Many 1967-72 Spitting Incidents Are Documented in the Press.

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):

[1] “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.

[2] The stories started appearing about 1980.

[3] 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.”

[4] “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.

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.

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