Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Nice Tribute to May 4 Hero Stuart Allen

Howie Lisnoff has written an excellent tribute to Stuart Allen, who passed away on November 22.  Lisnoff's article, entitled "The Person Who Deciphered the Order to Shoot at Kent State," can be read at:


Speaking of tributes, when I read his piece, I had to stop and ask myself: when was the last time anyone associated with May 4 paid tribute to anyone (like Allen) who made a difference in the way the tragedy is remembered or understood? 

The May 4th Visitors Center certainly does not pay tribute to anyone, even though a very gullible Tom Hayden was conned into thinking it did. In an online article for The Nation, Hayden described the center as "a significant milestone for activists . . . determined to uncover the truth and honor the memory of those who died."

When I read that, I thought Hayden was joking because the very activists he referred to did not lift a finger to seek the elusive answers to May 4 when it actually mattered. In fact, the very same "activists" even opposed the federal grand jury investigation and ridiculed those who tried to work through the judicial system. These activists were primarily interested in saving their own skins. One of them even went to China to study Chairman Mao when his own wrongful death and injury trial was held. There is some evidence that these so-called "truth seekers" are still deceiving the public about the extent of their involvement  on May 4, 1970, and during the burning of the university's R.O.T.C. building two nights earlier.

The last time I can remember anyone paying tribute to an individual involved with May 4 was in 1977, when Yale sponsored a symposium to commemorate Peter Davies' donation of his papers to the Yale archives. 

Earlier, Bill Moyers and I. F. Stone paid tribute to Davies, Arthur Krause, and the handful of other individuals who fought for answers as to what happened at Kent State

Can anyone think of any other instance in which people who truly deserved to be honored got their due?  

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Man Who Started the Kent State killings

This article originally appeared in the November 20, 2016 edition of History News Network.

C. D. "Gus" Lambros was the staunchest defender of the Ohio National Guard during the first few years after the killings at Kent State University. He successfully defended three of the shooters during the 1974 criminal trial, as well as Sergeant Myron Pryor. Pryor was not indicted after a book by Peter Davies accused him of launching a murderous conspiracy at Kent State. 

Now, Lambros's granddaughter's husband, John Fitzgerald O'Hara, an associate professor with the American Studies and Writing Program at Stockton University in Galloway, New Jersey, has written the first thoughtful, independent analysis of the evidence since my own book was published in 1990.
The title of O'Hara's article, "The Man Who Started the Killings at Kent State," is a twist on my own chapter on the shootings, which ended: “Of course, no one was willing to confess. Which is understandable. After all, how would you like to go down in history as the man who started the killings at Kent State?”

O'Hara believes the Guardsmen were not innocent, but also says that Davies and Pryor's other accusers are overlooking exculpatory evidence. O'Hara particularly takes to task Davies and wounded survivor Alan Canfora, who once described Pryor as a beady-eyed, bald barbarian who now resides in Hell. As O'Hara points out, the evidence against Pryor "was never airtight or beyond a reasonable doubt."
O'Hara argues: “First, neither [Pryor] nor anyone else should be solely blamed for such a terrible event without a sober consideration of evidence. Second, pinning the shootings exclusively on Pryor may oversimplify the historical event.”

O'Hara feels that an assumption that Pryor was guilty “occludes other important lines of analysis which might point to other nefarious individuals and forces at work. This may lessen our ability to find a different culprit, or to recognize degrees and responsibilities spread among many individuals and groups, guardsmen and protestors, military and political leaders . . . Truth and justice with respect to Kent State remain important; however, neither is served by passing judgments unqualified by contradictory accounts and evidence.”

In making his case, O'Hara concedes that a famous photograph depicting Pryor standing several feet in front of the firing squad, intently pointing his pistol, may implicate Pryor as a shooter "despite his own assertion that the weapon was neither loaded or fired." Then, contradicting this conclusion, O'Hara cites a controversial 1974 conclusion by Electromagnetic Systems Laboratory (ESL), a forensics photographic lab commissioned by the Justice Department to analyze the evidence. ESL concluded Pryor's weapon was not fired and "that the slide was in fact in the locked position."

Moreover, O'Hara cites the claim by Pryor's superior, Captain Raymond Srp, that he inspected and sniffed Pryor's gun and determined it had not been fired. Pryor also passed three lie detector tests arranged by Lambros. (These tests were never introduced into evidence at the subsequent wrongful death and injury trial which named Pryor as a defendant. Polygraphs are inadmissible in federal courts.)

Without delving into all the nitty gritty details of O'Hara's first two arguments (including the question of whether Srp was friends with Pryor), O'Hara seems to be on much sounder ground when he points out that Pryor "had no official authority to issue an order to fire." The key word here, of course, is "official." As Davies pointed out, the soldiers seemed to have lost faith in their commanders, who marched them onto a practice football field, where they found themselves surrounded on three sides. After the trials, one shooter, Sgt. Lawrence Shafer, bitterly complained the shootings would have never happened if the general did not have "his head up his ass." 

The commanding officers seemed to have lost control of the troops, who then started improvising by throwing rocks and gas canisters back at the students. The fact that Pryor was a noncommissioned officer does not negate the possibility that there was an unauthorized order to open fire, whether given by Pryor or someone else. Indeed, a 2010 study by forensics audio expert Stuart Allen, using the most sophisticated technology available today, noted that he enhanced the tape recording of the shooting, a voice could be heard giving such an order.

O'Hara doubts that Pryor gave this alleged order, writing that Pryor "was wearing a gas mask that would arguably muffle any verbal commands that he gave." The main point of his article was that an over-investment in "Myron Pryor as the centerpiece of a murderous conspiracy," makes us forget that there were multiple contributing causes of May 4, 1970, and leads us to overlook other scenarios explaining what actually precipitated the Guardsmen to open fire.

That may be, but it is also true that the other theories of what precipitated the shootings are fraught with far greater weaknesses than the theory that Pryor or another Guardsman issued an order to fire on Blanket Hill.
The possibility that there was a sniper was ruled out early in the investigation, although an undercover FBI photographer and part-time Kent State student was involved in a curious incident before the shooting broke out. As suspicious as his actions were (e.g., placing himself between the Guardsmen and the students and throwing rocks at the students), it is highly improbable that Terry Norman could have instigated the tragedy. Even if Norman fired four shots, as forensic expert Stuart Allen also concluded, it is illogical to believe that the Guardsmen, upon hearing these shots, waited a full 70 seconds before firing into the crowd. Even senior citizens do not have that slow a reaction time, and the Guardsmen, of course, were mostly in their twenties.

Moreover, the other much discussed scenario: that the Nixon White House orchestrated the shootings, requires manipulating so many people and so many events that it seems beyond the scope of human capacity. Certainly, suspicions swirled around the not-so-veiled threats to shoot protestors the day before it actually happened, at a press conference led by Ohio Governor James Rhodes. (At the time of the shootings, the governor was trying to get the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat in Ohio. Rhodes was behind in the polls, and preaching "law and order" to the masses.) However, after four and a half decades, no one has been able to produce one iota of evidence that the shootings were pre-planned. Indeed, it is one thing to say that Rhodes, as the Ohio National Guard commander-in-chief, set the tone that made the shootings possible, but quite another to say Rhodes or Nixon (or Nixon and Rhodes) gave any specific orders to kill students. 
The spur-of-the-moment order to fire theory at least explains why an estimated half a dozen to ten Guardsmen simultaneously stopped, about-faced approximately 135 degrees, and fired a 13-second barrage at students who, according to a Justice Department report, were too far away to pose even a remote danger to the soldiers. When the shootings broke out, the Guardsmen were also just ten feet away from passing around the corner of Taylor Hall, where they would be beyond the protestor's field of vision. Any rocks would have just bounced off the corner of the building.

The much sought after "smoking gun" may still elude us, but the spur-of-the-moment order-to-fire theory still seems to be the least problematic, and the one most consistent with the eyewitness accounts. 

O'Hara's article appears in the August issue of an online scholarly journal, The Sixties. It costs $43 to order it on the Internet, but I saved that by finding a friendly librarian who inter-library loaned the article to me.

- See more at: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/164234#sthash.lEhAsp6H.dpuf

William A. Gordon is a journalist, Kent State graduate (class of 1973), and author of five books, including Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State?

Friday, April 8, 2016

Two More Authors Say There Was Murder at Kent State

Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties, Thomas Grace, University of Massachusetts Press, $90 hardcover/$19.95 paperback

Above the Shots: An Oral History of the Kent State Shootings, Craig S. Simpson and Gregory S. Wilson, Kent State University Press, $28.95

67 Shots: Kent State and The End of American Innocence, Howard Means, da Capo Press, $25.99

This spring three new books will revisit the May 4, 1970 shootings at Kent State. Two of these books were written mostly for academic audiences, while the third was written by a professional author.

The first study was written by Thomas Grace, a KSU alumnus who was severely wounded when an Ohio National Guard bullet shattered his left ankle, leaving him with a limp. Grace is now an adjunct professor of history at Erie Community College in College in Buffalo, NY, and the only one of the nine wounded survivors  I have never met. I had plenty of opportunity, but had no desire to, after he told a friend “the only way you get justice is to pick up a gun.”

It is not clear whether Grace still subscribes to that view, but his heart and mind still belong with sixties militants. His book is mostly an academic history of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and antiwar protest at Kent and throughout the United States, followed by a detailed recounting of the events of 1970, which culminated with the four unnecessary deaths on May 4, 1970. Grace devotes a good 200 pages to this pre-1970 history, but never adequately explains why he joined the SDS. Nor does he try to connect the dots between the behavior of former SDSers (which, as a group, had been officially banned from campus) and the May 2 destruction of the university's ROTC building and the killings on May 4.

In fact, Grace removes himself from the equation so completely that you forget he was an active participant in the protests. The Justice Department concluded that he was among the group that waved flags and encouraged people to throw rocks at the Ohio National Guardsmen. He also was close friends with Thomas "Aquinas" Miller, who was involved in the arson. Both Grace and Miller were indicted by a state grand jury for rioting. In the book, Grace portrays himself as merely an innocent bystander to all these events--a claim that struck me as disingenuous. As knowledgeable as Grace is about the events of May of 1970, he seems to be holding back on everything he knows. His Kent State is definitely not a tell-all book. One is tempted to call it closer to what the Nixon administration used to call "a limited, modified hang-out."

The second book, the bizarrely titled Above the Shots: An Oral History of the Kent State Shootings, was co-written by Craig S. Simpson, a former archivist at Kent, and Gregory S. Wilson, a history professor at the nearby University of Akron. Although the title makes it sound like these scholars were in an invisible blimp watching the action below, Simpson explains in his introduction what he really meant: "We, as authors and historians, have sought to stay above the din and present a multitude of perspectives, respecting (if not always agreeing with) the views of the narrators."
The narrators in this case are mostly former students and faculty members who shared their recollections with Kent State's Oral History Project organized some 20 years after the fact. The majority of the statements were collected at least ten years after more than 8,000 pages of FBI reports and a 13,000 page trial transcript became available, making the oral history project redundant at best.

The book at least publishes excerpts from some of the better narratives, while intermittently lecturing on the theories of oral history. I would say that I am not a big fan of this Weenie School of History--where historians are too afraid to weigh in on any controversy--but my wife says I should always find something positive to say about other people's hard work. So I will say this: after four and a half decades and half a dozen books published by the Kent State Press, Kent State has finally found two scholars who will at least acknowledge there was a debate.

Mazel tuv, Kent State. 46 years later, you have taken another baby step!

At least Howard Means, the author of the third book, 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, was willing to wade into that debate. His book is the 36th on what is known by shorthand as May 4 (if you count all the children's books, novels, and subdisciplinary scholarly works.)
In telling the story Means, a professional author, relies extensively on the same oral histories as Simpson and Wilson. His book, however, is better written, and he does a  better job distilling the collection’s few nuggets and molding them in a mostly chronological narrative.

In an attempt to be fair, Means faithfully reports what all sides claimed. His book may not break any new ground, but the book's real significance is that Means is now the sixth of the eight major May 4 authors to agree that the shootings were deliberate.  That in itself is a pretty damning statement against the Ohio National Guard.

Finally, there is one issue that casual readers probably would not pick up on, but which actually is emblematic of the often atrocious behavior quietly taking place behind the scenes. Personally, I found it annoying that even though my own book on the shootings (Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State?) clearly influenced Means (Means seconded over 20 major conclusions I reached 26 years earlier), Means refused to mention me once. (For that matter, he refused to credit all the other authors for their original reporting and research.) Both casual readers and scholars who check his source notes might jump to the wrong conclusion that everything Means reports in his book originated from Means himself.

Here’s an example: on page 43 of his book, when discussing the arson of the university's ROTC building two days before the students were killed, Means reports that two previously unidentified individuals (the both now-deceased Thomas “Aquinas” Miller and George Walter Harrington, the brother of another of Grace's friends), were among those who helped set the university’s ROTC building on fire. This information–-specifically, the identities of these two arsonists--did not originate from Means' research. It was actually lifted from the first chapter of the updated e-book version of my book, which was the first book on the killings to identify the arsonists. Despite this, and the almost identical conclusions we both reached--Means never once acknowledged the existence of my book. He even excluded Four Dead in Ohio from his bibliography, while mentioning virtually all the other essential May 4 books. It was almost as if he did not want to anyone to draw comparisons between his book and mine.

Just to be clear, Means does not actually plagiarize anyone; he simply makes all the previous chroniclers of the Kent State tragedy magically disappear.