Richard Nixon couldn’t sleep. Four days after the shootings in Kent State, the President sat in the living room next to the Lincoln Room, listening to a concerto by Rachmaninov on his record player.
With dawn still at two o’clock, Nixon looked into the darkness where the protesters were already gathering around the Washington Monument. The massive demonstration against the Vietnam War and the bloodshed in Kent State later today had turned the White House into a fortress. Two rings of city buses parked bumper against bumper surrounded the manor and the 82nd Airborne was parked in the adjacent administrative building.
Already on alert, a secret service agent was surprised when he noticed a dark figure in a jacket and tie wandering outside the White House at 4:35 am “The searchlight is on the lawn!” it has radio, using the code name of Nixon.
The agent became even more alarmed when the president asked for his limousine and left the White House to speak to anti-war protesters. What followed was one of the most bizarre episodes in presidential history, emblematic of an increasingly erratic president leading a country to the limit.
The Days After Kent State
After Nixon woke up from a nap on May 4, 1970, Chief of Staff HRHaldeman announced to the President the staggering news that the Ohio National Guard had opened fire on an anti-war demonstration at the University of Kent State, leaving four dead and nine students injured. Nixon’s April 30 announcement of the US invasion of Cambodia to target alleged North Vietnamese havens had boiled the country’s university campuses.
Anger increased further the next day when the president was filmed during a visit to the The Pentagon calls the protesters “tramps blowing up campuses.”
Haldeman wrote in his journal that Nixon was “very disturbed” by the shooting from the state of Kent, but noted that the president was primarily concerned with the political ramifications of the incident. Nixon had long sought to crush the anti-war movement on college campuses, which he said was the work of “outside agitators,” and Haldeman reported that the president “hoped that rioters would have caused the shooting.”
READ MORE: How Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia triggered presidential power control
LISTEN: Nixon Responds to Kent State Shootings
Nixon holds press conference and chats with students
As student strikes spread across the country and tensions rose, Nixon had to face the most important press conference of his presidency on the night of May 8. would be too forgiving and thus lose presidential strength and leadership. For many, Nixon found the right tone. Haldeman wrote that “the whole press conference was masterful”. The President agreed.
In the depths of the night, a bubbling Nixon made 50 phone calls to speak to everyone about the national security adviser Henry Kissinger to Reverend Billy Graham. “It’s just completely wired. He thinks he did a great job and got him out of the baseball stadium, “said Howard Means, author of 67 shots: The State of Kent and the end of American innocence. Unable to sleep, Nixon summoned his valet and made his nightly escape from the White House and drove his limousine to the Lincoln Memorial.
Nixon addresses student protesters at Lincoln Memorial
The students gathered in the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial may have thought they were dreaming when they saw the buttoned man that they had come to the capital to protest against the stairs of the monument and engage them in a conversation. Nixon later said that his goal was to “get them out of the miserable wasteland in which they now wander aimlessly.”
In addition to making awkward little speeches on subjects ranging from the virtues of visiting the Siberian city of Novosibirsk to the football team at Syracuse University, the president told anti-war activists that his ultimate goal was to was not to enter Cambodia but to leave Vietnam.
“I know most of you probably think I’m an S.O.B., but I want you to know that I understand how you feel,” he said. Nixon spent nearly an hour talking to the students before visiting the US Capitol and having breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel in what Haldeman called “the strangest day so far.”
Richard Nixon’s presidency is transformed
In addition to his press conference, the events in New York on May 8 also boosted Nixon’s mood. Encouraged by Wall Street traders, construction workers attacked anti-war protesters and forcibly raised the American flag fluttering above city hall which had been lowered at half mast to honor the four dead students of Kent State. Peter Brennan, the union leader who organized the “helmet riot” and another massive counter demonstration 12 days later, received a call for congratulations from Nixon and an invitation to the White House where he presented to the president his own helmet. Nixon never forgot the support, and he appointed Brennan Secretary of Labor at the start of his second term.
A Gallup poll following the shootings found that 58% of Americans accused students of death in Kent State, while only 11% accused the National Guard. According to Means, Nixon saw a political opportunity to consolidate his hold on the “silent majority” and to link the Democrats to the unpopular radicals. “In the short term, the state of Kent has revived the anti-war movement. He also radicalized the Democratic Party, which then appointed George McGovern, who lost in a landslide in 1972. “
Although the shootings in the state of Kent helped propel Nixon to a second term, they may also have triggered events that led to his possible resignation. In his book The ends of power, Haldeman writes that the shots from Kent State “marked a turning point for Nixon, the beginning of his descent to Watergate”.
Nixon had been dismayed that the The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, could find no evidence that “outside agitators” incited the National Guard to open fire or that foreign groups were financing anti-war demonstrations .
“The Republican Party’s message was that they were” outside agitators, “and that’s what Hoover couldn’t deliver to Nixon,” said Means. “If you look at the FBI interviews, they are ordered to march in search of” outside agitators “and they just weren’t there.
“Nixon lost confidence in the FBI and began to employ his own main army of intelligence experts,” said Means. This monitoring force, the so-called “plumbers”, orchestrated the break-in at the headquarters of the National Democratic Committee which led to the The Watergate scandal caused Nixon to resign from the presidency.