It’s a well-known story. After serving in the Vietnam War, a veteran returned home to America only to find himself viciously attacked at the airport by anti-war protestors. He was called “Baby killer” among other names. And then someone invariably stepped forward and spat directly into his face. There’s just one problem with that story. According to sociologist Jerry Lembcke, it’s nothing more than a myth…a modern stab in the back legend.
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Back in 1998, Lembcke wrote The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. In it, he made the rather extraordinary claim that the shabby treatment of Vietnam veterans as they deboarded their planes was nothing more than a “stab in the back legend,” concocted to discredit the anti-war movement. He followed that up in 2005 with a widely-read opinion piece in the Boston Globe.
To make a long story short, Lembcke researched news reports from the late 1960s and early 1970s. He failed to find a single story about protestors spitting on veterans. However, he did find a substantial increase in claims during the 1980s. He examined these claims and found them largely lacking in credibility for two reasons.
- Lack of Means: “GIs landed at military airbases, not civilian airports, and protesters could not have gotten onto the bases and anywhere near deplaning troops.”
- Lack of Proof: “A 1971 Harris poll conducted for the Veterans Administration found over 90 percent of Vietnam veterans reporting a friendly homecoming. Far from spitting on veterans, the antiwar movement welcomed them into its ranks and thousands of veterans joined the opposition to the war.”
Lembcke speculates that the reason for the persisting image is that pro-war Hawks wished to blame the loss of the Vietnam War on the anti-war protestors. This would make it a variation of the “Stab in the Back legend.”
A Modern Stab in the Back Legend?
But Lembcke takes it one step further. He observed that many of the stories cast girls in the role of spitters. As such, he states his opinion that the stories were mythical projections in the Freudian sense. In other words, soldiers created these stab in the back stories as manifestations of fears that they had lost their masculinity by fighting in a losing effort.
Interestingly enough, there is some historical precedent that could back up this stab in the back theory. Apparently, many German soldiers after World War I and French soldiers after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu shared stories of being rejected by women and being ashamed of their military service.
Rebuttal to the Stab in the Back Legend Theory?
His book caused a firestorm in 2007 when Jack Shafer published an article for Slate Magazine entitled, “Newsweek Throws the Spitter.” Several conservative-oriented blogs noticed the story and began to attack Lembcke’s research on this modern Stab in the Back legend. Most notably, Jim Lindgren wrote several pieces for The Volokh Conspiracy, one of which contained numerous newspaper articles from the 1960s and 1970s that discussed veterans who’d been spat upon.
The rising debate brought to prominence a book written by Bob Greene in 1989 entitled Homecoming: When the Soldiers Returned from Vietnam. Greene, who’d worked at the Chicago Tribune, compiled the book from letters he’d solicited from veterans. His research included 63 stories that involved a veteran being spat upon and 69 stories from veterans who believed that no veteran had ever been spat upon. Greene ended up questioning many of the accounts of spitting but ultimately decided “there were simply too many letters, going into too fine detail, to deny the fact.”
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
So, what are we to make of all this information? First, it’s impossible to prove the negative. Thus, we can never definitively proof that no Vietnam veteran was ever spat upon. Second, there is no physical evidence of a spitting attack. No pictures, no video, nothing. It’s all eyewitness accounts.
It seems probable that it must’ve happened somewhere, sometime. I find it hard to imagine that no soldier was ever spat upon by an anti-war protestor. The real question is whether it occurred with any degree of frequency. Did it happen all the time? Or was it just isolated examples?
Personally, I would guess it happened infrequently. True, Lindgren has unearthed stories of spitting from the period and thus, seemingly upended part of Lembcke’s thesis. But these are a drop in the bucket compared to the over 500,000 American soldiers that fought in some capacity during that war.
The issue of spitting during the Vietnam War may seem small, even irrelevant today. However, it’s important to remember the role that the spitting imagery has played in America’s current military conflicts. In many ways, this stab in the back legend has led to the current “Support the Troops” slogan, which is based on the idea that we don’t what to treat today’s soldiers like we treated the Vietnam Veterans. And some would argue that “Support the Troops” is really nothing more than a slogan used by pro-war Hawks to intimidate anti-war Doves and maintain support for wars that would otherwise be increasingly unpopular.
“With no more context than that, one of my students said she was undecided about the war, but as long as the troops were fighting it was really important to ‘support the troops and we have to support the mission…’ Now is not the time to be critical of the war, it was, in her mind…all mixed together.” ~ Jerry Lembcke, How the Myth of Spat on Vets Holds Back the Anti-War Movement