On the 30th April 1970, President Richard Nixon appeared on national television to announce the invasion of Cambodia by the United States Army. He explained the need to draft 150,000 more soldiers for an expansion of the Vietnam War effort. Nixon’s announcement provoked massive protests on campuses all over the United States. At Kent University in Ohio, the protest included setting fire to the ROTC building which prompted the governor of Ohio to dispatch 900 National Guardsmen to the campus.
On May 4th, twenty-eight guardsmen opened fire on a crowd, firing 67 rounds in the space of 13 seconds. Four people were killed (Jeffrey Glenn Miller (aged 20); Allison B. Krause (aged 19); William Knox Schroeder (aged 19) and Sandra Lee Scheuer (aged 20)) and a further nine were wounded, one of whom (Dean R. Kahler) was left permanently paralysed from the chest down.
There was significant national response to the incident, almost five hundred colleges being forced to shut down due to a student strike of four million students. Despite public outcry, the Justice Department initially declined to conduct a grand jury investigation into the incident in Ohio. However, a report by the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest did acknowledge that the action of the guardsmen had been “unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable”. Eventually, a grand jury indicated eight of the guardsmen but charges were dropped due to lack of evidence.
As a reaction to what quickly became known as the Kent University Massacre, Neil Young wrote the protest song Ohio. Young was inspired to write Ohio after seeing photographs of the dead and wounded at Kent state university in the media and in particular, a photograph of fourteen year old Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the body of one of the victims, Jeffrey Miller, who had been shot in the mouth. The photograph in question was taken by Kent State photojournalism student John Filo and won a Pulitzer prize. It became one of the most enduring images of the anti-Vietnam movement.
Ohio was performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and was recorded a mere seventeen days after the incident. According to recording engineer Bill Halverson, the song was completed in (at most) three takes. In the liner notes for his compilation album, Decade (1977), Neil Young said of the song:
“It’s still hard to believe I had to write this song. It’s ironic that I capitalised on the death of these American students. Probably the most important lesson ever learned at an American place of learning. David Crosby cried after this take”.
Of the lyrical content of the song, the “Tin soldiers” mentioned in the opening line refer to the Ohio National Guard and “Nixon’s coming” alludes to Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia and makes it clear that Young felt the incident at Kent University was Nixon’s fault. When the song was released, David Crosby noted that including Nixon’s name in the lyrics as “the bravest thing I ever heard”. The line, “We’re finally on our own” describes Young’s feelings that his generation has been abandoned by institutions and the government and his dismay that their country is now openly attacking them. In this line, Young removes any remaining link that he feels between his generation and the establishment.
The lines “Gotta get down to it, Soldiers are gunning us down, Should’ve been done long ago” are a reference to the general public reaction following the incident and strong anti-student feeling. A Gallup poll soon after the attacks showed that 58% of those taking part in the survey blamed the students whilst only 11% blamed the guardsmen. In this verse, Young attempts to shock those who blame the students out of their complacency with the lines, “What if you knew her, And found her dead on the ground, How can you run when you know?” In the fade out of the song, Crosby can be heard singing, “Four, why? Why did they die?” and “How many more?”
The refrain of “Four dead in Ohio” was taken from the newspaper headlines following the incident. The song quickly became an anthem to those opposed to the war effort. The song was rush released as a single in early June 1970, backed with the equally direct song, Find the Cost of Freedom, written by Stephen Stills as a tribute to those killed in the Vietnam War. Ohio was heard on the radio despite the band already having the hit single Teach Your Children in the charts at the time. In some parts of the country, Ohio was banned from playlists due to its strong anti-war and anti-Nixon sentiments. Upon the song’s release, Graham Nash said:
“Four men and women had their lives taken from them while lawfully protesting this outrageous government action. We are going back to keep awareness alive in the minds of all students, not only in America, but worldwide … to be vigilant and ready to stand and be counted … and to make sure that the powers of the politicians do not take precedent over the right of lawful protest”.