History Stories

Richard Nixon couldn’t sleep. Four days after the Kent State shootings, the president sat in the sitting room off the Lincoln Bedroom listening to a Rachmaninoff concerto on his record player.

With dawn still two hours away, Nixon gazed into the darkness where protestors were already gathering around the Washington Monument. The massive demonstration against the Vietnam War and the bloodshed at Kent State planned for later in the day had turned the White House into a fortress. Two rings of city buses parked bumper to bumper encircled the mansion, and the 82nd Airborne was stationed in the adjacent Executive Office Building. 

Already on high alert, a Secret Service agent was startled when he noticed a shadowy figure in jacket and tie wandering outside the White House at 4:35 a.m. “Searchlight is on the lawn!” he radioed, using Nixon’s codename.

The agent grew even more alarmed when the president asked for his limousine and departed the White House in order to talk to the antiwar protestors. What followed was one of the most bizarre episodes in presidential history, one emblematic of an increasingly erratic president leading a country on edge.

READ MORE: Kent State Shootings: A Timeline of the Tragedy

The Days After Kent State

After Nixon awoke from a nap on May 4, 1970, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman told the president the stunning news that the Ohio National Guard had opened fire on an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University, leaving four students dead and nine injured. Nixon’s April 30 announcement of the American invasion of Cambodia to target suspected North Vietnamese havens had roiled college campuses across the country. 

The anger grew even further the following day when the president was caught on tape on a visit to the Pentagon calling the protestors “bums blowing up campuses.”

Haldeman wrote in his journal that Nixon was “very disturbed” by the Kent State shootings, but he noted that the president was mainly preoccupied by the incident’s political ramifications. Nixon had long sought to crush the antiwar movement on college campuses, which he believed was the work of “outside agitators,” and Haldeman reported the president was “hoping rioters had provoked the shooting.”

READ MORE: How Nixon's Invasion of Cambodia Triggered a Check on Presidential Power

LISTEN: Nixon Responds to the Kent State Shootings

Nixon Holds Press Conference, Talks to Students

As student strikes spread across the country and tension mounted, Nixon faced the most important press conference of his presidency on the night of May 8. According to Haldeman, advisors “feared the president would either be too belligerent and non-understanding of the dissenters or would be too forgiving and thus lose strength and presidential leadership.” To many, Nixon struck the right tone. Haldeman wrote the “whole press conference was masterful.” The president agreed.

Deep into the night, an ebullient Nixon made 50 phone calls, talking to everybody from National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to Reverend Billy Graham. “He’s just completely wired. He thinks he’s done a great job and that he knocked it out of the ballpark,” says Howard Means, author of 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence. Unable to sleep, Nixon summoned his valet and made his nocturnal escape from the White House and directed his limousine to the Lincoln Memorial.

Nixon Speaks to Student Protestors at the Lincoln Memorial

The students gathered at the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial may have thought they were dreaming when they saw the buttoned-up man they had come to the capital to protest scale the memorial’s steps and engage them in conversation. Nixon later said his goal was to “lift them a bit out of the miserable intellectual wasteland in which they now wander aimlessly around.”

Along with sprinkling in awkward small talk on topics ranging from the virtues of visiting the Siberian city of Novosibirsk to the Syracuse University football team, the president told the antiwar activists that his ultimate goal wasn’t to enter Cambodia but leave Vietnam.

“I know that probably most of you think I’m an S.O.B., but I want you to know that I understand just how you feel,” he said. Nixon spent nearly an hour talking to the students before visiting the U.S. Capitol and having breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel in what Haldeman called “the weirdest day so far.”

Richard Nixon's Presidency Is Transformed

Hundreds of thousands of angry young Americans descended on nation's capitol on May 12, 1970 to protest U.S. involvement in Indochina and the Kent State University shootings earlier in the week.

Hundreds of thousands of angry young Americans descended on nation's capitol on May 12, 1970 to protest U.S. involvement in Indochina and the Kent State University shootings earlier in the week.

Along with his press conference, events in New York City on May 8 had also bolstered Nixon’s mood. Cheered on by Wall Street traders, construction workers had attacked antiwar protestors and forcibly raised the American flag flying over City Hall that had been lowered to half-mast to honor the four dead Kent State students. Peter Brennan, the union chief who organized the “Hard Hat Riot” and another massive counter-protest 12 days later, received a congratulatory call from Nixon and an invitation to the White House where he presented the president with a hard hat of his own. Nixon never forgot the support, and he named Brennan Secretary of Labor at the start of his second term.

A Gallup poll in the wake of the shootings found that 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for the deaths at Kent State, while only 11 percent blamed the National Guard. Means says Nixon saw a political opportunity to consolidate his hold on the “silent majority” and tie Democrats to the unpopular radicals. “In the short-term, Kent State re-energized the antiwar movement. It also radicalized the Democratic Party, which then nominated George McGovern, who loses in a landslide in 1972.”

While the Kent State shootings helped propel Nixon to a second term, they may have also set in motion events that led to his eventual resignation. In his book The Ends of Power, Haldeman writes that the Kent State shootings “marked a turning point for Nixon, a beginning of his downhill slide toward Watergate.”

Nixon had been dismayed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, could not find any evidence that “outside agitators” provoked the National Guard to open fire or that foreign groups were funding antiwar protests.

“The Republican Party’s messaging was it was ‘outside agitators,’ and that is what Hoover could not deliver to Nixon,” Means says. “If you look at the FBI interviews, they have their marching orders to look for ‘outside agitators,’ and they just weren’t there.

“Nixon lost faith in the FBI and began to employ his own primary army of intelligence experts,” Means says. That surveillance force, the so-called “plumbers,” orchestrated the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that led to the Watergate scandal and caused Nixon to resign the presidency. 

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