In a 2005 Boston Globe op-ed, Professor Jerry Lembcke appears to claim that he had smashed (as false) previous stories of spat-upon Vietnam veterans (I wish he had indicated which ones). In the Globe, Lembcke attacks one account that indeed includes some ridiculous statements by the supposed spitting victim:
STORIES ABOUT spat-upon Vietnam veterans are like mercury: Smash one and six more appear. It’s hard to say where they come from. 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 story told by the man who spat on Jane Fonda at a book signing in Kansas City recently is typical. Michael Smith said he came back through Los Angeles airport where ”people were lined up to spit on us.”
Like many stories of the spat-upon veteran genre, Smith’s lacks credulity. 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.
The exaggerations in Smith’s story are characteristic of those told by others. ”Most Vietnam veterans were spat on when we came back,” he said. That’s not true.
There are many problems with Lembcke’s arguments—the chief one being that Lembcke claims Michael Smith’s account is “characteristic of those told by others.”
First, consider the doubtful context of Smith’s account. He has been arrested for spitting on Jane Fonda and needs to justify himself. Anything Smith says could be doubted because he is reaching for an excuse for his criminal behavior (charges were eventually dropped).
Second, consider what Smith actually said: “Because of Jane Fonda, most Vietnam veterans were spit on when we came back. When I came back through LA Airport, there were people lined up to spit on us.”
It is nonsense to suppose that most vets were spat on and to attribute this behavior to one person, Jane Fonda. Note that Smith does not say that he was spat on, but rather that people “were lined up” to do so; this differs considerably from the more direct accounts in Bob Greene’s 1989 book Homecoming that people were actually spat at or spat on. Yet several respondents in Greene’s book, even ones who reported no spitting, reported being hassled by groups of activists in the LA airport, including activists in lines or groups
What is particularly misleading about Lembcke’s criticism of Smith is that Smith never claimed or even hinted that he had flown into LAX from Vietnam. Many servicemen flew into a military base and then were bused to LAX for flights home. Lembcke well knows this, and yet he would have readers believe that there is something wrong with a serviceman claiming to have been through LAX on the way home from Vietnam. That is a very misleading way to argue, because most readers will assume that Lembcke has some reason for thinking that Smith was claiming to have flown into LAX.
And Lembcke is just being silly with his implication that for protesters to be lined up at a civilian airport, they would have to have had advance notice of when troops were arriving by plane.
An article on the USO club at the civilian San Francisco airport describes how in December 1969, their busiest month so far, 54,766 servicemen stopped into the USO club; the picture accompanying the article shows a soldier signing into a log (December 17, 1970, San Mateo Times). That’s over 1,500 a day. That’s probably just a fraction of the military personnel who went through that civilian airport every day. Many who arrived at the airport by bus or car from the Oakland Army Terminal would have simply caught their flights for home.
Saying that you went through the San Francisco airport on the way to or from home or another military installation is something that perhaps 500,000 to 2 million men and women in the service did every year. Anti-war activists would not need to be informed about when troops would be arriving by plane to have a critical mass of targets for recruiting or abuse. While significantly fewer service personnel would have passed through LAX, the numbers should still have been huge.
Antiwar activists did stake out the San Francisco civilian airport because there were so many vets returning from Vietnam going through the airport. Indeed, they went to the SF Airport “because it was ‘the first civilian ground they’d set foot on back in the states.’” (Tip to Kevin Bowman) Activist Steve Rees writes in his 1979 book, They Should Have Served Coffee, that their standard greeting to servicemen was: “Hey, soldier. Welcome home. F**k the Army. Read all about it in this paper. No charge.” (p. 159)
Last, Smith’s account is not typical. Most spitting accounts are specific on whether they were spat upon and make no obviously false claims, such as that most veterans were spat upon.
I am suspicious of Smith’s account for the very reasons that it is not typical of the stories in Bob Greene’s book: because of (1) the criminal context in which Smith’s story arose, (2) Smith’s vagueness about whether he was actually spit on, and (3) Smith’s obviously false speculations (which Lembcke notes but pretends are “characteristic”). But I am not suspicious for most of the reasons that Lembcke raises, which are specious and easily rebutted with evidence.
More tomorrow . . . .