Hundreds of Vietnam-era veterans have publicly claimed in recent decades that they were spat on by citizens or anti-war protesters because of their military status, either before they went to Vietnam, when they were on leave, or after their returned from overseas. Yet several journalists and at least one scholar, sociologist Jerry Lembcke of Holy Cross, think that such things never happened, that they are an “urban legend.” Lembcke claims: “Stories of spat-upon Vietnam veterans are bogus.”
In a 1998 NYU Press book, The Spitting Image; a 1999 scholarly conference paper of the same name; and two op-eds, Lembcke spins an elaborate tale to support his view. In this post I’ll take up just a few of Lembcke’s arguments (I’ll have much more on spitting over the next week):
 “For a book I wrote in 1998 I looked back to the time when the spit was supposedly flying, the late 1960s and early 1970s. I found nothing. No news reports or even claims that someone was being spat on.”
 The stories started appearing about 1980.
 Stories about arriving back from Vietnam into San Francisco and Los Angeles “are implausible,” and one of the storytellers lacks “credulity.” According to Lembcke, “no returning soldiers landed at San Francisco Airport,” and “GIs landed at military airbases, not civilian airports, and protesters could not have gotten onto the bases and anywhere near deplaning troops.”
 “Many tellers of the spitting tales identify the culprits as girls, a curious quality to the stories that gives away their gendered subtext.”
“One clue is that many of the stories have it that it was women or young girls who were the spitters. Students of gender behavior are usually quick to point out that girls do not spit, at least not as a form of communication. That being the case, it seems all the more significant that defeated male warriors would make a point of giving the spitters a gender. One has to consider that the loss of war equates in the culture with a loss of manhood. Coupled with the tendency to alibi for defeat on the battle field, it is understandable that men might have fantasies involving hostility from women.”
“The element of spit in the coming-home stories of veterans who feel betrayed reveals a binary, man-nature dichotomy that lies at the heart of our understandings of human existence. . . . Subconsciously, the individual feels a primal connection with the warmth and dampness of that in utero existence, and perhaps even desires to return to it, while consciously recognizing that life itself depends upon successful separation from the safety and comfort of that watery world. . . . The idiom of wetness in myth is also gendered in ways that help us understand why the stories of spat-upon veterans frequently tell of women or girls doing the spitting.”
I have been looking into these and other claims by Lembcke and they appear to hold about as much water as do his notions about a primal (wet) unconscious.
It is surprising that, without his having done an exhaustive review of published sources in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lembcke would manufacture such a speculative argument, essentially treating hundreds of eyewitnesses as victims of “false memory” (at best).
Contrary to Lembcke’s claims, I quite easily found many accounts published in the 1967-1972 period claiming spitting on servicemen.
For example, on October 6, 1967, John F. Geyer and Bill Bowers, two sailors in uniform on a ten-day leave before shipping out, were accosted and taunted by a group of about ten young men while leaving a high-school football game in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Bowers heard one of them say, “We’re going to get a couple of sailors.” Then one of the band of attackers spat at Geyer, hitting both Geyer and Bowers. Geyer, who was a former high-school football lineman, swung at his attacker. The attacker then stabbed Geyer in the side with a knife. After two hospital stays, Geyer fully recovered. In January and February, 1968, Geyer’s 18-year-old attacker was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to a reformatory. All this is laid out in a series of stories in the local newspaper, the Bucks County Courier Times.
This was one of many stories published in American newspapers in the late 1960s and early 1970s in which American servicemen were spat on by citizens or anti-war protesters or the opposite: pro-war servicemen or citizens spat on anti-war protesters. (Because Lembcke recognizes the existence of the stories of people spitting on protesters, I’ll leave that substantial body of evidence out of this post. Perhaps the most famous example is Ron Kovic, who after heckling Richard Nixon’s 1972 acceptance speech, was spat on as he was wheeled from the convention hall.)
Among the journalists who gave first-hand accounts of spitting on soldiers was James Reston, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Spitting was one of the actions tame enough for Reston to describe in his New York Times front page story covering the October 21-22, 1967 Washington anti-war demonstrations: “It is difficult to report publicly the ugly and vulgar provocation of many of the militants. They spat on some of the soldiers in the front line at the Pentagon and goaded them with the most vicious personal slander. Many of the signs carried by a small number of militants . . . are too obscene to print.”
A May 16, 1970 story in the Pomona Progress Bulletin recounted how on May 15, Col. Bowen Smith, head of Claremont Men’s College’s ROTC program, was spat on by protesters as he went to his campus office.
Many newspapers carried a July 21, 1971 AP story about a Northwestern University student, apparently under surveillance by the FBI for many months, who had been observed spitting on a mid-shipman in uniform. She denied that she had done it (presumably she did not deny that some young woman had spat on the mid-shipman).
Several newspapers, including the June 18, 1969 Panama News, printed an interview with General Chapman of the U.S. Marines, in which he “confirmed stories of physical abuse,” including spitting. According to Chapman, a Marine recruiter is invited on campus by the administration, but students have been allowed to enter the area set aside for the Marine recruiter. They “stepped on his hat, smashed cigarettes, spit at him and insulted him. Frequently the recruiters are young officers or NCOs who have served in Vietnam.” They are trained to suffer this abuse in silence. “Marines are under very strict orders not to react, not to talk back, not to fight back. Just to stand in dignified silence.”
Indeed, according to an August 27, 1967 New York Times article by Neil Sheehan, as part of military training in the national guard, soldiers were actually being drilled by being spat on, abuse to which they were instructed not to respond.
One of the more amazing stories of protester abuse of veterans (and one veteran’s violent response) were the attacks on Congressional Medal of Honor winners. In a March 14, 1968 column in the Bucks County Courier Times (and elsewhere), the head of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, WWII Medalist Thomas J. Kelly, reveals that even Medal of Honor winners have been abused and “spat upon as ‘monsters.’”
Kelly recounts how, in an appalling lack of decency, about 200 anti-war protesters showed up to harass the Medal of Honor winners at their annual dinner, held one year in Beverly Hills. Most Medalists were able to dodge the hecklers, but WWII Medalist James Conners was unable to avoid a particularly obnoxious man yelling, “Killer, killer, killer.” Conners decked him.
In the November 14, 1967 New York Times, Pulitzer-Prize winner Max Frankel quoted Jack Risoen, a California Democrat who runs a liquor store: “Last week I took my parents to an American Legion meeting–it was just a memorial service for the First World War dead and outside three kids spit on my father.” Imagine that: spitting on a veteran attending a memorial service for dead veterans!
Several articles, such as in the August 3, 1969 Odessa American, refer to anti-war students spitting on ROTC uniforms, without being entirely clear whether the students are in them at the time.
With all this documented spitting going on, not surprisingly there were many more discussions by politicians and writers of letters to the editor complaining about militants spitting on the military. Indeed, one might say that people at the time were almost obsessed with spitting: in just a day of searching, I found dozens of stories about spitting on flags, spitting on police, spitting on the military, and spitting on protesters. Responsible anti-war activists, such as Allard Lowenstein implored students who opposed the war to stop all the spitting (May 14, 1969 WAPO). When California Governor Ronald Reagan insulted another politician with a crack about spitting on the sidewalk, columnist Drew Pearson (November 25, 1967) suggested that perhaps Reagan had a “spitting gap” as big as his “credibility gap.”
The tipping point seemed to come with the White House’s efforts to found a counterforce to John Kerry’s Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In early June 1971, there was a huge press push to trumpet the new organization headed by (among others) John O’Neill (later of Swift Boat fame) and Jim Minarik. The first paragraph of the most common story included a claim by Minarik that “he walked out of doors in his uniform and he was twice spat upon.”
Over the following eight months, there was an explosion of concern about the shabby treatment of veterans returning from Vietnam, discussions in which some version of Minarik’s story seemed to resonate. In July 1971, a month after Minarik’s story hit, Birch Bayh was spat on in a Florida airport by a man reported to be a pro-war Vietnam veteran. Bayh’s attacker was neither arrested, nor (apparently) questioned by the police.
In August, under a contract with the Veterans Administration, Harris conducted a poll of Vietnam-era veterans, employers, and the general public to assess how veterans were adjusting to life at home. The study would be released in January 1972 to much handwringing.
Even the anti-war movement took notice. Several of the fall 1971 demonstrations adopted explicitly pro-troops orientations. And anti-war servicemen had long been welcome in most anti-war organizations, but particularly (of course) Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
In the December 11, 1971, Stars and Stripes, the brilliant behavioral scientist Norman Zinberg wrote about the three weeks he spent that fall in Vietnam studying heroin addiction for the DOD. By then, the stories of harassment and spitting were so engrained in the minds of soldiers that they used them as excuses for their addictions. Zinberg writes about a difference from earlier wars:
The society which sent the soldier to fight not only does not reward him for his participation, but in fact is often hostile to him. EM (Enlisted men) repeatedly told me bitter and poignant stories (some of them undoubtedly apocryphal about two types of letters they received from home).
One would be from a buddy who would report that he had walked down a street in “The World” still in uniform and somebody had harassed or even spat on him. The other type of letter, described even more bitterly, would be from a civilian wanting to know, “Have you really killed any babies?”
Note that by late 1971, the spitting story (in a form much like Minarik’s) had become such a cliche that Zinberg probably correctly surmised that more a few tellings of it are not literally true.
In any event, by the fall of 1971 the story of the spat upon serviceman was both well known and much written about. Lembcke’s first and second arguments are simply wrong: Stories of gob-covered servicemen started appearing in the press when anti-war protesters started spitting on them in the late 1960s, not around 1980.
Lembcke’s 3rd Argument: RETURNING SOLDIERS DID NOT LAND AT SAN FRANCISCO OR LA COMMERCIAL AIRPORTS.
Again, I am amazed that Lembcke would simply state this without checking. The May 7, 1967 New York Times story on re-entry into civilian life states: “Almost all veterans are flown back from Vietnam, usually in commercial jets.” There are many press stories about servicemen flying to and from Vietnam through commercial airports, particularly on the US west coast.
Lembcke’s 4th Argument: GIRLS DON’T SPIT”
If you read enough accounts of the vulgarity of some of the anti-war protesters of the period, Lembcke’s notion that “girls don’t spit” is almost laughable. Beyond the two examples I already gave of young female anti-war protesters spitting on servicemen, I found many examples of female Vietnam protesters spitting on police or other authority figures. Here are three of many:
The L.A. Times of February 27, 1969, like many other newspapers that week, recounts an anti-war female student spitting on University of Chicago Dean James Redfield.
Another first-hand account of spitting on police by an anti-war demonstrator was published in the Washington Post under the byline of Pulitzer-Prize winner Carl Bernstein on May 7, 1970. A woman described by Bernstein as a “girl” and a “University of Maryland Coed” “spit at a policeman, then called him a ‘pig’ and a ‘filthy swine.’” Less than an hour later,” the same woman “offered a flower to a different police officer,” saying, “It’s not your fault.”
Ben A. Franklin, writing in the January 26, 1969 New York Times, talks about the “provocatory tactics employed by the children here”: “The spit of a sweet-faced girl ran down a policeman’s jacket. Endless insults and [tiny] burning American flags . . . were thrown at the police on the parade route.”
I guess some young women do spit!
On the issues raised by Professor Lembcke, I have to say that I’ll take the world of Congressional Medal of Honor winners and Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists for the New York Times and Washington Post over the professor’s armchair speculations–especially since many of the former actually witnessed the events they described, while the professor appears not to have made a serious attempt to review the available evidence before publishing his book.
There Are More Blockbuster Revelations to Come on Some of Jerry Lembcke’s Other Arguments (in a few days).
UPDATE: I just saw that Jerry Lembcke was kind enough to respond here. Next week I should have time to answer (if an answer is needed), though on a quick read, there appears to be nothing earth-shattering in his response.