The Vietnam War: Getting Behind the Spitting Image

The Vietnam War: Getting Behind the Spitting Image

Written by Benjamin Dangl, Transcribed by April Howard

Tuesday, 03 January 2006

Jerry Lembcke is the author of “The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam”. In 1969, he was assigned to the 41st Artillery Group in Vietnam as a Chaplain’s Assistant, and joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War when he returned in 1970. As an associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross College during the Persian Gulf War, Lembcke began to research the origins of stories about Vietnam Veterans being spit on by female antiwar protesters. Not only did the stories conflict with Lembcke’s experiences as a veteran and member of the anti-war movement in the 1970’s, he could not find a single documented case of a veteran being spit on. It was in this research that Lembcke began to realize that the spitting myths also served the Nixon-Agnew administration as political tools with which to damage the image of the antiwar movement, and to bolster the injured masculinity of a country which had just lost its first war.

He also began to question the diagnosis of “post traumatic stress disorder,” which he now argues was an effective way for the administration to discredit the political opinions of veterans. His book was published by New York University Press in July of 1998. In this interview, Lembcke discusses the experiences that led him to write the book, his interpretation of the “spitting myths” as political tools, and applies those ideas to the war in Iraq and the current antiwar movement.

BD: Did your experiences in Vietnam politicize your life, and how?

JL: Most Definitely! I was not political at all before the war. I was drafted in 1968, I had been to college by that that time, had a BA in math, and after graduation in 1966 I took a job as a highschool math teacher in Iowa. Up to that point I had played baseball, basketball, had not been involved politically at all. The draft experience, for me, was kind of a wake-up call. I went to basic training in Washington, and at the end of basic training, I volunteered to go to chaplain’s assistant school. So off I went to Fort Hamilton in New York.

Fall and summer of 1968 was a very raucous time to be in New York City. That was my first exposure to the anti-war movement: meeting and being met by antiwar activists just off the coast of Fort Henry and in Manhattan. The first antiwar rally I witnessed was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Ave., and I was standing a half a block away, watching and looking and realizing that hey, these people know something that I don’t know, and probably something that I am going to need to know.

Later, that experience in New York City in that summer became a part of how I knew that the stories about hostilities between antiwar activists and soldiers and veterans weren’t true. It was in that summer of 1968 when a lot of these stories (as rumor would have it) were taking place. I’ve had people tell me that directly: “I was in Manhattan in the summer of 1968, and I’ll tell you, soldiers were getting spat on left and right.” And I’ve even had some veterans tell me: “Well you weren’t there the summer of 1968, so you don’t know what it was like,” and of course I was there, and there was mostly mutual respect and supportiveness between the antiwar movement and the soldiers. I remember that we were offered sanctuary at churches in Brooklyn when we came off the posts at Fort Henry.

So, of course then I went to Vietnam, was sent to Vietnam on New Years day 1969, and stayed all of 1969 and the first few months of 1970 as a chaplain’s assistant, mostly in the central highlands of South Vietnam

BD: How were you received when you returned? You didn’t fly in to San Francisco and get spit on?

JL: (Laughs) No! Actually, at the time I came back in 1970, I came back looking for the antiwar movement because I wanted to join it – and I was disappointed! I went to Seattle Tacoma airport, and flew back to my home town, Sioux City, Iowa and didn’t meet antiwar activists at all. You see, the fall of ‘69 was the time period of the October and November Moratorium Days Against the War. There was a lot of support for the moratorium amongst the soldiers in Vietnam, and I remember quite clearly that, in those fall months of ’69, we heard a lot about the moratorium. So that’s what I was thinking- When I get home, I’m going to join the antiwar movement. Eventually I left my home in Iowa and went to Denver, and that’s where I hooked up with Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

BD: Who do you think started the spitting myth and why? Was the government complicit, the CIA, or was the media most at fault?

JL: I think the spark was made by the government, the Nixon administration, through vice president Spiro Agnew. Quite commonly, Agnew would say in speeches, “Our veterans are being treated badly by the anti war activists,” though he never used the exact expression “being spat on.” Actually, when I started working on tracking down these stories, that’s what I thought that I would find: a speech in April of 1971, in which Spiro Agnew said “The people are spitting on our veterans.” I’ve never found anything in the record referring to or alluding to spit, but plenty of references referring to Nixon or Agnew saying that “our soldiers are being greeted with hostility. I think that that sparked or primed people’s imaginations. I did hear about stories that circulated in Germany after World War I of soldiers being spit on, so it’s even possible that those stories somehow found their way to the United States after Vietnam, I don’t know.

Still, a more important clue for me came when I heard that so many of these stories have women or young girls as the spitters. For a while it didn’t really register in my mind, but then I started thinking “why so often is it girls, and why does the storyteller gender the identity of the spitter?” It seemed unusual. Later, when I was telling a psychologist friend about these stories, she asked me about the demographics of the spitters, and I said “it’s often times women or young girls.” Well, she smiled and said, well, it’s got to be a myth right? And I knew what she was going to say at that moment and I don’t know why it didn’t think of it before, but it brought it to consciousness for me, and she said “girls don’t spit, right?” And I smiled and I said “Yeah, I think you’re right. So what’s going on here?” So it was then in conversation with her the idea that it could be the wounded masculinity of soldiers who came home from Vietnam and had to face the stigma of having fought America’s first lost war that stimulated the imaginations of American people. Then, this sentiment of wounded pride came together with the stories of hostility that the Nixon Administration had been putting out on people, and they formed a kind of urban legend.

I didn’t originally use the term urban myth or urban legend, other people have used it, but that’s the way that urban myths start. The main characteristic of the origin of an urban myth is that it has no point of origin or time of origin, and that it is being told across a wide geographic area. So, the absence of any point of origin, suggests that the spitting stories are of the same nature as an urban legend.

To me, this means that the stories are reflecting something deeper about an anxiety in American culture; that they are an inarticulate expression of something that is really bothering people, which is “Why did we lose this war?” What the spitting stories help construct, then, is an answer to that question, which is “We lost the war because of betrayal at home. We did not lose the war to the Vietnamese; we lost the war to ourselves, were defeated by ourselves.”

BD: What impact did this myth of spat upon veterans have on the relationship between protesters and veterans in the 60’s and 70’s?

JL: The first effect it had was to discredit the voice of the Vietnam Veterans. The idea that the Nixon administration tried to put across to people was that “These people coming home are physically and emotionally wounded. They’re hurt, they’re damaged, they’re angry, but that doesn’t mean that we should listen to them as authorities on what the war is about, and how this war should be fought. We should be sympathetic to them, try to help them, but we shouldn’t be moved politically by what they’re trying to say.”

This message was a way of pathologizing the political behavior of Vietnam Veterans. When I came home for Vietnam in May of 1970, my view was that the Vietnam War had been a politicizing phase of my life, an empowering period of my life, and I think it was that way for a lot of guys. I think it was that political clarity that was a danger to the political establishment. By pathologizing the statements made by veterans, the administration could reduce the authenticity and credibility of them it in the eyes of the American people. And I think it was a pretty successful strategy.

BD: In your opinion, how has this myth effected American public opinion since its creation and in the present?

JL: The effect on American publics opinion in the early to mid 70’s was to establish a message that “We could have won the war in Vietnam if the American people had stayed solidly behind the mission,” and for a while that kept alive the idea that we could go back and re-start the fight. That’s the Hollywood scene of Rambo movies, the go back and do it right this time movies, which, of course, eventually faded out into the nineties.

But the myth also gives life to the idea that we could win wars like Vietnam someplace else, sometime in the future if the American people would just rally around the soldiers and rally around the mission. So it shouldn’t have been any surprise, though it took me a while to figure out what was going on, when in the run up to the Persian Gulf War of 1991 that stories about spat upon Veterans began to circulate in large numbers.

That’s really when I became interested in them; I had not heard these stories before 1990 (which is another clue that these stories are myths and legends). I should add that, if you go back to the late 60s and early 70’s and look for evidence that these things happened, not only don’t you find any evidence, but you don’t find anyone claiming that it was happening at that time. So again, that suggests something imaginative about these stories, because at later times there were thousands of people who claimed that they were spat on, but none of them were saying it at the time it was supposedly going on.

Around 1990 then, I first became interested in finding out where these stories came from and who first started telling them? My interest was sparked because in the fall of 1990, the stories were being used to leverage support for the looming war in Iraq, and to silence people who were opposing the war. They produced a narrative that ran “We don’t want to oppose the war in Iraq lest we do what we did to our solders and our vets during the Vietnam War, and we all know what that was about” (laughs). And that seemed to have been pretty persuasive.

I work at Holy cross college, and there was a large anti-war movement in the fall of 1990, but there were a few students who said to me “What about the people who are there fighting the war? I don’t support the war, but I don’t want to do any thing to hurt the people who were sent to fight.” So it definitely was put into people’s minds and worked, if not to actually quiet some antiwar voices, at least to intimidate them. So since these stories started in ‘90, ‘91 they really have not stopped; they just keep percolating through the cultural imagination.

In the spring of 2003, in the run up to the War in Iraq, these stories started circulating again. After a country-wide campaign of antiwar rallies in March, I started receiving phone calls about supposed attacks on Veterans. The first was a reporter from Burlington, VT, who asked if I had heard that a Vermont National Guardswoman had had stones thrown at her at a store in Burlington and that the stone throwers were highschool students who were protesting the war. I said that I hadn’t heard about it. And he said he was calling me because someone had told him about my book, and he thought that I might know something about this.

Later that same day, or maybe the next day, I got another phone call, a reported from Ashville north Carolina, and he said that there was a report going around there, in the local press, that two marines walking on the street had been spat on. And again, he said that he knew or had heard about my book, and so he was suspicious of the story, and he had started asking around, poking his nose around, and people who should have seen this happen if it really happened hadn’t seen anything, nobody could remember having seen two marines in uniform that day. And, as it turned out, the guy that was telling the story said that he was a Vietnam Veteran and that he had been spat on when he got home. So the reporter was suspicious of the stories.

Then he asked if I had heard about the “Support the Troops” rallies that were happening all across the south. And, at that time, it was early enough that I said didn’t know. Then he told me that a lot of the rallies were using people who say that they are Vietnam Veterans and say that they were spat on when they came back from the war. Well, within a few days, I was getting phone calls from all over the country.

What I found was that a lot of these “Support the Troops” rallies were organized or partially organized by radio stations in these medium-sized cities and towns across the country and it was specifically the Clear Channel stations that were helping to organize the rally, and then broadcasting it. So I was very interested and when, in a few weeks, there was a “Support the Troops” rally in Worcester, I went to it. And sure enough, it was the Clear Channel radio station that seemed to be behind it and, sure enough, there was a guy who spoke who said that he was a Vietnam vet, and that he was spat upon when he came home. I guess it was a kind of a script that they were using.

BD: Do you think it was a top-down thing that the higher-ups of the Clear Channel radio stations were doing?

JL: Well, you never know about these things. It could have been that one station did it, and then it kind of caught on, but at some point somebody at the top must have realized what was going on and said Go for it!

BD: Do you think that the stories have become a grassroots thing, perpetuated by people now, rather than the government or the media?

JL: Nowadays I think yes, it’s more organic than it was. I think that this myth is very much ingrained in society at this point that it is fed and kept alive both by the people and the government, when they find it useful. If you go back to March of ’03, there were these huge antiwar rallies; some estimated the largest in American history. Public opinion in this country was not supportive of the invasion of Iraq. But then, toward the end of March and early April, public opinion really turned around.

I think the chemistry of that change came from the fact that there are a lot of people who are still angry about the War in Vietnam, and that anger gets mustered at times like this. Some people supported the war in Iraq, as a way of flipping off the American anti-war movement. In a lot of people’s minds, the American antiwar movement is part of a greater package of grievances, and a lot of these are righteous grievances, though misdirected. People who are suffering job loss, insecurity about their futures, etc, at times use this package, which sometimes says “liberals” and sometimes “anti –war movement,” as an object to be fought against. And, in this light, the chance to go to war again is a way to say “in your face” to the antiwar movement, to “liberalism,” to everything that a lot of people are angry about. From this point of view, the story of the spat upon veteran rises up a kind of a “perfecting myth.”

BD: You mentioned in your book that support for the Gulf War focused on support for the troops, rather than the war itself. Can you relate that to the current war in Iraq?

JL: Yes, I think that supporting the troops rather than the war itself is a way of depoliticizing the war. Again, that was very true during the end of the war in Vietnam; people who knew nothing about the war supported the war because they supported the troops. And some of that had to do with the POW question, because the Nixon administration really exploited the fact that we had POWs still in Vietnam, and therefore had to stay there to get the POWs out, which was an endless process. So I think that the policy planners and strategists during Vietnam figured out that you don’t muster public opinion first, and then send the troops, no! You send the troops and then rally the people around the troops. It’s a kind of demagoguery; it erases reason and appeals to peoples’ emotions.

When you think about it, it’s pretty hard to oppose the war and still be supporting the troops. It collapses the means and ends of reason. Reasonably, the soldiers are the means of the war, but the war supposedly has its own end to be supported or not. But, if you make the means the ends, then really you have nothing left but emotions to act on, because the ends are disappeared, collapsed into the means, and the soldiers become the ends of the war themselves.

I don’t know how much that’s happened today. Certainly that’s what was going on in spring of 2003, and reasoning about the looming war was really stymied, long enough to get the troops there and the war underway. Now it’s kind of hard to read public opinion. We had a couple of years here in which the antiwar movement was kind of quiet. But now it’s beginning to find its voice again, and become more effective. And, because the end of the war in Iraq very much appears to be another defeat for the US, just now in the last few weeks, we are again beginning to hear accusations against the anti-war movement.

For example, about 6 weeks ago, at the national convention of the American Legion, the commander said that the American Legion will now oppose aggressively any organization that does not support the action in Iraq. He said “we have etched in our minds Jane Fonda spouting anti-American rhetoric and we have not forgotten.” Identifying Jane Fonda, of course, as another icon of betrayal and a way of remembering why and how it was that we lost the war in Vietnam. A couple of weeks ago, G Gordon Liddy, one of the Nixon plumbers and now a radio talk show guy referred to Cindy Sheehan, the woman whose son Casey died in Iraq, and who camped out in Crawford Texas at the Bush ranch, and said that she was whoring her son in support of the anti-war Movement.

There was also a big march and rally in DC a few weeks ago, and on the internet there circulated a story about one of the counter protesters who had been spat on by one of the anti-war people. I think as the anti-war movement begins to step out again, and as we inch closer and closer to a lost cause in Iraq, there will be more of a search for scapegoats at home as an explanation for why this turned out so badly.

BD: In light of this history, what would you say to a person now who was against the war, but was on the fence about speaking out because they didn’t want to seem unsupportive of the soldiers?

JL: Well, to the extent that the person would draw on the Vietnam experience, I would say that it’s a myth, it didn’t happen then and the truth about what happened then is that thousands of people came home from Vietnam opposed to the war and that thousands of veterans joined the anti-war movement, and that that is what’s forgotten when you believe that anti-war people spat on Vietnam veterans. It revises by 180 degrees the truth about what was going on in those years. In the present context today we need to inform ourselves better about what the soldiers in Iraq really think about the war and, just like in the Vietnam war years its very likely that there’s more dissent in Iraq than what we are hearing about. And in the case of Vietnam, we didn’t hear that much about it during the earlier years, it wasn’t until the war was over that we began to hear a little more, and then increasingly more as the years went along, and that’s probably going to be the case with Iraq too. So we need to find out more about that, and we need to be supportive of that when we hear that it’s happening. Those are the soldiers that need to be supported.

Buy a copy of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam from Amazon.

Benjamin Dangl is the editor of, a progressive perspective on world events. April Howard is a writer/translator and Spanish teacher in Vermont.