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William A. Gordon, Kent State tragedy expert, photographed studying the FBI reports, July 1980
 

THE KENT STATE SHOOTINGS:
AN INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM A. GORDON

Author, "Four Dead in Ohio"

Q: Why did you write a book on the Kent State shootings?

A: There were several reasons. First, I am a writer. Second, Kent State was an historical event that happened basically in my backyard. And third, I just could not believe what happened afterwards. Slowly but surely, as the aftermath unraveled, it became clear that this was one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in modern American history. An injustice that went on and on and on for about eight and a half years.

Q: Did you know anyone who was involved?

A: I saw a friend from high school on TV that night. He was a protestor, and I had another friend who had a high lottery number and joined the Ohio National Guard to escape going to Vietnam. He was called up for duty that week but was not at Kent State.
I did not have any emotional connection to anyone who was killed or wounded. I really did not become all that interested until about six months later, when the prosecutor of the original state grand jury said the Guardsmen should have killed "all the troublemakers." That was appalling, and I started writing about the cover-up. One of the major significances of May 4 [the shooting ocurred on May 4, 1970] was that it was a sustained injustice, although you would never know it by reading anything written by anyone at the university.

Q: Why is that?

A: Well, there were a couple good essays. Bob Dyer and James Best both wrote essays that particularly stand out. And Carl Moore and Ray Heisey wrote a scathing critique of James Michener's book [Kent State: What Happened and Why?] . Michener's was the one everyone in publishing thought was the definitive book on May 4. Moore discovered all kinds of errors and instances of fictionalization by Michener, who is, after all, a novelist. Some of the other early chroniclers and the defense lawyers in the criminal case basically told me the same thing.
But, apart from these few essays, by and large Kent's faculty could not see beyond the four walls of their own academic departments. The majority of the literature they have produced is subdisciplinary. They would never tackle the central issues, like: Why did the Guardsmen fire? Or why did all the Guardsmen and protestors escape punishment? And by ducking the central questions and focusing on less important issues, the university's scholars really only muddied the debate and caused people to forget what should be remembered.
     
Q: What would you consider to be the most important thing to remember?

A:  That the shootings were, and I will quote the words of the Scranton Commission [the President's Commission on Campus Unrest] "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable." The commission also had harsh words for the students burned the campus ROTC building or otherwise destroyed private property. But that is the bottom line: that the killings should never have happened. It actually took the university 37 years to acknowledge that [on a state of Ohio historical plaque]. 
Q: Why did they finally admit it?

A: Probably because I shamed them in a couple articles I wrote. As far as I know, no one else was bringing up the issue.

Q:  What did Kent State professors think of your book?

A: The people who are being touted as Kent's experts on May 4 were threatened by it. There was one professor--not the professor with the suspicious footnotes--he is at another university---but this booby sociology professor--who was so desperate to find something wrong with it that he told me: "I could not put it down," immediately followed by "I like dry, analtyical stuff." He  actually complained that my book read too well!
Q: That sounds like a backhanded compliment.

A: Yes, and there are some very backwards people at Kent. 

Q: Do you discuss the student protest movement in the book?

A: No. I am a grown-up, and grown-ups do not care about student protest. There are still some people at Kent who will say or do anything to keep May 4 alive. They want to glorify or glamorize what they call their "revolt," and their own crimes. I do not, and that is why Kent's radicals hate me. Student protest is excruciating boring  to me. May 4 interested me only as a puzzle to be solved. A murder mystery, if you will.

Q: Yes, but is not it also true that many Americans only saw it as a riot and nothing more. Were not you concerned about the subject matter, that it would turn off people?

A: No. I really did not pay much attention to commercial concerns. I was young and naive and I thought that if I did a really great job publishers would actually come to me with ideas for other books to write. I thought this book would be a stepping stone to other books. 

Q: Was it?

A: No. I do not have a career as a result of writing a book about Kent State. I have a career despite writing a book on May 4.

Q: And you are now a full-time author and publisher?

A: Yes. I also do some mentoring and consulting for aspiring authors who want to be published.

Q: Did everything you expected to happen happen with this book?

A: No. Everything wonderful I thought would happen with this book happened with my next book. The lectures, book club sales, the media attention, and even the fan mail. There is a famous John Lennon quote, which goes something like "Life is what happens when you are making other plans." 

Q: How long did it take you to write "Four Dead in Ohio"?

A: I worked on the book off and on for almost 17 years It took me eight years between the time I finished the manuscript until it was published. 

Q: Why did it take so long?

A: Before it was published all I would hear is: "There is no market for books on Kent State." "No market." "No market." It was like a broken record. Until I found a publisher associated with SUNY  [Prometheus Books] that was a cross between a commercial press and an academic one. And now, looking back, I can see that even though "Four Dead" filled an enormous gap in the literature, all the publishers were right all along. Kent State is essentially the equivalent of box office poison. New York publishers simply cannot sell enough books to justify all the money they would put out. In fact, the first person to write a book after mine--Philip Caputo--and he is a Pulitizer Prize winning author, was published by a British publisher. 
Q: What are most proud of?

A: I had some pretty good reviews, even though they came too late to do any good.  Also, the book has been used in classes at nine universities. And there was a prep school in Massachusetts that used it to hold a mock trial of the National Guardsmen based on the book. That was the seniors' class project for a couple years.
      
Q: What do you believe was your greatest contribution to May 4?


A: (Laughs)  If nothing else, I undid all the damage Kent State professors have done to the memory of May 4th and helped point them in the direction of the debate! 
Seriously, I think if Kent State had a law school instead of a sociology department that university would have had a better handle on May 4. I never met anyone there who seemed to have a handle on the real life issues that were involved. 

Q: You come from an academic family yourself, yes?


A: Yes. At one time or another there have been six college professors in my family. My dad was one of the old-timers at the University of Akron. He founded the accounting department and was the chair for many years. My brother taught cardiology at the University of Texas before he went into private practice.  That makes me almost the black sheep of the family. I am just an author. Out here in Southern California, that does not mean much. It is all about the screenplay out here.
    
Q: And, according to your bio, you were born during the blizzard of 1950, and Ohio National Guardsmen had to take you the hospital?

A: Yes. I thought it would be a good anecdote to use on talk shows.

Q: What do you think of the new May 4 Visitors Center the university plans to build?

A: I like the basic concept. There never has been any centralized place on campus that students could go to get good, reliable information about May 4. The only voices that have been heard until now are either those of the propagandists intent on rewriting history or the professors who play dodge ball with all the important issues. But it is premature to say whether or not the execution will be good. The university does not exactly have the greatest track record when it comes to memorializing May 4. They usually end up doing something retarded. 

Q: Oh-oh. I am sure some professors will jump on you for using the word "retarded." It is not exactly politically correct.

A: Tough. It is the only word that really captures their response to May 4. The university used to do things like building a gym over a huge chunk of the confrontation site. Or when I asked the [May 4 Visitors Center committee] chair whether or not the center would display all the books on May 4, and she said she did not think so because books are artifacts! That statement blew me away, because you would think scholars would have more respect for books. 

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: Not really. As far as the book is concerned, there are certain individuals I could have written more about, particularly Arthur Krause [whose daughter Allison was killed] and a couple other people. He was an instrumental figure in trying to get justice, just by the sheer force of his personality. He is one of the forgotten heroes who fought for justice. And I would have loved to have interviewed more Guardsmen. I interviewed the colonel who was nominally in charge of the troops, and met all eight of the indicted Guardsmen, but the two guys who were at the center of the controversy over whether or not there was an order to fire--Major [Harry] Jones and Sergeant [Myron] Pryor--would not talk to me at all. I would have loved to get their stories on tape.

Q: Are they still alive?

A: If Major Jones is, he would be in his mid-80s. Pryor took all his secrets to his grave.

Q: You argued that there had to have been an order to fire. But you were critical of a claim made by one of the wounded students that he uncovered an order to fire that can be heard on the tape recording of the shooting.

A: Yes. I reviewed all the eyewitness statements given to the FBI, and the testimony at the trial. There were maybe 700 statements in all, and there is not a single witness who backed them up his story. Nobody reported hearing the words that he claimed were on the tape. Plus the fact that people who served in the military immediately came forward and said the words did not even remotely resemble an order an officer would give. Third, he was working with a fifth generation copy of the recording. And fourth, you have to consider the source. The student who made this claim is an incorrigible propagandist. He fabricates things out of whole cloth. The professors at Kent say--very diplomatically--"you have to test every statement that he makes."

Q: But, even though you do not think this was the way an order was given, you still think there was an order to fire?

A: Yes. The hard, cold physical evidence never supported the claim of self-defense. These soldiers were marching up Blanket Hill, keeping a careful watch on the students, and about to round the corner of Taylor Hall and pass out of the protestors' sight. If any rocks had been thrown, they would have been protected by the side of the building. Yet, instead of continuing to march, they stopped, turned something like 135 degrees, and fired at the students. Many of the witnesses were under the impression that they acted as a military unit would because they turned and fired in unison.

Q: And the Guardsmen deny this?

A: Yes. They would never budge from their story that they had to fire in order in self-defense. It was like they were in a different universe than all the other witnesses.

Q:  Do you ever think: if the shootings were deliberate, why has not any Guardsman come forward to say yes, there was an order to fire? It's been 40 years since it happened.

A: There is a little voice in the back of my mind that says that someone should have talked by now. But then again, killing people, even people as unpopular as the victims were, is not something you would want to be known for. And what do they have to gain unless there is some financial incentive to come forward? 

Q: Do you feel there are still some Guardsmen out there who could tell us exactly why the shooting happened?

It is very possible. I was never completely satisfied that all the stones were turned and it is pretty clear now that not all avenues of inquiry were pursued by investigators. The FBI never asked the Guardsmen questions about there being a hand signal to fire, because they were assured by Colonel [Charles] Fassinger that no hand signals to fire existed. That turned out to be not true.
And there are a couple guys from G Troop that have kind of fallen under the radar. There was another Guardsman who was conveniently out of the country when the civil trial was held.  I still do not know what his story was, but I'd certainly like to hear it 

Q: Has the last chapter on May 4, 1970 has been written?

A: No. In fact, I would not be surprised if another hoax were perpetrated. There have already been three. Sometime down the line I would expect there to be a movie, maybe told from the standpoint of the undercover agent, Terry Norman; or maybe told by an investigator. However it plays out, it is likely to be very controversial.
Q: Any final words?

A: Just that the Kent State shootings will never remain closed as long as the central questions remain unanswered.  I hope we will have more definitive answers in our lifetime.


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