Thursday, May 19, 2005


By Jerry Lembcke
April 30, 2005

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.

What I did find is that around 1980, scores of Vietnam-generation men were saying they were greeted by spitters when they came home from Vietnam. There is an element of urban legend in the stories in that their point of origin in time and place is bscure, and, yet, they have very similar details. 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. 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.

The persistence of spat-upon Vietnam veteran stories suggests that they continue to fill a need in American culture. The image of spat-upon veterans is the icon through which many people remember the loss of the war, the centerpiece of a betrayal narrative that understands the war to have been lost because of treason on the home front. Jane Fonda's noisiest detractors insist she should have been prosecuted for giving aid and comfort to the enemy, in conformity with the law of the land.

But the psychological dimensions of the betrayal mentality are far more interesting than the legal. Betrayal is about fear, and the specter of self-betrayal is the hardest to dispel. The likelihood that the real danger to America lurks not outside but inside the gates is unsettling. The possibility that it was failure of masculinity itself, the meltdown of the core component of warrior culture, that cost the nation its victory in Vietnam has haunted us ever since.

Many tellers of the spitting tales identify the culprits as girls, a curious quality to the stories that gives away their gendered subtext. Moreover, the spitting images that emerged a decade after the troops had come home from Vietnam are similar enough to the legends of defeated German soldiers defiled by women upon their return from World War I, and the rejection from women felt by French soldiers when they returned from their lost war in Indochina, to suggest something universal and troubling at work in their making. One can reject the presence of a collective subconscious in the projection of those anxieties, as many scholars would, but there is little comfort in the prospect that memories of group spit-ins, like Smith has, are just fantasies conjured in the imaginations of aging veterans.

Remembering the war in Vietnam through the images of betrayal is dangerous because it rekindles the hope that wars like it, in countries where we are not welcomed, can be won. It disparages the reputation of those who opposed that war and intimidates a new generation of activists now finding the courage to resist Vietnam-type ventures in the 21st century.

Today, on the 30th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam, new stories of spat-upon veterans appear faster than they can be challenged. Debunking them one by one is unlikely to slow their proliferation but, by contesting them where and when we can, we engage the historical record in a way that helps all of us remember that, in the end, soldiers and veterans joined with civilians to stop a war that should have never been fought.

Jerry Lembcke, associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross College, is the author of "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam." His writings helped provide an overview for the experiences described in Camouflage & Lace: My Journey with a Windbender by Diane Ford Wood.

Reprinted by permission of the author; article previously appeared in the Boston Globe on April 30, 2005.


PeaceVet said...

I served in Vietnam from August 67 through July 68. Left and returned through Travis Air Base California, on returning we were bused to San Francisco... NO ONE SPAT ON ME OR ANYONE I WAS WITH.


Windbender said...

I'm of the mind that the story of all of the spitting and other Very Unwelcome Homes were what we now call an "urban Legend", circulated by the government to create disunity between the returning veterans, the students and other young people showing discontent with the war. I believe that it was intended to build resentment and mistrust amongst what were potential allies during the increasing anti-war student activity in the early years. The ol' FBI COINTEL tactics; designed to drive wedges amongst any factions, or even couples, who might offer any support or commitment to the ant-war movement. I'm not a bit surprised that Lembcke couldn't find a single documented incident of this type of behavior. I can't prove my theory, but then; Jerry has exaustively researched, and found that niether can the right (or anybody else) prove or document that any such thing ever 'bout the rest of you out there; what do you remember?

On the other hand, there were rumors circulating while I served in Vietnam , especially at the close of my second tour in 1968; that students, Hippies, commies, and other activists were confronting G.I.s at airports and calling them "Baby Killers" and other derogatory names, and getting in their faces as they tried to wend their way through various airports to once again be with their families and loved ones after the nightmare of Vietnam. At the time,this was reputed to be a widespread practice. Guys who were "short" were actually talking openly about smuggling back grenades to roll into the crowds of screaming, threatening, hippies and commies who, it was said, would be waiting for them when they landed back in The World and tried to rejoin their families.

I came home twice. First tour ended in 1966, and I was flown in non-stop from the Nam on Continental Airlines to El Toro, MCAS,in Southern California. We landed in the middle of the night, and there was no-one around with the exception of Marine Corps personnel, customs agents checking luggage, and a few families lucky enough to somehow know when we were going to land. I had to take a taxi to San Clemente before I saw the face of anyone who cared that I, particulaly, had returned to the world.

Was there a valid reason for sneaking us back in like that, or was it designed to reinforce the paranoia and make it appear as if they were protecting us from the radical anti-war protestors?

My second Homecoming was quite different, but equally as bizarre. When the 27th Marine Regiment which I had come from Kanohe Bay, Hawaii, was withdrawn(not really, just the Colors and second tour guys and short-timers...everyone else who came with the 27th Marine Regiment were transferred out to other units, remaining in-country)from Nam in Sept,1968, we returned as a unit. Upon our return, we were brought in to the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot (adjacent to the San Diego airport..just taxied right on in). We were given Dress Greens, and M-16s, and had to march as a unit, under Colors, in a Welcome Home Parade right down Broadway Blvd., in Downtown San Diego. It was beyond weird; there was virtually no-one on the sidewalks as we marched...America had turned their backs on us and didn't acknowledge us. As Nancy Miller Saunders has written; the Spitting became a metaphor for that perpetual act of disavowel. After the "Parade", we returned to MCRD, turned in our M-16s, and were "released" to our waiting families. They had been on the airfield tarmac and Recruit Depot Drill Field for the entire duration of this farcical excercise designed to prove that the troops were indeed Coming Home, at last...this was 1968...what a sad, sad and sorry joke; on us, and the American people.

Windbender said...


Cline: "The other thing is, that I don't care what anyone says about them [Vietnam era antiwar protestors] spitting on us, that's all b.s. I was active in the peace movement at that time and I never witnessed any such thing, or anything vaguely approaching it. Nor would it ever have occurred to me, or any of the activists I knew, to even think of doing such a thing. We wanted to reach out to the military and in many cases we did just that. We understood you were our brothers. It's all an urban myth, a postwar revisionist urban myth. There was animosity between veterans who were
pro-war and protestors, no question about it. Those
were turbulent times. But the idea that people were spitting on us is nonsense, man."

Windbender said...


This article raises some good questions. As it points out - and as I remember - we were processed thru a military installation. I did catch a commercial flight wearing my new Class A's (issued there I guess. I sure as hell didn't take them to 'nam with me). And I'm sure the time period of a vet's return would have had much to do with the way he was received. The Vietnam War was our longest war, the public's perceptions of the war changed greatly over those 10 years, and affected the
way returning vets were received. I know at lest one 'nam vet who claims was spit upon. But I know other 'nam vets who say they were called losers and thrown out of VFW halls.

Windbender said...


"The way I have come to view the "spitting image" is as a metaphor for how many of you vets felt when you came home."

"Fiction can often convey a truth better than straight facts can. And
though perhaps not literally, you were spit on by the nation."

"I have noticed the vets who claim to have been spit upon seem usually
have a right wing, stabbed in the back, political outlook."

"I was barely aware of the war before I went to Vietnam, much less aware of any anti-war protests. I turned against the war while in country, so when I went looking for anti-war folks on my return - it was with a different mindset than some others..."

"I'm not sure exactly the time period served, but it was the early 70's. He was with the 101st, and they were the last Army unit to leave Vietnam. All I remember is catching commercial flights to Fort Lewis for processing to Vietnam.. At the airports and bus stations, people would stare and stay away.. We had to travel in our military uniforms.. Which upon arrival were quickly exchanged for civilian wear.. But people could still spot ya with that haircut and stay away.. We left Fort Lewis (didn't go with some unit or company or whatever, we
went alone and came home that way) on commercial planes, at military
installations.. Oriental or Tiger Airlines or something like that.. A
couple of hundred dudes dressed in jungle gear.. My flight slid off the runway in Anchorage in a snow storm. We were bussed back to the
terminal because the plane went off the runway.. We all thought we were going die in jungle gear in ice cold weather... It would've figured. At the terminal. We were treated like terminal patients with
contagious diseases... Nobody came near us.. Or made eye contact except a few other vets... Then instead of landing at Camron Bay, it was under rocket and motar attacks at the time, they diverted the flight to Da Nang.. I came home via Medivac from China Beach to Saigon to 'The World'... I don't remember the flight much except the time we hit an
air pocket over the Philippines on the way to Guam or some place and
dropped 300 feet.. I remember seeing palm trees from my gurney in
Hawaii and that's about it until I got to Fort Riley Kansas. I was
drafted out of Kansas and at the time, the military would send us guys home to the closest base, just in case you died... About a two weeks or so after getting back and I was walking again, the military wouldn't let me leave the hospital or the base.. No paper work on me.. I escaped and called Martha, come get me, she didn't know I was home, nobody did... I left weighing 165.. I got back weighing in at 125... I got into trouble for escaping and could've cared less about it.. All I
wanted was OUT!... And I still have no paper work.. One of those nasty accidental fires destroyed most of our medical records and such in Washington... And if you didn't have your own paper work filled out properly, you were and still are out of luck... Make note of this Iraq Vets... Keep your paper work up to date... Or your out of luck, unless you have proof... Like shrapnel or bullets still left in your body like
mine was and is.. Since the military didn't have any paper work on me, they stuck me in something called S-5.. Security clearance was needed and I didn't have one.. I was trouble... :) I spent some time in LBJ,
or Long Bin Jail for breaking a spook of a Majors jaw, but that's
another story.. They just needed someone in there who could make maps for the new boundaries of all the bombing ranges in North America...The Army was testing new artillery rounds, that they now use, 35 years later and needed to expand the bombing ranges.. Or in other words, they
were getting ready for today 35 years ago... I had maps from all over
the place.. I took em home along with nomenclatures books on military
equipment, showed em to all my friends.. What struck me as odd and Col.
McPhearson, the only officer I had to answer too at the time, was the
fact that most bombing ranges in North America were located on ancient
Indian lands, Sacred spots... Back then.. Bombs were being dropped on
the ranges 24/7... Keeping the spirits at bay I'd say..... Ghost
Dancing... I was never spit upon, just avoided and I liked it like
that.. Leave me alone..,GR, 101st Airborne Peace, is not a four
letter word.

Windbender said...


The way I have come to view the "spitting image" is as a metaphor for how many of you vets felt when you came home. It is good fiction, by which I mean that fiction can often convey a truth better than straight facts can. The truth here is that as the war progressed and the country turned against it, you guys became the physical embodiment of it. Accordingly, plus the fact that you tended to be sent home alone rather than with your unit, vets came home to colder and colder receptions. No parades or crowds of people welcoming you back, instead you were welcomed to accusations that you were "baby burners" and losers who couldn't win "your" war. Instead of the jobs you'd been promised would be held for you, you found yourselves in unemployment lines. And so on. A simple way to convey all of that was to say you were spit on. And though perhaps not literally, you were spit on by the nation.