The Spitters Are Back

Righties can’t let go of the stories about antiwar protesters spitting on soldiers during the Vietnam era. There’s a new round of blog posts about it, mostly linking back to this one. Although it would be foolish to claim it never happened, I do have a few clarifications to make.

First, regarding Jerry Lembcke — the sociologist did not, I believe, claim that no antiwar protester ever spit on a soldier. His research focused on a particular spitting narrative, that of antiwar protesters lining up at airports to spit on veterans who had just returned from Vietnam. He explained this is a Boston Globe op ed in 2005.

One can, of course, chop parts of Lembcke’s many articles and his book out of context to make it seem he was claiming there was no spitting whatsoever, and I’m sure righties do that all the time, but everything of his I’ve ever read was specifically focused on the spitting-at-the-airport stories. This was an issue because, for some reason, in the 1980s and 1990s such stories were so common you’d think every soldier walking out of an airport must’ve been wringing wet with spittle, yet Lembcke was unable to find contemporary news stories about this phenomenon. He concluded that the airport spitting stories amounted to an urban legend.

On the Right, however, Lembcke’s claims were contorted into a claim that no soldier was ever spit on by anybody during the Vietnam era, and I see they’re still arguing with Lembcke based on this assumption.

The examples of soldier-spitting dug out of old newspapers by the rightie bloggers do not take place in airports. (I see one airport story, but it’s not clear that it was taken from a newspaper.) Hence, they do not disprove Lembcke’s contention that the airport stories in particular are apocryphal.

Such claims made many years after the fact are suspect for many reasons. For one, urban legends have a way of planting themselves into peoples’ heads as false memories. Two, although it’s impossible to prove it never happened — can’t prove a negative, you know — if it had happened half as much as it was claimed to have happened, you’d think somebody would have noticed it at the time. But the airport-spitting stories didn’t take off until several years after the war.

Another point the righties love to drag up and argue about is that, somewhere, Lembcke wrote that soldiers didn’t land at the San Francisco airport, at which much of the alleged spitting took place. And, of course, soldiers did land at San Francisco sometimes, so that is not true. Without seeing exactly what Lembcke wrote I can’t defend it properly, but his point may have been that soldiers didn’t typically return from Vietnam to the U.S. together in a troop ship. They flew back to the states as individuals on commercial flights, to whatever airport was closest to home. Thus, it made no sense for protesters to hang around in airports just waiting to find soldiers to spit on, since on many days they would have waited around all day and never seen one, or maybe just one or two, and then there was no way to know whether they had just returned from ‘Nam or not.

And, indeed, I never saw any protesters at airports, even the San Francisco airport, in those years. On the other hand the Hare Krishna devotees were thick as fleas at San Francisco and other airports back then. They were generally benign as long as you bought their flowers. But maybe some folks mistook them for antiwar protesters.

The next point I’d like to make regards the Right’s false dichotomy that in those days the Left was antiwar and anti-military and hated the troops, and the Right was prowar and pro-military and supported the troops. It wasn’t that simple. For one thing, as the war turned sour many hawks blamed the soldiers for being slackers and drug addicts. It was not at all difficult to find people who were pro-war and who badmouthed the troops for losing it. For all we know some of the people who spat at soldiers were pro-war.

Further, as the war continued the enlistees were increasingly against the war themselves. This page (hat tip to Steve Gilliard) lists various protests and riots by soldiers on military bases during the Vietnam War era. It so happens I spent the summer of 1971 living on post at Fort Ord, California, with my brother and his wife, and those enlistees I met had, um, attitude problems. They hated the war, and the military, and didn’t want to be there. I remember a couple of fellows claiming they took part in antiwar protests — in civilian clothes — on their days off, but they may have been bragging to impress me.

In any event, by 1970-71 or so it was the returning veterans themselves keeping the antiwar movement alive, and not just as part of the Winter Soldier campaign. By then the Pentagon had switched to a lottery system to call up enlistees, and fewer and fewer young men were being called, and after 1971 or so (as I remember) there was less antiwar activism on most college campuses than there had been earlier. As soon as the guys figured out they weren’t going to be drafted, they tuned out the war and went back to planning keggers. It was mostly the returning veterans who cared passionately that the war end asap. I rather doubt they spit on other veterans.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Well, OK, here’s an update — Here’s a photo (source) of a Vietnam protester not spitting at a soldier.

As the article linked to says, sometimes encounters between demonstrators and protesters got hostile. And sometimes the protesters gave the soldiers flowers.

29 thoughts on “The Spitters Are Back

  1. Pingback: Polimom Says » Ladies don’t fart; they poot

  2. Righties must really be running scared to have to latch on to 35-year-old spit to discredit what amounts to the majority of Americans who want us out of Iraq. If spit is the only righties game in town, we’re ahead.

    Having participated in anti-war demonstrations through the years, Im sure it’s quite possible that some people spit on somebody – goodness, some girls even ripped off their tops. Surprising that righties haven’t dug up some pictures of that shameless act. (Obviously loose women who wanted to get pregnant just so they could have abortions.) There must have been some gays in the crowds too – proof that degenerates are committed to destroying America.

    It’s all so ho-hum.

  3. I was stationed in Thailand in 67-68 andboth flew out and flew back on a chartered plane, as I think did everybody based there. However, it wasn’t into the civilian airport.

    Also, a big thing at that time (when going on leave) was to fly “stand by,” which meant that as a military man, I paid half price for my ticket. In order to do that, one had to wear one’s uniform while traveling.

    I never had any problems, nor did I hear from any one who did.

  4. I hear this tale all the time from my fifty-something coworkers. It happened to their cousin’s ex-husband, their brother’s college roommate, their neighbor’s uncle. They may as well be telling me the one about Eddie Murphy/Denzel Washington/Chris Rock on an elevator, and the white woman who hit the floor when he said “Down.” (Never mind that elevator buttons have floor numbers, not “Up” or “Down.”) Thanks for pointing out the illogic, and the sad prejudices, similarly revealed in this old Vietnam-era fable.

  5. maha, so many of your posts are so good you should gather the best of them up and publish them in a book.

  6. Since most yellow elephants by definition avoided the uniform — much less Vietnam — to massage their other priorities, they would certainly have never experienced any such despicable conduct as a first-hand victim. And since they avoided the military and never came back from a year in the crud and hours of boredom interspersed with seconds of sheer terror that is much of life in a combat zone, perhaps it did not occur to them that somebody who spat on an exhausted and exhilirated young man staggering good and drunk (or in a hurry to get so) off a 10-hour Freedom Bird flight would have the automatic reaction of knocking the teeth back down the spitter’s throat. That we might have read about: “Crazed Vietnam Vet Assaults Dirty Saliva Launching Hippie Chick.”
    I never heard of such a thing at the time. Most of the anti-war demonstrations by the late 60s had as many Vietnam vets in a motley of uniforms as they did hippie chicks, and they didn’t seem to spend any time spitting on anybody. Mouths must have been too dry from chanting “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today!”

  7. A former Navy man I used to work with who was in the service during Vietnam (I used to call him Salty Dog behind his back) told me that people spit on him, him personally. He was still very pissed off about it. I don’t know if it was actually true or not, he might have just been really pissed off and trying to score a point.

    We were having a conversation about how the cultural clock CANNOT be turned back, no matter how hard one might want it to be. It was very apparent during my talk with him that he wanted to go back to the 50’s. I really got him going asking him for specifics and then shooting each one down. This was in 1999 or 2000. I’ll always remember how mad he got.

  8. I came home from Thailand in 1973 the war supposedly was over. What I noticed was that people would not look at you, you know in your face. No one talked to me, two ladies carried on a conversation on the flight to Ontario, CA with me in the middle like I wasnt there. I was in uniform, I was not spit on, nor did anyone say anything bad to me. I just felt like I was invisible a non person. Ive called it shunning, but Im just a dumb AF grunt.


  9. This is just a red herring that the right loves to tell and retell to get their righteous indignation juices flowing. It amazes me that anyone thinks this kind of thing was a regular occurrence. But the right is nothing if not hopelessly gullible.

  10. I’m surprised there’s no story about this legend on Thanks for digging up the Boston Globe story. One thing, tho, that Lembcke says: the GIs were flown to military airbases, not civilian airports, so they could be discharged or reassigned.

    Lembcke also observes that similar stories were told by the Germans about the end of WWI.

    I think that stab-in-the-back story is due for another round 🙁

    If anything is being spat on, it’s the war itself. Ptui!

  11. I’ve heard all kinds of different ways the vets got home. Many have told me they were put on a commercial flight somewhere in Southeast Asia and came home that way. The point is, though, that veterans who were in commercial airports in those days were not usually in groups, but traveling alone. So it was pretty absurd to think that organized protesters would be hanging out in airports to spit on them.

  12. I was against that war too, but I NEVER spat on anyone, no siree, what I would do (and pleeze don’t tell anyone! ), I’d go down to the San Diego Zoo, dress up like a silver back gorilla, and fling poop on the sailors! Yeah buddy, the crowd would go wild when I’d land a big turd on a “full bird “admiral. Those were the daze…

    The right is filled with morons, six choppers down in Iraq this week and the nooze is all abuz about a psycho former astronut.
    What happened to Michael Jackson? Ain’t it about time to drag his ass out for a thumpin? It’s gettin to the point where you can’t believe a gol-durned thing on the mainstream nooze, ‘cept Anna Nicole’s demise……

  13. I looked so good in my uniform when I came back, that instead of spitting at me, the girls were drooling at me.

  14. Maha, Im not sure I agree. I think you might be missing the forest for the trees.

    Do stories get exagerated for various reasons, from complex social factors to simple fading memory? Obviously. Does the pro-war peeps use this stereotype against anti-war peeps? Also, obviously.

    Lembcke rightly objects to the stupid one-dimensional characterization of vietnam era “anti-war” protestors used by the right to tar todays opponents of the war in Iraq, and wants to counter that narrative with another one.

    The problem is that his narrative is also a one-dimensional distortion of the facts. Spitting is a self-selecting activity, where a small number of offenders account for the majority of victims. 99% did/would never spit on a vet, but 1% who did/would were/are the passionate radical fringe who did/would do it frequently and whenever possible.

    Maha: First, regarding Jerry Lembcke — the sociologist did not, I believe, claim that no antiwar protester ever spit on a soldier….He concluded that the airport spitting stories amounted to an urban legend.”

    I can’t find any place where he actually makes such a distinction.

    “Stories of spat-upon Vietnam veterans are bogus.” – No caveats or distinctions at all, not even later in the column.

    “I also found research done by other scholars that showed quite convincingly that acts of hostility against veterans by protesters were almost nonexistent. No researchers cited reports that veterans were spat on” – again, no distinction about what ‘details’ of the story were false and, apart from the word ‘almost’, no qualifications regarding the “number” or “intensity” of such events.

    “Drawing on my own experience as a Vietnam veteran who came home from the war and joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), I called the image of spat-upon Vietnam veterans a myth. – again, the whole story is labeled a ‘myth’ without caveats as to details.

    It is true that, one of his three columns he takes the time to specify that “I cannot, of course, prove to anyone’s satisfaction that spitting incidents like these did not happen. Indeed, it seems likely to me that it probably did happen to some veteran, sometime, some place. But … I can show what did happen during those years and that that historical record makes it highly unlikely that the alleged acts of spitting occurred in the number and manner that is now widely believed.” and “The spitting image is a myth, however, not because the alleged acts of spitting did not happen, but because of the way the image functions in the society.

    However, in the other two columns he makes no such qualifications. To most people, calling something a “bogus” or a “myth” carries the implication of “falsity”, especially since his qualification of what he means by “myth” is only present in the middle of one column. He uses “bogus” without any qualification at all.

    Furthermore, he makes a lot of generalizations that broad-brush the “peace movement” as “friendly” to vets.

    “The historical record shows that there was widespread solidarity between the anti-war movement and veterans.”, “Far from spitting on veterans, the antiwar movement welcomed them into its ranks and thousands of veterans joined the opposition to the war.”, “in the end, soldiers and veterans joined with civilians to stop a war that should have never been fought.”, “The historical record shows that there was widespread solidarity between the anti-war movement and veterans.”

    In “fact”, the “Peace Movement” was a diverse bunch, which included some who reached-out to vets and others who refused to associate with anyone who wore a uniform – a fact which Lembcke neglects to mention in his broad, unqualified, characterization of the movement.

    Frankly, I dont even know how to begin dealing with his ridiculous implication (bordering on assertion) that PTSD doesn’t really exist.

    “If dissident veterans couldn’t be dismissed as unauthentic or “not real men,” their credibility could be impugned in another way, by raising doubts about their mental stability … a course that led to establishment of a new psychiatric diagnostic category, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the marginalization of Vietnam veterans.” , “The extension of psychiatric labeling to cover the political behavior of dissident Vietnam veterans came about through the convergence of efforts by mental health professionals and journalists.” & “If post-traumatic stress disorder was as much the construction of journalists as psychiatrists, it was not built from materials found within the veteran population. “” – and theres even more.

    Yeah, dissent is sometimes stigmatized as “mental illness” – the brits did it to Sigfied Sassoon during WWI, but that example is DWARFED by thousands of people who really did crack under the constant artillery barrages of the Western Front. Pardon my French, but this is a crock of irresponsible shit. PTSD is a real thing, ABUNDANTLY documented non-military survivors of trauma as well as with vets as far back as WWI when it was called ‘shell shock’. To imply that it is an invented during the Vietnam war by people who wanted to discredit anti-war vets is absolutely fucking ridiculous and, to me, goes a long way to discrediting him as a politically motivated person attempting to spread his own myth.

    I could go on, but Its late and I probably got my point across.

    On a Personal Note:

    “It happened to their cousin’s ex-husband, their brother’s college roommate, their neighbor’s uncle.”

    I’m too young to remember Vietnam, so I cant speak to direct experience. However, both my father and mother have told me that he (not his “friend” or “cousin”, or his sisters boyfriends best-friends girlfriend) WAS spit at and harassed by people on several occasions while wearing his Coast Guard Academy uniform. Furthermore, some of the instances were comitted by ex-friends of my mother who refused to talk to her, and also harassed her, after she began dating a “fascist”.

    The fucking Coast Guard – the “armed service” small on “arms” and big on “service”. My father flew helicopters and rescued drowning Puerto-Riccan fishermen. Fucking Fascist. :eyeroll:

  15. Not only are his comments on PTSD ridiculous, they are an absolute reversal of the historical record.

    For 60+ years, from WWI to Vietnam, suffers of Shell-Shock/PTSD were abandoned by their governments and called “fakers”, “deserters”, and “cowards” by the very-same militarists that Lembcke accuses of inventing the term.

    Years ago, at a July 4th fireworks display, I saw my grandmother (WWII army nurse) reduced to hunched-over ball, trembling, with tears running down her cheeks, because she was having flashbacks from when her outfit was caught in the Bulge and shelled by Germans.

    If I saw Lembcke I’d like to give him the back of my hand for digging up lies that even the people he opposes discarded long ago.

  16. I was part of the anti-war protests while serving in the U.S. Navy before I went to Vietnam, between cruises and after I returned home and became a civilian. Often the ships and bases had “closed gates and gangways” for drills and training on the weekends there were protests in San Francisco to prevent servicemen from going. We were often told if we were to be on public transportation, to be in our civilian clothes to be less noticed but often our haircuts gave us away. We always claimed we worked at IBM or other “conservative” businesses to explain the short hair. I was very adept at putting on a theater moustash (after two years at college in drama) to add credibility to my story when I went into San Francisco.

    I can say I was never protested against, but my own family never said a word about my service and it was not until 25 years later that my father said, “We never did talk about that, did we?”, the only comment he ever made about the war to me.

    Six months after I returned home, I marched in a protest down mainstreet of my home town with 800 students. At first my mother refused to drive me to the starting point until I threatened her with my moving out and cutting off contact. There were three of us in uniform: me in my navy dress whites, one student in his Army Reserve uniform, (very brave as he could have been called up immediately) and one fellow in fatigues who claimed he had been in Vietnam but by looking at him, I never believed it. I was asked to address the crowd and told them that if I could serve as part of the war, I could speak out against it as well.

    It was also true that the conservative American Legion and the VFW in most locations were negative to the Vietnam vet. Some posts did better than others. In my home town, if I had entered the VFW or Legion, I would have had to fight if I announced I was a Vietnam vet. It was only in the 1990’s that both organizations finally formally appologized to the Vietnam vets for their hostility, indifference, or coldness. The number of Veitnam vets who have joined the posts is only a small fraction of those elligible. It took me thirty four years.

    I am currently a district officer in the legion but in two instances, have experienced talk of younger and older members who refer to PTSD as not real and that “those cowards need to suck it up and quit acting like babies.” The speakers in both instances were sucking up their own brand of courage in the bar and as someone who has counseled with PTSD veterans for the last 20 years, believe that all three of them probably could benifit from serious counseling.

    If you want a feeling of what happened to Vietnam vets, watch three movies, Platoon, the conflict over different attitudes in the field in Vietnam, Born on the Fourth of July, the story of Ron Kovick, both in his personal and protest life, and To Heal a Nation, the story of Jan Scruggs, the man responsible for the Veitnam memorial.

    There is an estimated 150,000 Iraqi veterans who will come home with PTSD and with it, the nightmares, flash backs, alcoholism, drug adiction, spouse abuse, divorce, and family break-ups that go with it. When we started the Vietnam Vets in this county, we had 37 active members join in three months, only three of us still married to the same woman we had origionally married. I counseled the night mares, flash backs, the abused wives, guys in jail, alcoholism and drug adiction, and one guy who on warm nights, puts on face paint and prowls the brush along the river here in Colorado with an AK 47, looking for Charlie.

    This war in Iraq will have ramifications for the next thirty years on the individuals who were thrown into the meat grinder and greeted with a few words on coming home and then left to their own devices.


  17. r4d20 — When in the context of an article about the airport-spitting narrative Lembcke writes “Stories of spat-upon Vietnam veterans are bogus,” it is reasonable to assume he is referring only to the narrative he is discussing in the article. I think sometimes his writing gets sloppy and he isn’t as clear as he should be, but I’m persuaded that’s what he means.

    I AM old enough to remember those years, and I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that a large part of the vets who “remember” being spat on are exhibiting false memory syndrome. False memories are very common; you don’t have to be mentally ill to have them. You probably have some yourself.

    There simply was not an epidemic of spitting at soldiers during those years. I personally never heard of spitting from either vets (and I knew several) or antiwar people (ditto) at all until several years later, when suddenly there was an epidemic of vets “remembering” they had been spat on.

    And I’m sure their memories are very clear and detailed and solid, even if they are false. It has been well documented that people do “remember” events that never happened, and false memories are indistinguishable from real ones.

    I am not saying it didn’t happen, but that it was very atypical. When anyone (like Michael Smith) claims that most veterans were spat on, that’s just plain hysteria. In truth, I’d be astonished if it happened more than a few dozen times in the entire decade from 1965 to 1975.

    And, as I said in the post, hawks were just as likely to have been spitters as doves. But that reality was buried rather quickly after the war. I remember noticing in the late 1970s that vets began to badmouth the antiwar movement, forgetting that the hawks didn’t greet them with candy and flowers, either. And it was about that same time that the “memories” of being spat on began to emerge.

    For some reason about that time many vets began to displace some of their negative feelings about the war onto the antiwar movement, much more so than they had during and immediately after the war. And after that happened they “remembered” being spat on.

    Regarding PTSD — I’m at a disadvantage because I don’t have what Lembcke wrote in front of me so that I can see the context. He’s right that RIGHT-wingers used PTSD to badmouth vets, however. For years after the war RIGHT wingers spread stories of drug-addled Vietnam vets living in shopping carts. The RIGHT blamed vets for losing Vietnam for a time. That’s another reality that’s been buried.

    And I don’t know where you think anybody “discarded” the spitting mythology. The Right today won’t let go of it. It’s a cherished part of their beloved myth that we liberals hate the military.

  18. I suspect those who “remember” being spat on are really voicing resentment that they weren’t treated as returning heroes (as their fathers were). They found their patriotism had been used to rip them off.

    My recollection is that by the 71 or 72, there were huge numbers of vets in the anti-war movement. I also recall that we (non-vet antiwar people) were cautious of those in uniform, but friendly towards those in civvies.

    We have another example of this type of myth – that Steele had oreo cookies thrown at him (widely reported) when tape of the event shows nothing of the sort.

  19. I was pissed at the vets then. Though I married one.

    What I remember is that I was as angry about that war as I am about this one, but my anger was less discriminating, less wise. It was, after all, a Children’s Crusade–we were very young and inexperienced . . . and deserted by most over 30. Both parties supported the war. There was no netroots, just Ramparts and the Berkeley Barb and the music. And there were drugs. And just a lot of confusion generally. We were challenging sex roles, traditional religion, every received anything from “the establishment.” We got a few things wrong, but as David Crosby noted once, given how young and fucked up we were, we got a whole lot more right.

    The soldiers don’t deserve any contempt, ever. If it ever happened, it was a grievous mistake. But I sure wouldn’t grieve if someone spat on Joe Lieberman or his ilk.

  20. But I sure wouldn’t grieve if someone spat on Joe Lieberman or his ilk.

    I would rather see someone whap him across the kisser with a large, slightly rotten fish, in the manner of John Cleese and Michael Palin doing the “Fish Dance.”

  21. “And I don’t know where you think anybody “discarded” the spitting mythology.”

    I wasnt referring to the spitting stories as “discarded” – I was referring to the notion that PTSD is a fake condition invented for political reasons (or, in the old myth, to avoid service). It isn’t anymore that Schizophrenia is made up to discredit the homeless.

  22. “He’s right that RIGHT-wingers used PTSD to badmouth vets, however. For years after the war RIGHT wingers spread stories of drug-addled Vietnam vets living in shopping carts. The RIGHT blamed vets for losing Vietnam for a time. That’s another reality that’s been buried.”

    Understood – they slang their bullshit as always – but none of that means PTSD isn’t a real thing with real victims nor does it mean that PTSD was “invented” by the right as Lembcke CLEARLY implies/asserts. In THAT, he goes too far and loses a lot of credibility or any pretense of scholastic objectivity.

    In fact, as I said, for decades the “right” denied PTSD was anything other than cover for cowardice and a way of avoiding service.

    Lembcke is in a position to know this, and I think its incredibly socially irresponsible to sling bald-faced lies about a serious conditions with real victims just to score a point against the “Right”.

    I’ll stop harping on this, but I found it pretty offensive to read a professor of sociology (and an “expert” to many who wont know better) slinging the same bullshit that for 60+ years kept victims from getting the necessary support& help they needed.

    Pissing on suffering people is not “progressive”, even if its done to stick it to the right.

  23. but none of that means PTSD isn’t a real thing with real victims nor does it mean that PTSD was “invented” by the right as Lembcke CLEARLY implies/asserts. In THAT, he goes too far and loses a lot of credibility or any pretense of scholastic objectivity.

    If that’s what he said, then of course he’s wrong.

    I understand your anger; I’ve had clinical depression just about my whole life, and many people still refuse to acknowledge it’s a real disease.

  24. Tried this last night and got screwed-up…

    Maha, I think I’ve mentioned this here before….There are two recorded (on film) instances of civilians spitting on Vietnam Vets…

    One happened during the VVAW’s “March to Valley Forge” when a group of local VFW members tried to disrupt the march by shouting curses and throwing objects at the passing Vets…Those VFW members had been organised and financed by none other than Charles “Chuck” Colson of Nixon’s White House staff…

    The other was done by Republican delegates to the Republican National Convention in Miami in ’72…The delegates (including several matronly women) reviled and spat at Ron Kovic and two other wheelchair-bound Vets who had been invited by California Congressman (and Korean War Marine Vet) Pete McCloskey to attend the convention…McCloskey’s invitation came after he had quelled a near riot outside the convention hall…The scene was described by Hunter Thompson in his epic
    i Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail – ’72…

    When the Republicans wish to lie about someone they usually accuse their targets of having done something of which they themselves are guilty…

    Which is another reason why you’ll never find a real Patriot in the Republican party any more…

  25. You’re right, D.R. Another incident that was caught in photos was US soldiers shooting protesters at Kent State. Funny how the right never exaggerated that incident into something like the spitting legend.

  26. Pingback: The Spitters Are Back » Sir! No Sir!

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