Debunking A Myth
By John Zutz (Reviewer)
The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Jerry Lembcke (New York University Press, 1998)
Many Vietnam veterans repeat a common litany: anti-war protesters spit upon them. This book attempts to debunk what Lembcke concludes has become a modern urban myth.
How does one attempt to prove a negative - that something didn't happen? This author does it by examining the positive side and failing to find any conclusive proof that it occurred. Along the way he finds many indications that it is indeed a myth.
His research examined newspapers from New York and San Francisco, as well as police reports detailing the interaction between protesters and veterans. No spitting incidents were reported, and the observers noticed that over time the veterans assumed leadership positions among the protesters. Lembcke did find newspaper reports of spitting during demonstrations in the late 1960s, but they referred to hawks spitting on anti-war protesters.
Reinforcing his myth hypothesis, Lembcke cites a Harris poll reported to Congress in 1972 that indicates 93% of returning veterans found their homecoming friendly, while only 3% found it unfriendly. The poll also reported that over 75% of returning vets were opposed to the war.
The first documented reports of being spit upon don't begin to appear until the early 1980s. According to the author, who is currently an associate professor of sociology, the time delay is a strong indication that the story is a myth. So where did the myth come from?
First, remember that we lost the war. There are historical examples of mistreatment myths in which the abusers are said to be traitors to the national cause. In post-WWI Germany, the Fascists exploited similar rumors to arouse popular anger toward Jews, homosexuals, and women. After France's defeat in Indochina, the contrast and conflict of the male warrior image with the more feminine factors of society were blamed for the defeat.
Second, right after the Vietnam War, the U.S. economy went into the tank. The working-class boys and girls who had served were hit the hardest by the lack of jobs combined with inflation. When they lost their jobs they began to doubt their worth.
Perhaps most important in producing the myth were political machinations. The image of the Vietnam vet in the early 1970s was strongly anti-war. There is no place in the American memory for the factually accurate image of vets throwing their medals back at Congress. This image had to be changed if the United States ever wanted to go to war again.
The image began changing when Nixon lost popular support for the war. He created the notion that society should support the war because the troops were there: we needed to keep fighting to bring the POWs home. The anti-war veteran image was changed further when the Nixon administration alluded that anti-war vets were effeminate and mentally suspect. This attitude was bolstered by popular film images of Post-Vietnam Syndrome (later Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD).
The Bush administration used the idea that Vietnam vets had met with malevolence to rally support for the Gulf War, arguing that opposition to the war was tantamount to disregard for the troops' well-being. By the time the bombing began, the troops' presence in the Gulf became the reason for the fighting.
Though no definitive proof can be produced to absolve activists, or to confirm their innocence, one can examine existing records and determine that, with the lack of positive proof and in the face of other events, it is unlikely any spitting occurred.
The author, who served in Vietnam and joined VVAW on his return, comments that on announcing that he was exposing the myth he was met by two reactions, "Myth, hell, it happened," or "It's about time." Personally, I'm glad he did.
John Zutz is a member of the Milwaukee chapter and a former VVAW regional coordinator.