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Fifty years ago today, the number of Americans killed in Vietnam had surpassed 50,000. Most of those who gave their last full measure of devotion were in their 20s; almost all were male. The U.S. armed forces weren't all-volunteer then, but when drafted into military service, these Americans answered the call. On this date in 1970, the Vietnam War claimed four more young lives.

These four Americans, two of whom were female, didn't die on any battlefield in Southeast Asia. They were college students cut down by M-1 rifle fire in the great American heartland. At the time, few Americans outside the Midwest had ever heard of Kent State University. After May 4, 1970, few would ever forget it.

* * *

By 1970, public opinion in the United States was turning against the war in Vietnam, particularly on college campuses where students facing the military draft thought of themselves as cannon fodder in a foreign war they increasingly viewed as a mistake.

In the late 1960s, the Gallup polling organization began documenting the shift. Two surveys asked college students whether they considered themselves "hawks" on the Vietnam War or "doves." Hawks were defined as those wanting to "step up our military effort in Vietnam." Doves wanted to reduce it. In the spring of 1967, hawks outnumbered doves 49% to 35% on college campuses, with 16% registering no opinion. By December of 1969, these numbers were starkly different: 69% of college students now favored de-escalation in Vietnam, with only 20% wanting to escalate the war.

Much had changed in two-and-a-half years: Lyndon Johnson, the architect of escalation, had left the White House, choosing not to run again after being challenged in his own party over the war. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Richard Nixon had run for office playing it both ways on the war: hinting at a plan for U.S. withdrawal while surreptitiously undermining peace talks. The bloody Tet Offensive launched jointly by the North Vietnamese People's Army of Vietnam and Viet Cong irregulars had shown a fierce resolve on the part of the enemy. Although the communists suffered huge casualties, the U.S. body count kept rising, too: 11,363 in 1967; 16,899 in 1968, and 11,780 in 1967 -- some 40,000 dead and tens of thousands more grievously wounded in just three years. When would it end?

For most of that time, student deferments shielded the young men fortunate enough to attend college. The law had been changed, however, and the first lottery to determine the draft status of men born between Jan. 1, 1944 to Dec. 30, 1950 took place on Dec. 1, 1969

There were still ways to avoid Vietnam -- and Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden were among those who had used them -- but the main point here is that America's college students were looking for leaders who would guide the nation on a different path. Instead, they got an April 30 speech from Nixon announcing that the U.S. would expand the war into Cambodia. And as Kent State and a hundred other campuses erupted in protest over that action, what Ohioans got in response was a mayor who asked the state to send in the National Guard and a sitting governor -- eyeing a Senate seat and facing a May 5 primary -- who complied.

The result was that as the sun set on that Ohio college town 50 years ago today, Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Allison B. Krause, William Knox Schroeder, and Sandra Lee Scheuer were never going home again. All four were either 19 or 20 years of age. None of them were armed. Miller is the young man whose body was shown in the famous photograph in which a 14-year-old girl is kneeling over his body in horror.

Krause, a freshman, was planning to transfer from Kent State: This would have been one of her last days on that campus. The day before, she'd told a young guardsman -- himself a college student from Akron -- that flowers were better than bullets. On May 4, she was more than 100 yards away from the guardsmen who fired 67 shots in 13 seconds. More than a football field away.

Bill Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer were even further away, nearly 400 yards. Schroeder was in ROTC and wasn't participating in the demonstration. He was shot in the back. Scheuer was merely walking to class.

Nine other Kent State students were wounded by gunfire. One of them, Dean R. Kahler, was shot in the spine and paralyzed. Kahler recovered and went into local government himself, serving as a county commissioner in Ohio. He was scheduled to be a commencement speaker at Kent State this year. But of course, the public ceremonies were canceled as America is in lockdown over a viral pandemic. What would Kahler's message have been?

"It's just the message I've been talking about for 50 years," he told one reporter. "Be involved in your government, hold your officials accountable and vote. If you're not registered, get registered and then be an informed voter. You have to hold your government accountable or they'll take advantage of you." 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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