Vietnam Spitting.--

There is a flap about whether returning Vietnam veterans were really spat upon (via Instapundit). One commenter at Countercolumn says that Bob Greene, a former Chicago columnist, wrote a column in the 1980s saying that it was a myth. He received so many stories of spitting that he interviewed the purported victims and wrote a book concluding that many such stories were probably true.

Then Jerry Lembcke wrote a book saying it was a myth, that he researched news stories and they started appearing around 1980. I have no independent source of information on this, but having done literally thousands of WESTLAW and LEXIS/NEXIS searches, I can say that when something starts appearing in the press in the early 1980s, that is almost always a function of when these two news services started including the full texts of major newspapers. (I find a clear Feb. 1, 1981 reference in the New York Times.) Although I can't say for certain that Jerry Lembcke made this error in his research, I can say that my students make this error all the time. I haven't yet read either Greene's or Lembke's book, but in my experience when someone says that a word usage or a story starts appearing around 1980 or in the early 1980s, they are almost always reflecting the limitations of their online search database, rather than the origins of the phenomenon they are tracing.

I'm suspicious of the coincidence between Lembke's account and the beginning of full-text coverage in WESTLAW and LEXIS. In other words, did Lembke's research show that such stories began appearing in the early 1980s, or did his research show that by 1981-82, when the major newspapers came online in full text, the story was already well known?

UPDATE: In the comments below are several seemingly credible first-hand accounts of being spat on. In addition, several note a bunch of 1971 published stories (I found one in the June 2, 1971 Chicago Tribune) involving the claims of an anti-John Kerry serviceman that he was spat on.

I was also able to confirm my speculation above that the spitting meme may have been spread long before 1980. Alfred Kitt, after he had resigned as General Counsel to the Army and was working at Yale, wrote a heartfelt Sept. 15, 1971 op-ed in the Washington Post, looking back on working in a situation in which many thought him a war criminal--and even his own family was against him. Kitt also discussed the plight of the ordinary soldier, including this sentence: "You can’t be fond of being spat on, either literally or figuratively, just because of the uniform you’re wearing."

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.

Spitting Report, Part II: Of Civilian Airports and Attempted Debunkings.--

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.



The 1968 Walker Report—Rights in Conflict, the official federal commission report on the 1968 Democratic Convention that came out a couple months after it ended—was made famous by its initial branding of the Chicago police’s spectacular brutality during several periods in the long week as a “police riot.” The behavior of the Chicago police was indeed appalling; the police even targeted the press for beatings (63 of the 300 press working the street were beaten by police).

Antiwar demonstrators spat and threw urine at both police and National Guardsmen. Spitting on police is recounted several times in the book. The Walker Report also describes a torrent of abuse heaped directly at National Guardsmen in uniform in an apparent attempt to goad them into violence. According to accounts, many of the demonstrators were holding cameras, ready to take pictures of guardsmen who reacted violently.

Interestingly, given Professor Jerry Lembcke’s prior stereotyping of women, one policeman stationed at the Hilton reported that the obscene abuses shouted by “women hippies” outnumbered those by men “four to one.” (Rights in Conflict, p. 235) (Of course, it might have been that the police officer just wasn’t accustomed to women being as foul-mouthed as men.) One Guardsman is quoted describing how one male demonstrator went down the line spitting in servicemen’s faces, flicking ashes and lit cigarettes at them, and making religious slurs (Rights in Conflict, p. 213). This represents yet another story debunking Jerry Lembcke’s claim that there were no contemporaneous accounts of servicemen being spat upon (the Walker Report was completed just 53 days after the late August, 1968 convention).

A September 1, 1968 Chicago Tribune account praised the guardsmen who (unlike the police) were credited with showing extreme restraint in the face of extraordinary taunting:

“Newsmen observed that the demonstrators hurled insults at the guardsmen and some spit on them in an attempt to provoke them into action.” (p. 2)

These two accounts tend corroborate in an indirect way one of Bob Greene’s spitting stories in Homecoming. John Kelly, a national guardsman in uniform, was guarding the Conrad Hilton during the 1968 Democratic Convention (p. 130). When a young 2d lieutenant “gave us hell” for joking with the “young female hippies” who were putting flowers in the barrels of their guns, “one of the girls spat right in the lieutenant’s face.” She “melted into the crowd” before they could carry out the order to arrest her. Interestingly, Kelly was pleased with the young woman’s spitting; he wrote: “What she did was just as good as fragging the son of a bitch.”

And it shows that spitting stories do not necessarily feed some psychological need to account for the U.S. losing the war. Further, spitting was claimed to be witnessed by someone who had the anti-brass orientation that Lembcke for some reason thinks is being denied by those who claim that servicemen were spat upon.

Although neither the government report nor the contemporaneous Tribune news story directly confirms John Kelley’s account, they do confirm that Guardsmen were spat upon at the place Kelly reports during one of the times that the National Guard was posted in front of the Hilton. And, of course, the Walker Report and the Tribune account are both contemporaneous accounts of spitting on troops.

Another installment soon . . . .

Spitting Report IV: Opposition To The Troops

Professor Jerry Lembcke asserts that it would have been highly unlikely that soldiers or veterans were spat upon because relations between soldiers and the antiwar movement were generally very friendly.

This post raises some serious problems with Lembcke's use of one 1995 study by Beamish et al. to support this claim. In particular, Lembcke somehow falsely reports a 56% incidence of anti-troop behavior as a 6% incidence of anti-troop behavior, a mistake that he has repeated in several publications.

In a very revealing passage, Lembcke argues:

How do you prove that something did not happen? For this book I adopted two strategies. The first was to make the assumption that two mutually exclusive sets of circumstances cannot coexist in the same time and space. In the case of Vietnam veterans and the anti-war movement, I assumed that those two parties could not have been simultaneously hostile to one another and mutually supportive; anti-war activists could not have been spitting on veterans while at the same time befriending them in off-base coffeehouses. (Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image, 1998, pp. 3-4)

This reflects a rather unsophisticated view of human nature. The fact that most people don’t hate African-Americans doesn’t mean that stories of people using racial epithets against them are untrue. To explain spitting, there need be only a non-trivial minority who loathed the military during the Vietnam War (I’ll have more on this in future reports).

Lembcke may also be reflecting his own experience as an activist for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group that was always genuinely open to veterans who wanted to give up support for the US government’s position in the war and join its efforts. It is not at all a contradiction that most antiwar activists were welcoming to individual servicemen while a minority of those who opposed the war were quite hostile to them. The flaw in Lembcke’s logic can be illustrated by observing that, during the Cold War, the US welcomed Russian spies who wanted to change their orientation to the Cold War and join the CIA or the US side; yet Russian and US spies who had not had a change of heart were working hard against each other.

To support Lembcke’s view of very little anti-troop behavior by the antiwar movement, he cites a 1995 study by Beamish, Molotch, and Flacks, which counted 495 instances of pro-troop or anti-troop behavior in 380 New York Times and L.A. Times news stories accompanying major antiwar demonstrations.

++++ More to come tomorrow . . . .