1970: Why are We in Vietnam?

Andrew Burgess, guest writer

Broken, useless, and never going anywhere in life . . . Johnny is a loser. These words were drilled into my personality since I was little. Acceptance, that is what I always wanted from my dad, but with him always working I never saw him as often as I wanted. Not until my late teens did I realize that I practically raised myself. Mom was always there, but she was always more interested in my brother Tom. The basis of our conversations were, “Going out, Mom,” followed with silence. But that’s in the past, and more important things are happening now.

The voice on the television sends controversial words that infiltrates my ears. Richard Nixon announces he is expanding the Vietnam war by sending troops into Cambodia to pursue more communists. Finally, a president that understands me—who is not afraid to chase down and destroy all communism—is in the Oval Office. “Listen to this, Carol!” I yell to my wife and best friend who is in the kitchen preparing dinner for us. Out she comes and looks at our small tv intently with her beautiful brown eyes as the clip of Nixon’s announcement is played again. This comes as a shock to both of us. Nixon said back in ’68 that he was going to end the war and until now, the fighting seemed to be winding down. Now it’s April 30, of the new decade, and he says he’s expanding the war. Of course I support his decision, but almost everyone I know is against the war.  I switch the TV back over to Adam-12. I glance at Carol and our eyes meet. We both are thinking the same thing. This could cause some problems with those in opposition to the war . . . but we have no idea to what extent and how close to home the problems would come.


It’s a Friday night, one night after the news from Nixon. The trouble I suspected has come quicker and greater than I thought it would. I’d rather be safe at home with Carol. I’m so sick of this job, even though I’d rather work here atRay’s Place than any other restaurant in town. It’s never boring; always lots of customers. Started in 1937, it still remains the most popular sandwich shop and bar in town. It’s a peaceful, easy-going place for people to come and have a relaxing drink and eat the best sandwiches in town. But . . . things were different tonight.

I was in the kitchen putting together an order, so I’m not sure how it started, but I started to hear shouting. By the time I got to go see what was happening, half of the costumers were running down the streets. Inside it was now quiet, but the action from outside was clearly audible. I could here the breaking of windows, beer bottles, and security alarms were screaming. I looked outside to see the commotion. Our small college town is in disarray. The bank’s windows are smashed, along with the windows of several other buildings. Someone shattered the windshield on a brand newHillman Avenger, released just earlier this year. Some of the crowd starts to throw bottles at the cops and yells ungodly things at ’em. This was only the beginning of what was to come. Most of the people in the crowd I recognized . . . acquaintances and fellow classmates from the university. I noticed one person in particular . . . Jeffrey Miller.

Jeffrey is a really neat guy. He loves the same music as I do and also has a special interest in cars as I do. One day, we both went downtown to the record store and bought new vinyls by new little-known rock bands. We discovered a band called Black Sabbath and bought their debut album. Last month, he came over to my apartment and celebrated the first Earth Day with us. Jeffrey appears to be a calm, easy-to-get-along-with kinda guy. He’s clean cut, doesn’t drink, and is very pleasant to Carol when he comes over for supper. People wouldn’t typically think he’d be friends with someone like me . . . an unshaven, long-haired, poor loser. But Jeffrey isn’t one to judge, and we got along instantly. He has just started attending KSU this semester.

One night, he came into Ray’s Place for a sandwich and fries. I recognized him from campus and started a conversation with him. I asked him if he lived on or off campus. To my surprise, I discovered he had just moved into the same apartment building that Carol and I live in. From then on out, we’ve seen more and more of each other and have grown closer as friends.

Jeffrey came home late that night . . . 2 in the morning kind of late, but I was waiting for him. I sat outside the apartment building on the bench by the main door, looking out over the dimly lit parking lot. Finally, I saw Jeffrey walking toward me, with a look of defiance on his face and irritation in his step.

I called to him calmly, “Hey Dude, I saw you downtown. What the hell was going on down there?”

“The hell you think was going on down there?”

“Well . . . um, I wasn’t totally sure . . .”

“Pigs, bastards, all of ’em!”

“Gosh man, slow down! Hey, just calm down for a second. What happened? What started everything?”

“John, they threw tear gas at us! They came at us with bayonets! At me! Unarmed! They . . . I . . .”

Jeffrey started to slow down. He flopped down and sat on the bench next to me. He sat quietly for a minute, obviously trying to contemplate what happened. I remained seated, looking at the ground, waiting until he was ready to talk.

“Well Johnny, I guess you already kinda know what happened. It freakin’ started right outside of Ray’s. Just know I didn’t start it. I didn’t assault any of those filthy cops, and I didn’t break no windows.”

“What started it?”

“Our damn president, that’s what!”

“What do you mean?”

“Listen John, we’ve been fighting over in Vietnam for years with no major accomplishment. Guys our age, my friends, are over there fighting, dying for a country that isn’t theirs. Why can’t America just take care of itself for once?”

“Well I see your point dude, but . . .”

“But what? Obviously we have problems in our own country . . . the police coming at you with bayonets.”

“Wait a second Jeffrey, why are you so mad at the police? You weren’t exactly protesting peacefully. The police had to do something.”

Jeffrey leaned back and looked thoughtful. “I guess you’re right. I didn’t even realize what was totally going on. I just kinda followed the crowd. But still, I feel like it’s my duty to protest expanding this stupid war.”

“Well you definitely have the right to. I’m gonna go hit the sack now. And you should too. It’s really late if you didn’t notice, and we both got classes in the morning.” I punched his shoulder lightly and we both stood up smiling and disappeared into our small apartments for the remainder of the night.


It was May 4, three days after the first violence in our small college town. Instead of the violence and problems lessening, they got worse. “Kent Mayor Leroy Satrom declared a state of emergency” (Lewis). He then called in the Ohio National Guard. Instead of protesting the war, it seemed to have turned into a protest against the presence of the National Guard. Tensions rose higher and higher.

Shortly after eleven, I received a call at work . . . It was Carol.


“John, another protest is about to happen… and the National Guard is here. I really don’t wanna get stuck in this.”

“I’m on my way, Babe.”

I hung up the phone and and threw my apron on a table. I started to head for the door. It was just like when I left the house when I still lived with mom. “Going out boss,” I yelled over my shoulder. I rushed to my bug, shoved the key in the ignition. It  wouldn’t start. I jumped outta the car and started running down the road as fast as I could. I was seriously worried. She’s the bravest girl I know, and I could hear the worry in her voice. I’d never run so fast in my life. Thank God the college was less than a mile from work downtown. When I got within a hundred feet of the school, I heard gunshots! I stopped dead in my tracks and crouched instinctively. It sounded like they were coming from around Taylor Hall. That’s where Carol was! I had to see if she was safe. I stood up and started running again. The shots stopped just a few seconds later. I came up over a slight hill and stopped in my tracks again. I looked over the campus grounds and saw an awful sight. Over a dozen people were lying on the ground, with a group of students around each one. I started running toward Taylor Hall to find Carol, but an arm reached out from one of the circles and grabbed my wrist, jerking me back. It was Chrissie Hynde, one of my best friends and the most talented female guitarist on campus.

“He’s dead, John! Those bastards killed him! He’s gone!” She collapsed into my arms and sobbed into my shoulder. I looked over her shoulder and saw who the victim was. Tears welled up in my eyes instantly. It was Jeffrey. I turned away . . . I couldn’t stand the sight of one of my best friends with a hole in the back of his head, face down, lifeless. I led Chrissie away from the group to a shady spot under a tree. We sat down and tried to recover from what we had just witnessed. She was trying her hardest to hold back her sobs.

“Why? What happened Chrissie?”

With tears in her voice Chrissie attempted to tell the story. “We were trying to have our protest rally. The guards started throwing tear gas and came at us with bayonets. Jeffrey threw one of the canisters of tear gas back. ‘Then I heard the tatatatatatatatatat sound. I thought it was fireworks. Then an eerie sound fell over the common. The quiet felt like gravity pulling us to the ground. Then a young man’s voice: “They . . . killed somebody!” Everything slowed down, and the silence got heavier.The ROTC building, now nothing more than a few inches of charcoal, was surrounded by National Guardsmen. They were all on one knee and pointing their rifles at…us! Then they fired.By the time I made my way to where I could see them it was still unclear what was going on. The guardsmen themselves looked stunned. We looked at them and they looked at us. They were just kids, 19 years old, like us. But in uniform, like our boys in Vietnam’ (Hynde). And then, I saw Jeffrey.”

She broke down crying again. I looked up and saw Carol running towards us. She was safe! She fell to her knees and hugged Chrissie and I together. Then she noticed Chrissie crying.

“Oh no, Chrissie, what happened?”

“They shot him! He’s gone! He’s dead!”

Carol looked at me for an explanation. Trying not to cry, I silently mouth my response, “Jeffrey.”

Carol breaks down. She falls into my arms and balls. I hug her tightly. Jeffrey is gone. Friendly, fun-loving Jeffrey. Now I know . . . Jeffrey was right. Why are we in Vietnam? Why doesn’t America take care of itself for once? We have enough problems to worry about here… the military killing unarmed American citizens. I now know what I gotta do. Washington D.C. here I come. You are about to witness the most passionate protest in American history. I will not allow Jeffrey to die in vain.

Works Cited

Foner, Eric. “Kent State Incident.”History.com. 1991. April 5, 2017.

Hynde, Chrissie. Reckless: My Life as a Pretender. Doubleday, 2015. Print.

“Kent State Shootings.”Ohiohistorycentral.org. April 5, 2017.

Lewis, Jerry. “The May 4 Shooting at Kent State: The Search for Historical Accuracy.”kent.edu.   1998. April 5, 2017.

Raysplacekent.com. 2017. April 5, 2017.