The Kent State Shootings, 35 Years Later Writer Philip Caputo returns to Kent State University, 35 years after he covered the shootings there as a young Chicago Tribune reporter. His new book, Thirteen Seconds, searches for meaning in the violence.

The Kent State Shootings, 35 Years Later

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. A military judge has thrown out the guilty plea entered by Lynndie England two days ago. England is the Army private who was prominent in some of the first pictures of US troops abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. The judge says he's not convinced that England knew that what she was doing was wrong.

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Thirty-five years ago today, May 4th, 1970, the war in Vietnam came home at Kent State University in Ohio.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man #1: Somebody call an ambulance! Get an ambulance up here!

Unidentified Man #2: Two more, two more...

Unidentified Man #1: Get more ambulances. Get more. There's people dying down here. Get an ambulance up here...

CONAN: After a weekend of sometimes violent protests, National Guardsmen called in by the governor confronted a group of protesters, students and onlookers in a parking lot on campus. An eyewitness described what happened next.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man #3: The Guard moved back to the corner of Taylor Hall, and--while the students followed, and they were still stoning them, but then all of a sudden, they got right by a corner and just turned around and started firing.

CONAN: Four students died that day, nine others were wounded. If you lived through that era, what did Kent State mean to you? Give us a phone call. Our number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is For Philip Caputo, the day has stayed with him. He was a cub reporter with the Chicago Tribune at the time and arrived on the Kent State campus only a few hours after the shooting. In the course of his career, Caputo went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and write a New York Times best-selling novel, "A Rumor of War." In his latest book, "13 Seconds," Caputo returns to Kent State to try to search for meaning in the tragedy. And he joins us now from the studios of member station WKSU at Kent State in Ohio, and it's nice to have you on the program.

Mr. PHILIP CAPUTO (Author, "13 Seconds"): Thanks. Good to be here.

CONAN: Tell us the story of your day that day at Kent State.

Mr. CAPUTO: Well, it began in the morning in Chicago, when I got a call from the day city editor that the disturbances at Kent, which we had been following, got a lot more serious over the weekend, with the ROTC building being burned down on Saturday night, and the National Guard called onto the campus to quell the disturbances. So they told me I'd better get down there, because I had been covering other campus protests occurring in the general circulation area of the Chicago Tribune, including the University of Illinois.

I was on the plane when the shootings occurred. At least I believe that's about the right time. And I didn't know about it till after I landed in Cleveland, got a rental car and was driving south toward Kent when I heard a news bulletin on the radio, and then I hurried to the campus and arrived about I'd say roughly two to three hours after the shootings happened.

CONAN: You put this in your book in the context of a--I think one of the curious lines in your book is, `I don't see how anybody could be nostalgic for the '60s.' The country you describe as being almost on a hair trigger.

Mr. CAPUTO: Yeah, it was. And I don't think it's just my peculiar perceptions. The country at that time was probably as divided as it had been since the Civil War, between--I describe it in the book as being like a shattered mirror still in its frame with fissures between the young and the old, between black and white, between hawk and dove. And tensions had been rising throughout the late '60s, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the Tet offensive, the Weathermen Days of Rage in 1969 in Chicago. And then the demonstrations that arose on campuses throughout the country in May of 1970 were in response to President Nixon's declaration the night before that he had sent 25,000 troops into Cambodia. All of those things had been coming together and raised tensions to an almost unbearable level, as I recall them.

CONAN: You conclude that both the war protest movement and the reactions to it had gone out of control.

Mr. CAPUTO: Yeah. I mean, that's one of the lessons I hope that people who read this book, which, by the way, is being sold with an Emmy Award-winning documentary on a DVD, and I certainly urge everybody to look at that DVD, which you'll get the immediacy of the event, but the sense that I have or that I'm trying to get across in the book is that we all need to learn to keep these passions somehow under control, and Kent State was an example of what happens when they run out of control. And it was happening on both sides of the anti-war movement.

CONAN: We're talking about Kent State 35 years later with Philip Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His new book about the events is "13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings." (800) 989-8255 if you'd like to joins us. E-mail is

Let's talk with Michael, and Michael's calling from Akron, Ohio.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes. I'm a graduate of Kent State, and while I was a youngster at the time of the Kent State shootings, I feel very touched by the events that happened. As a student at Kent State, I made a point of studying the events surrounding the shootings, the shootings themselves and the aftermath. And the gathering of students that were involved in the shootings was a peaceful process. They were exercising their constitutional right to freedom of speech. The commission that was convened after the shootings showed that there were outside agitators, and the town that I lived in in Stow, Ohio, was shut down because of the agitation occurring the Friday and Saturday before the shootings. I think outside of northeast Ohio, the significance of the shootings and the memory of the shootings is largely forgotten, other than perhaps a news story or a talk show, such as this, that brings back these memories. I...

CONAN: Do you think that it's forgotten, Philip Caputo?

Mr. CAPUTO: Well, yes, I actually would agree with the caller. One of the reasons that I, in conjunction with my editor there, decided to put this book together and particularly to write it as a companion to the DVD, or if you wish to put it the other way, the DVD is a companion of the book--however you want to put it--what surprised me was that when I asked people of my age or people anywhere, say, between 45 and 60, something like that, oh, they'll say, `Oh, yeah, I remember Kent State. Some students were killed there, weren't they?' And that would be about the extent of their memory or their knowledge of it.

So what I tried to do in this book was fairly modest; in addition to re-creating some of the atmosphere in America at the time and trying to put flesh and bones on the names of the victims, the ones who were killed, was to look at the existing record, the public record that is in newspaper clippings and court documents and the archives here at Kent State University, it's on the Internet, and put it together in a concise form, so that people would have access to quite a bit of information, but again, in a concise form about this event. But I think that, yeah, otherwise, it's pretty vague in most people's memories.

CONAN: Is it--Michael said it was remembered in northeastern Ohio. Is it remembered at Kent State, do you think, Philip Caputo?


Mr. CAPUTO: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, I came back here last fall and spoke to some students, including the managing editor of the student newspaper, and he complained to me--and it was echoed by others--that all you have to do is say `Kent State' anywhere in the state of Ohio and I would say outside of the state of Ohio, and people will start singing that old Crosby, Stills & Nash song, "Ohio," or they'll associate the university with this massacre, quite forgetting that the university is known for a lot of other things.

CONAN: Michael, thanks for the call.


CONAN: Was Kent State known at the time--you were covering other anti-war protests. Was this a hotbed of activism?

Mr. CAPUTO: Oh, no. It was almost the opposite. It was mainly a--it's a midsized college, Midwestern. Most of the student body came from small towns or from working class neighborhoods in the big cities in Ohio. It was--to give you an idea of how unradical it was is that the great left-wing journalist, I.F. Stone, had come here and he said that the students here thought you were avant-garde if you read Time or Newsweek. So it was nothing like, say, Berkeley or Columbia or the University of Chicago or other college campuses that were associated with the more militant aspects of the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement.

CONAN: Let's talk now with David. David's with us from West Palm Beach in Florida.

DAVID (Caller): I'm going to try not to get emotional. I grew up in the Bronx in an apartment building. We lived on the second floor. On the third floor was Jeffrey Miller's grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Brody(ph). And I was in college my first year, I was a freshman at New Paltz, which is in upstate New York. And my mom--we heard about the shootings, and my mom called me and said it was Mrs. Brody's Jeff, who I used to play with. He used to come there on the weekend. We'd play, you know, stick ball together, and I can't listen to that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song without crying. And I was part of about maybe 40 to 50 kids who took over our administration building. What it did was it galvanized us against the war, against what was happening back then. And, I mean, I just can't--I get--it's not going to be forgotten in this person's mind. I've discussed it with my kids, and I'll discuss it with anybody who wants to know what happened back then. It was a terrible, terrible, horrible thing that happened to innocent people, and it was terrible.

CONAN: What did you find out about Jeff Miller, Philip Caputo?

Mr. CAPUTO: Well, Jeff Miller--he was--listeners should realize he was one of the students that was killed.

DAVID: Yeah.

Mr. CAPUTO: And as a matter of fact, it is Jeff Miller's body that iconic phot...

DAVID: The girl is sitting over it.

Mr. CAPUTO: ...that i--yeah, that iconic photograph was taken of--the young teen-age runaway Mary Vecchio is kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller as he lay dead on the asphalt of the Prentice Hall parking lot. He was active in the demonstrations, but to give you an idea, again, of the sort of campus it was, he had called his mother the day that the anti-war rally was to be held and, more or less, asked her permission to go to the anti-war rally, and she said, `Well, you do what you think is right,' and he thought that it was right to protest the war in general and specifically the Cambodian invasion. He had transferred to Kent State from the University of Michigan where, like his older brother, he had been a fraternity boy. He was--I've read letters that he wrote to his grandparents, and it's quite heartbreaking to read these letters and to see that basically, he was snuffed out of existence for doing nothing but expressing his opinion.

CONAN: David, thanks very much for the call.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Philip Caputo about his new book, "13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Tony. Tony's with us from Huntington, West Virginia.

TONY (Caller): Hi. Yes. I was only 13 at the time, but weirdly was quite the radical, along with about three or four older friends of mine in junior high. And we were just livid with the administration for the invasion of Cambodia and then with the governor of Ohio for sending in the National Guard at all in the first place and then for the shootings. And I followed it and thought about it, you know, every May 4th since then. As a matter of fact, the year after, me and those four friends wore black arm bands to school, and everybody was going, `Oh, who died?' That's how--you know, like the previous guy was talking about, most people didn't--at that time weren't following it that closely, the war or even knowing that just right across, you know, the state line, something like that had happened.

CONAN: Here's an interesting e-mail we got from Kelly in Oakland, California. `I turned 17 on May 4th, 1970. It was the height of the turbulent '60s. From that moment, my T-shirt for the summer had a large red bull's-eye on it with the words, "Official National Guard target."'

TONY: Yeah. That's--yeah. Oh, I was hugely against the National Guard and Rotsee, as we called it back then, ROTC.

CONAN: I think they still call it Rotsee.

TONY: Yeah.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Tony. Appreciate it.


CONAN: Philip Caputo, we're in the middle of another war the country is very deeply divided over. Yet, we do not see anything like the same kinds of activities on campus that we saw in the '60s.

Mr. CAPUTO: No, you don't. And as a matter of fact, I asked some Kent State students about that when I was here last fall, the fall of 2004. And one answer I got was--they said--the gentleman I was interviewing, he said two words: `the draft.' And the absence of a draft probably accounts for about maybe 75 percent of the quiescence that you now find on American campuses as regard to the Iraq War.

CONAN: And that if there was a draft, that would change quickly, you think.

Mr. CAPUTO: Yeah. He thinks so and I think so. I don't know that you would see a repeat of the 1960s, because there were a lot of other factors that went into creating the atmosphere of that era. But I do think you'd see a lot more student activism were there a draft, were students today--and now you would have women facing the possibility of being taken into the armed services and sent over to Iraq.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. CAPUTO: So you would see....

CONAN: Well, Philip Caputo, thank you very much. Good luck with the book.

Mr. CAPUTO: OK. All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Philip Caputo's new book is "13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings." He was with us from the studios of member station WKSU on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. You can read an excerpt of "13 Seconds" at our Web site, You can also see video clips of interviews with students and Guardsmen who were at Kent State at the time.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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