On the Kent/Jackson State Killings

Noam Chomsky

Delivered at Kent State, May 4, 2000

Well, I’ve been given the privilege of closing this really significant event and I’m not going to abuse the privilege by dragging it out. Even if I…in a few words,or for that matter, even in a lot of words, I would really dare to add anything, to try to add anything to the powerful statements and eloquent calls to action that you’ve heard and participated in for the last several hours. I’ll just say a couple of…Actually, it’s much more appropriate, I think, for me simply to join in silent commemoration of the victims of Kent State and Jackson State and many other martyrs, some of whom have been mentioned, others not, for lack of time. But also to suggest that we remind ourselves…that something we all know…that their sacrifices and heir struggle made enormous difference.

When we look around and we see the problems and the horrors and the atrocities and injustice in this country and those much worse ones elsewhere the privileged people here have a great deal of responsibility for, it’s easy to forget something which is true and important, namely that it’s a much more civilized country than it was 40 years ago. And the reason it’s a much more civilized country is not because of magic or taking pills. It’s because of constant, dedicated struggle and commitment on the part, most dramatically of young people, some of whom have lost their lives tragically in the course of that struggle. But, in doing so, have also inspired others to go on, work harder, do more and achieve quite a lot. If you look at policies and attitudes and understanding among sectors of power and privilege, it’s true that they haven’t changed because the institutions haven’t changed. But the circumstances have changed and that means policies are executed differently and with different constraints. And one of the most important constraints is that the population is no longer passive, apathetic and supportive as it was 40 years ago.

You have to remember that when John F. Kennedy launched the attack against South Vietnam, sent the U.S. Air Force to bomb South Vietnam, authorized crop destruction, chemical warfare, massive, what we now call ethnic cleansing, driving millions of people into concentration camps, there was no protest. In fact, there were years before there was any protest. People didn’t particularly like it. But nothing happened.

Twenty years later the Ronald Reagan administration faced a very similar situation in Central America. In Central America the U.S. had been running vicious terrorist states which had been carrying our large scale atrocities against their own populations but they were losing control. That’s what happened in South Vietnam in 1960 when John F. Kennedy came in.

There was a Latin American style terror state that the U.S. had established in violation of the international agreements on Vietnam. By the time Kennedy came in it had killed maybe 60 or 70 thousand people, aroused resistance, couldn’t control that resistance, and the U.S. simply moved in, in force, with consequences we don’t have to discuss. Remember that South Vietnam was always the main targeted U.S. attack, always, right through to the end.

Reagan tried to do the same thing in Central America. They made the same initial moves that Kennedy did. They were following the script in fact. But they had to back off and they had to had to back off because of a completely unanticipated popular reaction all over the country, in the Midwest, in churches, in all kind of places where they never expected to see any reaction as well. The protest was sufficient so they backed off. What happened in Central America was bad enough, but 52s and large scale chemical warfare and saturation bombing would have been a lot worse.

Well, that may not be something to be very proud about. We made it less awful than. in fact, it was, but that means for the people who suffered under it, it’s a difference. And they now it and here lies some of the background. In fact, just take attitudes toward the Vietnam War. They’re very striking. Among elite sectors of power and privilege we know what they are. Read the newspapers. There’s been a huge amount of commentary in the last couple of weeks on the 25th anniversary [of the ending of the Vietnam War]. And it’s kind of striking. There’s a spectrum of opinion. The spectrum is between what I call doves and hawks. Hawks are ones who say it was a noble cause and we should have won and if we hadn’t been stabbed in the back, and son on, we would have won. Doves are the ones who say it was a noble cause and we should have won but it was costing us too much and it probably wasn’t worth it. So, let’s do better next time. That’s the doves. And that’s not an exaggeration. I’ll spare you quotes.

It was the same in the late sixties and in the early sixties The doves and the hawks were the same. Well, the doves and the hawks don’t include everyone. For example, they don’t include 70% of the population. And haven’t for the last thirty years. One of the real achievements, one of the civilizing effects of the activism of the sixties, was it created massive changes in attitudes. So, for 30 years now, there are regular public opinion studies on international affairs where people are asked, “What do you think about the war in Vietnam?” and given a lot of choices. And a steady 70%, right up to the last one, last year, roughly 70%, says that war was fundamentally wrong and immoral and not a mistake. These striking numbers…Everyone who says that is making it up for themselves. They didn’t read it in the newspapers and hear it on television. If they went to college, they didn’t read it in their text books. Because that’s not what the elites say. They say it was a mistake or it was a misunderstanding or it was benign intentions that went wrong and so on. But the population says something else. They say, “No. It was fundamentally wrong, immoral and not a mistake.”

And that attitude stays resilient over a huge effort in the last 30 years to drive the memories out of people’s heads, to reshape the history, to recast it, to put it in a different way and so on. That’s a striking and important fact. And elite elements know it. We can go back to the background that was probably the background of the Kent/Jackson State killings. Right after the Tet offensive in January, 1068, when it became clear that this war was going to go on for a long time, and it would be costly to the United States, Lyndon Johnson called on the Pentagon t send 200,000 more troops to Vietnam. They didn’t want to do it. The refused. And their reasons are interesting and important. Their reasons were…they said they would need the troops for civil disorder control in the United States because the population was out of control. And they said, “Who?” Parts of the population that are expected to be apathetic and passive, women. young people, minorities and so on. They said., “They’re just out of control. If we send more troops and keep the war going we’ll have a civil war on our hands. So, we’ll need them here.” Well, it doesn’t take much to translate that into the mentality that led to Jackson State and Kent State and plenty of other things like them.

Through the 1970s activist movements expanded significantly. The major popular movements that have really have had a lasting effect on American society, in fact, on the world, they’re sort of children of the seventies, the human rights movements, the feminist movements, the environmental movements, later, the antiapartheid movements, the Central American solidarity movements, the …right now… the anti-sweatshop movements, often young people at the head. And, in fact, the very dramatic and large scale opposition to the international economic arrangements, the corporate run globalization… that was said before. That’s extremely significant. These movements that have won real victories. They blocked the Multilateral Agreements on Investments. They put the fear of god into the international financial institutions and the World Trade Organization and have actually changed their policies. And they draw from very varied constituencies which have had nothing much to do with each other in the past. They’re international, global in scale and very promising in their effects.

And people in power knew it. One of these victories was the defeat of the fast-track legislation a couple of years ago. When that happened, the Wall Street Journal had a report tearing its hair out over this tragedy. And it said that, obviously, this thing’s great and it’s a shame we can’t get it through. But they said opponents of the legislation have what they call the ultimate weapon. The ultimate weapon is the population’s against it. And no matter how we’ve tried to brainwash them and coerce them and whatever deceit we use, and so on, they remain against it.

The Reagan administration understood exactly the same thing in the eighties when they couldn’t get the population to back their intended war in Central America. They established a thing called the Office of Public Diplomacy, a state propaganda agency. It’s illegal, of course, and was finally exposed after, in the course of the Iran-Contra hearings. After it was exposed, higher officials in the administration explained what they were doing. They said, “We’re carrying out the kind of campaign that you would carry out in enemy territory.” Now, that’s correct. They regard the population as enemy territory. The population is the ultimate weapon that we can’t seem to put back in its holster, wherever you put a weapon. And these things are really significant. They {activist victories}make a change in the United States and, given the power of the United States, they make a change in the world..

So, yes, policies don’t change, interests don’t change, institutional sources of them don’t change, but conditions do. And the most impotent condition is the domestic population. And that changes…it changes because of dedicated activism, sometimes inspired by terrible tragedies. And I think that’s the message that we ought to be taking away with us from commemoration of these atrocities and many others like them. Thank you.