 caliber. … [He] further stated that he heard confirmed reports of sniper fire coming in over both the National Guard radio and the state police radio."
The cadet also told the FBI he observed demonstrators carrying baseball bats, golf clubs and improvised weapons, including pieces of steel wire cut into footlong sections, along with radios and other electronic devices "used to monitor the police and Guard wavelengths."
Separately, a female student told the FBI she "recalled hearing what she thought was [the sound of] firecrackers and then a few seconds later [she] heard noise that to her sounded like a machine gun going off, but then later thought it may have been a volley of shots from the Guard."
Absent the declassification of the FBI's entire investigative file, many questions remain unanswered — including why the documents quoted here were overlooked, or discounted, in the Justice Department's official findings.
At a minimum, the FBI documents strongly challenge the received narrative that the rioting in downtown Kent was spontaneous and unplanned, that the burning of the ROTC headquarters was similarly impulsive and that the guardsmen's fatal shootings were explicable only as unprovoked acts.
The FBI files provide, in short, a hidden history of the killings at Kent State. They show that the "four dead in Ohio" more properly belong, in the grand sweep of history, to four days in May, an angry, chaotic and violent interlude when a controversial foreign war came home to American soil.
• James Rosen, a Fox News correspondent, examined previously undisclosed FBI files on the Kent State shootings while researching his biography "The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate."