On 4th May 1970, around 600 students at Kent State University in Ohio were protesting the government's decision to expand the already highly controversial war in Vietnam to Cambodia, where President Nixon was hoping, as he put it in his address to the nation, "to clean out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border". This, Nixon told the nation, was for the purpose of ending the war in Vietnam and "earning the just peace we all desire". But many Americans questioned this, not least the younger generation, facing conscription into the armed forces to give their lives for a cause in which they did not believe.
Two days earlier, angry students had burned down a building on the campus used by the local Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). No one was ever arrested for this act of vandalism, but as a result of the explosive atmosphere on campus, the Ohio Governor - who characterised the protestors as common criminals - sent in the National Guard to maintain order.
What exactly happened that day was well documented, but blame has never been adequately established. Students were chanting "Pigs off campus!", taunting the Guardsmen and throwing stones. The decision was made to disperse the crowd. Tear gas was deployed. And then, somehow, the shooting began. In the space of a few seconds, 67 shots were fired into the crowd. Four young people were killed, two of whom were not even part of the demonstration. Nine more were injured.
A week later, Neil Young picked up the new issue of Life magazine and saw the now infamous photograph of 14 year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the dead body of student protester Jeffrey Miller. Filled with rage, Young walked off into the woods and when he came back an hour later, he had written the song Ohio.
But writing the song didn't quell Young's anger. He and his bandmates wanted this message to be heard by the nation and to confront the government. The band booked studio time for the very next day and recorded the song in minutes. They mixed it that evening, along with its B side, Find the Cost of Freedom, and demanded that their record label release it immediately with a sleeve featuring an extract from the Bill of Rights guaranteeing free assembly.
Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun warned that releasing Ohio would kill off their current single, Teach Your Children, which was currently climbing the Billboard charts, but, recalled Graham Nash years later "We decided it was more important to let America know that we're killing our own children than for me to have another hit single".
The enquiry into the killings found that they were unwarranted and inexcusable. It took nine years for the families of the dead and injured to receive compensation. No one has ever accepted responsibility for ordering the Guarsdsmen to shoot. But after the events of 4th May 1970, the tide of opinion in Washington irrevocably turned against the war in Vietnam. Within days, four million students took part in the first and only nationwide student strike and Congress began to cut funding for to the war.
Ohio did not change the world. But Neil Young's song is a unique, living historical document of a turning point in American history and a chilling reminder that no government should ever be allowed to hold itself above the law.
Kent State University has a May 4th Visitor Center with its own website.
You can learn more about Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young here
About the Curator
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.