Spitting Report, Part II:
Landing at Civilian Airports and Other Problems With Attempted Debunkings.
In my first, somewhat speculative post on the stories about servicemen and veterans being spat upon during the Vietnam era, I suggested that perhaps Professor Jerry Lembcke had not fully understood the limitations of LEXIS/NEXIS, the most popular service for news searches (a problem NEXIS shares with WESTLAW). Because in NEXIS the full texts of most of the major newspapers start about 1982, NEXIS is effective for searching 1983 to the present, but is usually not useful for pre-1979 events and is of only marginal utility for 1979-82 searches.
My next post (on newspaper evidence of spitting 1967-72) was the first of several more formal reports on the issue of spitting. Perhaps Lembcke’s most central evidentiary claim is that, if spitting on servicemen was fairly common in the Vietnam era, there would be at least some evidence of it in accounts of the period—if not news reports of spitting on soldiers at least some discussions of it. Lembcke claims that there were no contemporaneous accounts of spitting and no discussions of it, except for one retrospective account in a 1973 book by Robert Jay Lifton and an ambiguous mention by Cardinal John J. O’Connor in a 1968 book. Lembcke claimed that stories of spitting started appearing in the press about 1980.
I found and documented many contemporaneous news accounts of spitting on servicemen in the 1967-72 period. I found many other more generalized discussions of spitting on servicemen in news stories, columns, and letters to the editor (most of which I didn’t bother to cite). Thus, one of Lembcke’s main reasons for doubting the many 1987-2007 extant oral histories of being spat upon is simply false.
Today’s post considers several issues, including Professor Jerry Lembcke’s claims that “no returning soldiers landed at San Francisco Airport,” and that “GIs landed at military airbases, not civilian airports.”
I show that the San Francisco International Airport, where some of the spitting incidents are alleged to have occurred, was authorized as one of the four main West Coast “ports of debarkation” where servicemen returned on direct flights from overseas (among the others was Travis Air Force Base). Not only did Army Regulations in the late 1960s and early 1970s designate the San Francisco International Airport to receive direct flights of military personnel, they required the Oakland Army Terminal to staff a returnee team located at the San Francisco Airport to meet and process servicemen arriving directly from Vietnam and the Far East. Further, the particular spitting story that Lembcke has most often attempted to debunk involved a soldier on emergency leave, a status that typically allowed soldiers to fly on commercial flights directly to US commercial airports at Army expense (see discussion below). Thus, another reason that Lembcke raises for doubting spitting stories is also flatly false.
2. EVALUATING THE STORIES IN BOB GREENE’S HOMECOMING:
Although ultimately it is unclear how many of the spitting stories in Bob Greene’s collection Homecoming (1989) are true and how many are false, the 60 first-hand accounts he published at least avoid making one obviously false claim after another. Like Lembcke (Spitting Image, 1998, p. 6), I take the first-hand accounts of being spat on or witnessing spitting more seriously than the second-hand or third-hand accounts. Besides the 60 first-hand accounts, there are an additional five spitting stories in the Homecoming in two classes that are less credible or relevant: one account of being spat upon in New Zealand and four second-hand (hearsay) accounts.
Two of these 60 stories are so sketchy that it’s hard to tell the details of what is supposed to have happened, leaving 58 first-hand accounts with enough detail to get at least a rough idea about what is supposed to have happened. Four letter writers to Bob Greene tell of two spitting incidents, and one writer, Barry Streeter (p. 41), tells of three incidents. I found one error in one story, though not a serious one: one story refers to the Oakland AFB (p. 12), by which the writer probably meant Travis AFB near Oakland, though I may have missed other errors obvious on the face of the stories.
Most of the stories in Bob Greene’s Homecoming involve servicemen who are still in the service (many are coming home on leave), not those who have been discharged or separated from the service. Some letter writers reported being spat on before going to Vietnam and some do not claim to have been to Vietnam at all. Some have been home and out of active service for months or years. Some responded violently to the spitting attack, such as by punching the spitter; most did not.
About half purportedly took place in or near commercial airports, the rest did not—but then, Bob Greene invited stories of spitting by describing a returning serviceman being spat upon by a hippy in an airport, so his collection should be skewed toward these sorts of stories. For example, others were described as taking place on several college campuses; at a shopping mall; on a street, highway, or a freeway; and in front of the Waldorf Astoria in NYC. A Catholic priest, who served as a chaplain, reported being spat on at the JFK airport by a woman about 43 years old who said that “I napalm babies” (Homecoming, p. 35).
Although not typical of Greene’s collection of spitting stories, even some of those who opposed the war or were pleased about the incident reported spitting on servicemen or vets. One Berkeley neurosurgeon who opposed the war, never went to Vietnam, spending his military service in San Francisco saving the lives of men whose heads were blown apart in Vietnam. He reported being spat on by a young neighbor and asked about how many he had killed today as he was getting out of his car in Berkeley, California. He said that he later sat down to have a talk with the boy (Homecoming, pp. 18-19). A female anti-war activist and University of Wisconsin student said that in the fall of 1971 she was spat upon in Madison, Wisconsin by an 18 or 19-year old while wearing her Air Force Overcoat and her Vets for Peace hat. (Lembcke might speculate that this Madison teenager spat on her because of her Vets for Peace hat, not her Air Force Overcoat.) A National Guardsman describes his pleasure when during the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention a young woman spit in the face of a lieutenant who “gave us hell” (p. 130).
3. DEBUNKING MYTHS:
A. How Many First-Hand, Public Accounts of Spitting on Vietnam Vets Has Lembcke Debunked?
When one looks for the source of the idea that no spitting occurred, most roads lead to Professor Jerry Lembcke. While there are many Vietnam veterans who don’t believe the spitting stories (probably because they didn’t experience harassment themselves), the academics, journalists, and public intellectuals who are pushing the no-spitting meme seem to derive many of their arguments from Lembcke. So it makes sense to look more closely at Lembcke’s evidence and argumentation.
Jack Shafer at Slate writes:
Lembcke, a professor of sociology at Holy Cross and a Vietnam vet, investigated hundreds of news accounts of antiwar activists spitting on vets. But every time he pushed for more evidence or corroboration from a witness, the story collapsed—the actual person who was spat on turned out to be a friend of a friend. Or somebody’s uncle. He writes that he never met anybody who convinced him that any such clash took place.
Is this true? Did Lembcke claim to have “investigated hundreds of news accounts of antiwar activists spitting on vets.” If this were true of published accounts of spitting on Vietnam veterans, I can’t imagine that Lembcke wouldn’t have detailed some of these debunkings in his book.
Here are some of the claims that Lembcke made about spitting:
The truth is that nobody spat on Vietnam veterans . . . . (Jerry Lembcke, Spitting on the Troops: Old Myth, New Rumors, The Veteran, vol. 33, no. 1 (2003))
There were also actual incidents of Vietnam veterans being treated abusively, but in all the documentable cases it was pro-war people who were the abusers. And there are, finally, the reports by Vietnam veterans themselves of either having been spat upon or having witnessed buddies being spat upon. For obvious reasons, I gave these reports serious consideration, but their validity was hard to establish. Almost all such reports came years after the incidents were alleged to have occurred, while in the actual time frame in which men came home from Vietnam there are no such reports. When one attempts to validate the stories through follow-up research, many such claims dissolve rather quickly, and in others one finds details that betray a lack of authenticity. (Lembcke, The Spitting Image, 1998, p. 6)
[T]he real story of solidarity between the anti-war movement and Vietnam veterans has to be told, and the image of the spat-upon veteran has to be debunked and its mythical dimensions exposed. (Id., p. 26)
[W]e need to dispel the power of myths like that of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran by debunking them. (Id., p. 10)
What about the public first-hand accounts of spitting, such as the 58 reasonably detailed spitting stories in Bob Greene’s book Homecoming? How many, if any, of these public, first-hand spitting stories has Lembcke actually debunked? Is Lembcke referring to Greene’s published stories when he writes, “When one attempts to validate the stories through follow-up research, many such claims dissolve rather quickly . . . .”?
It is one thing to assert, as is probably true, that the second-hand and third-hand stories of spitting have been spread so widely that the general public substantially over-estimates the incidence of spitting.
But this is true of most memes. For example, Lembcke himself has spread a false meme that there were no contemporaneous accounts of spitting on soldiers in the press at the time or even (with a couple of exceptions he is willing to admit) any discussions of the issue in the press at the time. Referring to spitting, he writes:
Not only is there no evidence that these acts of hostility against veterans ever occurred, there is no evidence that anyone at the time thought they were occurring. (Lembcke, 1998, p. 75)
Problem is, the spitting story seems to be fantasy. Perhaps some soldiers somewhere got spat on. Yet no reports of such incidents ever appeared while the Vietnam war was going on. Not until years later did the story surface. (Lembcke, Newsday, May 1, 2000).
Lembcke’s false meme (about no contemporaneous discussions of spitting on soldiers) has spread so widely that it now appears in scholarly books and articles, press accounts, and even movies.
It is entirely possible that many retrospective hearsay accounts of spitting are unreliable, but it does not follow that most of the hundreds of extant first-hand accounts are doubtful as well.
One should also be sensitive to the context in which spitting stories arise. If a first-hand account arises only when the story-teller has been asked to justify his own wrongdoing, failures, or mental problems, that context would render the account less reliable than when a veteran writes in to Bob Greene who wants to know if the spitting stories going around are true, or writes to Shafer to tell them of his experiences of abuse.
B. Attempted Debunking By Lembcke (letter by Barry Streeter):
The one spitting story that Jerry Lembcke has most often attempted to debunk is the letter from Barry Streeter, published in Bob Greene’s Homecoming (p. 41). Instead of picking one of Greene’s more typical accounts for an attempted debunking, Lembcke picks the most extreme example in Greene’s book, the only letter writer claiming three instances of spitting. After mentioning Bob Greene’s stories, Lembcke writes:
These stories have to be taken very seriously, but as historical evidence they are problematic. In the first place, stories of this type didn’t surface until about ten years after the end of the war. If the incidents occurred when the storytellers say they did, in the closing years of the war, why is there no evidence for that? Moreover, many of the stories have elements of such exaggeration that one has to question the veracity of the entire account. One that Greene published read,
My flight came in at San Francisco airport and I was spat upon three times: by hippies, by a man in a leisure suit, and by a sweet little old lady who informed me I was an “Army Asshole.”
Besides the fact that no returning soldiers landed at San Francisco Airport, I find it hard to believe that the same veteran was spat on three times in one pass through the airport.
There are many stories like this one (the prevalence of San Francisco in these stories might be suggestive of a story-telling cliché) . . . .
Let’s look closer at this supposed debunking of the letter from Barry Streeter.
C. Contemporaneous Stories.
First, as Part I of my report shows, there are contemporaneous references in the 1967-72 press of spitting on servicemen.
D. Did Servicemen Land in San Francisco?
Next, Lembcke argues: “[N]o returning soldiers landed at San Francisco Airport.” Not only is Lembcke making a false claim here, but his differing treatment of this case may reveal something about Lembcke’s reliability in argumentation. Let’s compare his critique of Barry Streeter’s letter in the 1999 article quoted above to Lembcke’s critique of it in his 1998 book on spitting.
On page 1 of the book Spitting Image (1998), Lembcke begins with two quotes—one from Streeter’s letter, which Lembcke attacks, and the other from an anti-war friend, Sharon Moore, who recounts the return of her friend Terry from Vietnam and who considers spitting an urban legend. Lembcke appears to treat Moore’s hearsay account of no harassment of Terry as true.
Yet, unlike his 1999 article, Lembcke’s 1998 book does not critique Barry Streeter’s letter by claiming that “no returning soldiers landed at San Francisco Airport.”
Because in the book Sharon claims that her friend Terry also flew into the San Francisco airport: “Terry returned to McCord Air Force Base near Seattle, flew to San Francisco on a commercial airline, then took a bus into the city.” (Spitting Image, 1998, p. 2)
So in his book, Lembcke can’t claim that veterans coming back from Vietnam wouldn’t have flown into San Francisco, because they sometimes did, as his friend Sharon’s story indicates. Streeter’s letter never says that he flew into San Francisco directly from Vietnam; Streeter wrote: “My flight came in at San Francisco airport . . . .” Like Moore’s friend Terry, Streeter may have flown in from Seattle (or elsewhere), after transferring by bus from a military airport.
Yet in Lembcke’s 1999 article, without his juxtaposing Sharon Moore’s story, readers would not be able to see that Lembcke’s claim is false. As the New York Times reported (May 7, 1967), servicemen often have to take many different flights to get home. Further, soldiers on leave were sometimes flown directly to civilian airports such as O’Hare, especially around the holidays (Zanesville Times Recorder, December 26, 1970). Streeter flew home in mid to late November, immediately before Thanksgiving. But there are much bigger problems with Lembcke’s stories about servicemen not returning to commercial airports, such as San Francisco.
E. The San Francisco Airport Was One Of Four Official West Coast Airports Used For Direct Flights Back From Overseas.
Perhaps the most bizarre claim made by those who are trying to debunk the spitting stories is that returning servicemen didn’t fly directly into commercial airports on the West Coast. Army regulations tell a different story. There are extensive regulations governing military personnel flying from overseas on commercial airlines into commercial airports, some of which are summarized in Army Regulations (612-5) and on the form “Commercial Air Travel Information Sheet,” which was given to servicemen flying back from Vietnam to commercial airports other than the standard commercial ones of San Francisco, Seattle, or JFK, or such military airports as Travis AFB and McChord AFB.
There were four West Coast locations designated for returning soldiers as “aerial debarkation” ports or “arrival points” within the continental US on direct flights from overseas: Travis AFB in Fairfield, CA ([north]east of Oakland), McChord AFB in Tacoma, WA, San Francisco International Airport, and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (1969 AR 612-5; 1973 AR 612-5). Chart 2.1 from 1969 AR 612.5 shows the San Francisco International Airport as one of these four main “aerial debarkation” ports for servicemen returning from the Far East.
CHART 2.1 (click the chart to enlarge it)
Further, Army regulations ordered the Oakland Army Terminal to “Establish . . . liaison teams at the port of aerial debarkation serving the returnee-reassignment station.” (1969 AR 612-5, 3.1(15) & 3.16) This designation of the San Francisco International Airport as one of the four West Coast “aerial ports of debarkation” and the requirement that the Oakland Army Terminal staff the San Francisco commercial airport with returnee-reassignment teams was carried forward in the 1973 version of the same regs.
Thus, according to Army regulations in the late 1960s and early 1970s, military personnel from the Far East were authorized to fly directly into the San Francisco International Airport, where they were to be met by Army returnee processing teams, staffed out of Oakland.
Soldiers who flew directly from Vietnam, Tokyo, or Honolulu into civilian airports other than the three US civilian airports where Army processing teams regularly met troops (San Francisco, Seattle, or JFK)—civilian airports such as Los Angeles or O’Hare—were given the “Commercial Air Travel Information Sheet” to explain their travel procedures.
Here is an excerpt from the 1969 AR 612-5 (pp. 31-33), revised through 1971:
Commercial Air Travel Information Sheet
1. You are returning to the United States through a commercial air terminal that does not have a U.S. Army Returnee-reassignment Station. Therefore, there may, or may not, be a military assistance team located at the terminal at which you land. Since these instructions will assist you in complying with your movement orders, you should retain them for future reference. . . .
5. This paragraph pertains to those individuals who are returned to the United States for TDY or leave and will be returning to their overseas organization.
a. You should retain your copy of your commercial airline ticket as verification of the date you returned to the United States. This date will be used by the custodian of your military leave record in computing the amount of leave for which you are to be charged.
b. If you are on TDY or emergency leave, port call instructions should be included in your orders. If this information has been omitted from your orders and you are:
E1-E5—Report to the Oversea Replacement Station listed in your TDY or emergency leave orders upon expiration of your leave and travel time.
E6-E9 and Officer Personnel—Request assistance from the Port Call Section of the applicable Military Traffic Management and Terminal Service (MTMTS) Area Office immediately upon arrival in CONUS.
Eastern Area MTMTS for East bound travel; telephone (212) 439-5400, . . . Brooklyn, NY.
Western Area MTMTS for West bound travel; telephone (415)466-2081, Oakland, CA.
c. If you are returning to the United States in an ordinary leave status, your return trip transportation is at your own expense.
Consider these arguments that Lembcke made about another spitting story not in Greene’s book, one where the serviceman flew into Los Angeles:
GIs landed at military airbases, not civilian airports, and protesters could not have gotten onto the bases and anywhere near deplaning troops. There may have been exceptions, of course, but in those cases how would protesters have known in advance that a plane was being diverted to a civilian site? And even then, returnees would have been immediately bused to nearby military installations and processed for reassignment or discharge.
As I understand the army regulations (and newspaper accounts) of the time, these three sentences of Lembcke contain three false claims and one seriously misleading one. Contrary to Lembcke’s claims:
(1) GIs often landed at civilian airports, such as San Francisco.
(2) Protesters could get near deplaning troops.
(3) While some returnees, especially GIs being separated from service, would ordinarily have been transferred to a base for processing, other returnees, especially GIs on leave, would ordinarily have gone straight home, rather than having to transfer to military installations.
(4) To encounter large numbers of servicemen returning from Vietnam, protesters would not need to know anything about flight schedules because of the sheer volume of military personnel going through the larger West Coast airports, especially San Francisco.
The first of these four issues has just been dealt with, and the second issue follows from the first (since in that era, anyone was routinely allowed to go out to the gates, as well as to baggage claim areas). The third will be dealt with in next section, and the fourth will be handled in a later report.
F. Emergency Leave.
In quoting from Barry Streeter’s letter, Lembcke omits another crucial aspect of Streeter’s story: that he was coming home on “emergency orders,” i.e., an “emergency leave, a common practice for events such as a death in the family. Although I am still waiting for full regs from the late 1960s to arrive in my mailbox to fill out some of the details of my analysis, those granted emergency leave were authorized to fly on commercial aircraft to commercial airports at the military’s expense. If a military flight to an Air Force Base were leaving immediately, the soldier might have taken it, but otherwise he would have taken a commercial flight to a commercial airport. If he flew directly into the civilian airports at San Francisco, Seattle or JFK, he would have been quickly processed and sent on his way (at his own expense for travel within the continental US). If he arrived at another airport, such as LAX, if there were no processing team there (the regs did not mandate that there be one at LAX), he would simply call the Oakland Army Terminal to inform them that he was in the US.
So, for a serviceman like Barry Streeter, who claimed to have “returned from Vietnam in November 1971 on emergency orders,” perhaps the most likely place for him to arrive would have been directly on a civilian flight from the Far East to the civilian San Francisco International Airport.
1969 Army Regulation provided:
2.13. Personnel returning to CONUS or other areas for temporary duty or leave. . . .
c.(2) Emergency leave personnel.
(a) Orders issued for personnel returning to CONUS for emergency leave (AR 630-5) will specify that transportation used by the individual from the aerial port of debarkation will be without expense to the Government and will direct his return to the oversea command upon completion of leave. Orders will direct these individuals to contact the appropriate U.S. Army returnee-reassignment station, if not processed by a U.S. Army returnee- reassignment processing team at the port of debarkation. The orders will include only the travel to CONUS. Orders issued for personnel returning to CONUS or non-CONUS area of residence for emergency leave via air which authorize air transportation for return to the oversea command, will include a specific fund citation to defray cost of travel to and from overseas. . . .
3-12. Leave of absence.
a. Travel orders issued by the oversea commander to personnel traveling individually normally will grant such individuals a delay en route from the U.S. Army returnee-reassignment station to the specific unit of assignment. . . .
d. Personnel returning to CONUS on emergency leave will be permitted to depart on such leave without delay.
G. Are Three Spitting Incidents Too Many?
Once all of Lembcke’s fact-based criticisms of Barry Streeter’s letter have collapsed, Lembcke is left with just an intuitive argument. Lembcke argues that three instances of spitting in one time spent in the airport seems awfully high—and they are. If most accounts depicted multiple spittings on the same day, one might raise this as an objection. But of the 58 first-person accounts in Greene’s Homecoming, only Barry Streeter’s depicted three instances of spitting and only his depicted more than one separate incident on the same day in the same location.
Also, one must remember (using crude Bayesian insights) that more unusual stories are more salient and more likely to be volunteered. Greene’s collection is not a random selection of typical veteran experiences (as Lembcke recognizes in his book). Whether this outlier is implausible depends on how frequent spitting actually was.
To continue in the intuitive style of argumentation that Lembcke raises, imagine that a Duke Lacrosse student claimed that he was spit at three times in one day on the Duke campus last fall. That might sound high, but it would not be implausible, even though the great majority of Duke students probably supported the Lacrosse players. Similarly, if 30 years ago a person of a different race had walked through a community with a significant minority of vicious racists, a report of three spittings in one day would seem high but not implausible.
Until a few years ago, I was very overweight, though otherwise I was reasonably fit. I would often go for six months or a year between hearing someone insult me directly on the street. In other settings, however, insults averaged more than one a day. For example, in the early 1990s, I was sometimes riding my bike the approximately 10 miles to work from where I live on Chicago’s South Side and 10 miles back four or five days a week. Most of the trip was on the lakefront bike path where one could go quite fast. I once counted the number of insults over 10 days of riding during good weather, and it was 9 insults. Although the average was about one insult a day, on many days I got no insults, while on other days it wasn’t unusual to get three to five insults a day. The great majority of those doing the insulting were teenagers. I was able to reduce that rate of insults by about 80% simply by wearing an imposing looking helmet and sunglasses.
So Barry Streeter’s three spitting events in one day seems high intuitively, but if the other accounts of spitting in the San Francisco airport are true, then this account is not too implausible. Barry Streeter’s relatively extreme account may or may not be reliable, but at least Streeter makes no claims that Lembcke has yet shown to be false, while Jerry Lembcke has unfortunately made several demonstrably false claims while trying to debunk Streeter.
H. How Typical is Streeter’s Account?
Lembcke claims that “there are many stories like this one.” Yet of the 58 relatively detailed first-hand accounts in Bob Greene’s book, Streeter is the only writer claiming more than one independent act of spitting on the same day in the same location, and there are only four other letter writers who claim two spitting incidents in any combination of locations. The only even slightly suspicious thing about Barry Streeter’s story that Lembcke has managed to raise is that Streeter reports being spat on three times during a single day at the San Francisco Airport. At least on the frequency of spitting, there are NOT “many stories like this one.”
MORE TO COME WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON.