“If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant,” President Richard Nixon famously said in an April 30, 1970, address to the nation, “the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”
During that speech Nixon announced plans for a joint South Vietnamese-American operation into Cambodia to confront the North Vietnamese Army, which had long used the territory as a sanctuary to launch missions into South Vietnam. The address spurred an immediate reaction from antiwar activists across college campuses, culminating in confrontations that led to Ohio National Guard troops shooting to death four students at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, and Mississippi state police officers killing two students at Jackson State College on May 15.
In their book, Cambodia and Kent State: In the Aftermath of Nixon’s Expansion of the Vietnam War (Kent State University Press, 88 pp. $12.95, paper) Kent State professors James A. Tyner and Mindy Farmer provide a concise introduction to the domestic and international context of the shootings, as well as an overview of the historical memory in Kent and Cambodia. The book relies on secondary sources and the authors’ knowledge of the university where Farmer serves as the director of the May 4 Visitors Center.
The book’s thesis—connecting the incursion into Cambodia and the ensuing domestic protests to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, while also examining the collective memory in both countries—is laudatory. It is a helpful primer on both topics, and its strength is the closing chapter on the commemorations of the four victims in Kent and the millions in Cambodia.
But the book’s brevity does not account for curious unforced errors or reductive analysis. The world’s previous conflict was not World War II, as the author say, but the Korean War. What’s more, Kissinger and Nixon did not create realpolitik; it was a 100-year old political philosophy. And the South Vietnamese Army was a full participant in the operation, committing more than 60,000 troops and suffering some 600 killed in action.
“Nixon’s Expansion of the Vietnam War,” as the subtitle puts it, is important to the authors’ conception of the incident, but the context of the decision is more nuanced than the familiar Nixonian caricature. As the authors document, the North Vietnamese had long violated Cambodia’s neutrality, and when Prince Sihanouk was deposed in mid-March 1970 and replaced by the pro-Western Lon Nol, who welcomed the incursion, it provided the opportunity for something that the American military had long yearned.
Though Nixon’s Secretaries of Defense and State opposed the plan, there were no “fierce objections,” and the incursion had the support of the Joint Chiefs, the CIA, the South Vietnamese Embassy, and the National Security Adviser. The pacing of the book can be frenetic, jumping between the administrations of Nixon, Ford, and Carter with alacrity.
The Nixon Administration anticipated domestic fallout from the Cambodian action, but they underestimated how severe that reaction would be. In Kent, the protests were marked by an escalating level of violence, including burning the campus ROTC building. A Gallup poll showed that 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for the killings.
Not explored in this book, but important to the historical context, is the infamous New York City “Hard Hat Riot” that occurred four days after the shootings, and the subsequent May 20 rally that drew some 100,000 Nixon supporters. In 1972, Nixon won reelection by more than 18 million votes.
The coda of the book is an appropriate elegy to the senseless deaths of four students on a beautiful Monday afternoon in Ohio, and to the millions who perished at the hands of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
In the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy, this succinct treatment is a welcome addition to the historiography of the “end of the Sixties.”
–Daniel R. Hart