Remembering May 4, 1970

By Michael Heaton

Plain Dealer Reporter

Oliver Stone — whose films from the 1980s and ’90s often tell tales of the 1960s and ’70s — will speak today at the dedication of the May 4 Visitors Center at Kent State University.

The center is an interactive exhibit in Taylor Hall on campus that re-creates the days and hours leading up to the May 4, 1970, confrontation in which 13 students were shot — four killed, including Sandra Scheuer of Boardman, nine wounded — after being fired on by Ohio National Guardsmen. It’s a moment burned in memories, including Stone’s.

“I found out [about the Kent shootings] from the human telegraph,” Stone, 66, said from his office in Los Angeles. “I was probably at NYU. You have to remember there were protests going on all over the country after we went into Cambodia. I was taking a documentary film course from Martin Scorsese. He had students with cameras all over the city that day.”

By 1970 Stone already had served a year of combat in the Army 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam, winning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Some find it hard to reconcile Stone the hard-core lefty with his conservative roots.

“I was raised a conservative,” said Stone, who counts two Vietnam movies among his three Oscar winners. Both “Platoon” and “Born on the 4th of July” brought home top honors.

“My father was a strong Republican. By 1970, I was numb from the war. I knew Nixon was a liar. He had promised to end the war, and was doing the opposite. The emotions at that time were visceral. Nixon called his people the ‘moral majority.’ I don’t know how moral they were. We just didn’t know everything that we know now, so it’s hard to make judgments. We’ve lea rned so much since then.”

Stone’s interest in history and politics is prodigious. Last October he and co-author Peter Kuznick published the 750-page “The Untold History of the United States,” which historian Douglas Brinkley called “a brave revisionist study which shatters many foreign policy myths.” Showtime aired a 10-part companion series to the book.

Though the Kent State shootings receive only a sentence in the book, Stone sees the event as a pivotal moment in history.

“That year is so vivid,” he said. “There were protests, riots and shootings everywhere. Besides Kent, 13 people were shot at Jackson State [University, in Mississippi]. But Kent became the icon historically. I’ve been interested in the recent evidence that’s come to light regarding new forensic testing of audiotapes, which some claim reveal orders to shoot, and the use of a handgun to mimic sniper fire.”

Stone was referring to a recent Plain Dealer investigation that the Justice Department ultimately declined to pursue. But Stone appreciates the spotlight being shined on this event.

“It’s very meaningful,” he said. “Kent State is an example of our right to dissent. To make a statement about the morality of the war and the draft. It’s about our democracy. I’m old enough now to be totally disillusioned. I mean, the Vietnam syndrome is buried in the sands of Kuwait and Iraq. This is an honor. It’s making an effort to remember what happened.”

Remembering historical events has been a career for the three-time Academy Award-winning director, writer and producer.

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