May 4, 1970: The Kent State shootings take place.
The shooting of unarmed students by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University, was one of the most notorious domestic events of the Vietnam War Era. It took place in the midst of a protest which itself was a reaction against government policy; antiwar sentiment was widespread throughout the nation, particularly among young people, so when President Nixon announced in late April that the U.S. military was to conduct military operations in Cambodia in pursuit of the PAVN and Viet Cong forces (which seemed to contradict his policy of Vietnamization and détente), student-organized protests on university campuses across the country erupted. These student strikes eventually involved at least 400 campuses, although the National Guard was deployed to only twenty-one of them, one of which was Kent State University in Ohio.
The Kent State demonstration began on May 1; the National Guard was called to the campus on May 2 by Governor James Rhodes, who denounced the student protesters and claimed that they were ”the worst type of people that we harbor in America”, comparing them to Nazi brownshirts and the Ku Klux Klan. Many in Kent and across the nation agreed with the governor’s condemnation of student protests, but just as many disagreed, to varying degrees. When the shooting and killing of Kent State students made national headlines, the issue remained just as divisive, with many believing that the students had brought the violence upon themselves. On May 4, the tensions between the guardsmen and students heightened. Tear gas was used in the guardsmens’ attempts to disperse the crowd, and at some point in the confusion, for some still unknown reason, a little under half of the 77 guardsmen present began to fire into the crowd of students. The guardsmen later claimed that they had been shot by a sniper and were firing in self-defense; this claim was denied vehemently by the students, who admitted to throwing rocks, and also by the New York Times reporter who had been on the scene. The reporter also wrote:
As the guardsmen, moving up the hill in single file, reached the crest, they suddenly turned, forming a skirmish line and opening fire.
The crackle of the rifle volley cut the suddenly still air. It appeared to go on, as a solid volley, for perhaps a full minute or a little longer.
Some of the students dived to the ground, crawling on the grass in terror. Others stood shocked or half crouched, apparently believing the troops were firing into the air. Some of the rifle barrels were pointed upward.
Near the top of the hill at the corner of Taylor Hall, a student crumpled over, spun sideways and fell to the ground, shot in the head.
When the firing stopped, a slim girl, wearing a cowboy shirt and faded jeans, was lying face down on the road at the edge of the parking lot, blood pouring out onto the macadam, about 10 feet from this reporter.
Four students were killed, and nine were wounded (one was permanently paralyzed from chest down). Of the four killed by rifle fire, two had not been participants in the protest. According to eyewitness accounts, the students were shocked at the fact that the guardsmen had fired upon them and even more shocked that they had fired live ammunition instead of blanks. John Filo, the photographer who captured the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of Mary Ann Vecchio and Jeffrey Miller (pictured above), also believed at first that the guardsmen were firing blanks. President Nixon expressed regret for the killings, although he suggested that the students’ disruptive activities had “[invited] tragedy”, and, according to a Gallup poll, the public agreed - according to the survey, only 11 percent placed blame on the National Guard, while 58 percent blamed the students. Eleven days later, two black students were killed at Jackson State University during an antiwar protest, though these events failed to capture national attention as the Kent State shootings did.
May 1, 1960: The U-2 incident takes place.
By 1955, both the United States and Soviet Union had developed and successfully detonated thermonuclear weapons; the next year, the first Lockheed U-2, an icon of Cold War-era espionage, flew a mission over the Soviet Union in order to gather and deliver intelligence regarding its technological progress. Covert reconnaissance missions conducted throughout the era provided the government detailed photographs that would, hopefully, enable the U.S. to stay ahead of its communist foe.
Meanwhile, Soviet Union-United States relations seemed to be, to some extent, thawing - in late 1959, Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States for the first time with his family (and a strong desire to see Disneyland) and left the country in the hope that some kind of détente might be achieved between the nations. This brief period of good feelings was disrupted by the U-2 incident, in which CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 spy plane were shot down while flying in Soviet airspace. Unaware that both the pilot and his equipment had been recovered by Soviet officials, the U.S. government released a cover story claiming that Powers had been conducting weather tests. The cover story was contradicted by the concrete evidence provided by the Soviet government of American espionage activity, and by Powers’ own confession; Powers, upon returning home (having been traded for a KGB agent), was criticized for failing to self-destruct his aircraft and for failing to commit suicide, although he was ultimately determined to have not divulged any important information to the Soviets and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star in 2012.
Although Eisenhower accepted responsibility for the incident, including the failed cover-up, the U-2 incident caused the collapse of the planned Paris Four Power summit, and any tentative easing of tensions achieved in the previous decade was undone. And in 1962, a U-2 plane captured images in Cuba and initiated a confrontation that would send the two nations closer to nuclear war than ever before.
How to Spot a Communist
But there are other communists who don’t show their real faces… who work more silently…
April 9, 1959: NASA selects the “Mercury Seven”.
Two years after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and the Space Race along with it, NASA chose from an elite pool of candidates America’s first astronauts, now members of a group known collectively as “the Mercury Seven”. The competition between the two nations during the early years of the Space Race moved at breakneck speed - Sputnik was launched in late 1957; the United States launched Explorer 1 three months later in January of 1958; NASA was formed five months after that; and by the end of the year the agency had set up Project Mercury and begun the search process for its first astronauts.
This search process was, initially, fairly general. Candidates had to be male, under six feet and 180 pounds (size was critical in performing human spaceflight), a bachelor’s decree, and flight experience and qualifications. 110 applicants met all these qualifications, and dozens were further eliminated through strenuous physical and mental tests until eighteen remained, and of those eighteen seven men from three branches of the U.S. military were selected to form “Astronaut Group 1”. These seven men were regarded by the public (to whom they were introduced on April 9, 1959) as valiant explorers, models of American values, and the faces of anti-Communism in space.
The seven members of the Mercury Seven were:
- Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space (and presumably the first to play golf on the surface of the moon, as well)
- Gus Grissom, commander of the first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3; Grissom was also one of three men to die in the Apollo 1 fire
- Malcolm Carpenter, the second American to orbit the Earth
- John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth
- Wally Schirra, the only one of the seven to fly in Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions
- Gordon Cooper, pilot of the final manned Mercury mission
- Deke Slayton, pilot of the American crew of the joint US-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project
March 29, 1951: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage.
In August of 1949, the Soviet Union conducted its first successful nuclear weapons test when it detonated RDS-1, or First Lightning (Joe-1 to the United States) in Kazakhstan; when President Truman notified the American public of this new and shocking (and shockingly, suspiciously fast, in the eyes of the West) development in September of 1949, the nations were thrust into a nuclear arms race. In 1950, a German physicist named Klaus Fuchs was arrested by British authorities, who revealed him to be an atomic spy for the Soviets, having supposedly supplied for the Soviet program atomic research from the United States. Fuchs, in turn, identified Swiss-born chemist Harry Gold as his courier, and Gold’s confessions led authorities to David Greenglass, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg, Army machinist for the Manhattan Project, and Soviet spy.
The Rosenbergs, Ethel and Julius, joined the American Communist Party in 1942. In June of 1950, Julius was arrested after being named by Greenglass as a spy, and Ethel was arrested shortly after in August; their trial began on March 6, 1951, and throughout their testimonies neither would speak on anything that might incriminate other members of the Communist Party. Both were convicted of espionage and sentenced to death under the Espionage Act of 1917; Irving Kaufman, the judge who imposed their sentences, famously remarked:
I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason…
Many Americans undoubtedly agreed with Kaufman’s condemnations, yet still the Rosenbergs had their supporters, among them Jean-Paul Sartre, who criticized Americans’ hysteria, accusing them of being “afraid of the shadow of [their] own bomb”; Pablo Picasso, who called the Rosenbergs’ impending execution a “crime against humanity”; and many others, including Frida Kahlo, Albert Einstein, and Bertolt Brecht. Even the Pope implored President Eisenhower to commute the couple’s death sentence, to no avail - on June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg became the first and only American civilians to be executed for espionage during the Cold War. It remains unclear how much the Rosenberg’s treason actually advanced Soviet atomic research, or whether Ethel was actually guilty of any treason (her participation and guilt were vehemently denied by their two surviving children).
Today is the 45th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre.
Photo gallery (images may be graphic)