Posted in anti-war movements, censorship, material culture, military, myths, photographs, propaganda, resistance, Vietnam War

The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam

Lembcke, Jerry. The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Traditionally, Americans have shown their appreciation for soldiers returning from war, believing that they all deserve a warm welcome for their sacrifice.  Newspaper columnist Bob Greene collected accounts from Vietnam War veterans about their experience of returning home in his 1989 book Homecoming.  Many of these recollections involved stories of hippies and other anti-war activists spitting on them as they arrived stateside. In Spitting Image, Jerry Lembcke investigates the myth of Vietnam War veterans returning home only to be spat upon by representatives of the anti-war movement. His research reveals that no evidence exists to support that such incidents ever occurred.  Barry Romo, who was the head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and an active collector of Vietnam War historical materials, literature, and oral accounts, confirmed that no news source documentation (such as photographs) exist to validate this myth.[1] Contemporary newspaper reports and police records document no such incidents. If soldiers had been spit on, someone would have collected photographic evidence showing the alleged perpetrators.[2] Lembkce contends that the myth was propagated by government officials in order to demonize anti-war movements and the political Left in order to gain public support for current and future wars.[3] He shows how this myth and PTSD diagnoses worked to stereotype Vietnam War veterans as mentally unstable.

Few people realize that World War II veterans were early demonstrators against the Vietnam War and instrumental in reaching out to Vietnam era soldiers and veterans.[4] Veterans’ groups led some of the earliest protest marches against the war and developed tactics, such as burning draft cards and returning military medals in mass, which became emblems of the anti-war movement.[5] Lembkce argues that the anti-war movement established credibility with drafted and enlisted men, which helped form tight relationships between veterans and anti-war activists by 1970. Many veterans of previous wars, however, were openly hostile to the anti-war veterans and were the source of much of the grist for the myth.[6]

Lembkce explains that stories about war veterans being spat upon frequently occur in modern histories around the world. Many stories involve, on one hand, soldiers who fought on the losing side of the war and, on the other hand, their abusers who were traitors to the national cause. For example, following Germany’s loss in World War I, Fascists spread similar rumors to incite public anger against groups and individuals who had opposed the war. Some historians claim that images of abused veterans were critical to Nazi propaganda that fanned the flames of patriotism to lead German masses into World War II.[7]

According to Lembcke, it was extremely important for the Nixon administration to discredit the anti-war movement, so the government worked with Hollywood and other popular cultural media creators to propagate this false collective memory. To discredit anti-war veterans and mobilize support for the war, the administration drew a distinction between “good” pro-war veterans and “bad” anti-war protesters who symbolically spit on brave and loyal fighting men. The figurative symbol became a literal reality for the American public. Years later, the Bush administration exploited this anti-American image to gain public support for the Gulf Wars, convincing Americans that not supporting the troops was a fatal mistake of the Vietnam War. However, both administrations had enormous stakes in depicting the anti-war movement as anti-veteran. In order to achieve this goal, the true collective memory of protesters demonstrating at induction centers while recruits and draftees went off to war was rewritten into a story of protesters demonstrating at airports when the worn veterans returned home.

Recent analysis of the effects of the Vietnam War in American culture has revealed that the primary focus of Vietnam veterans’ stories is how they were treated after their return from the war, rather than their experiences in the war.  Lembcke notes, however, that most documentation of abusive behavior against Vietnam veterans show that pro-war people acted against anti-war veterans.[8]  In several interesting revelations, Lembcke argues that members of conservative veterans’ groups, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion, rejected soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.[9] Claiming that Vietnam was not a “real war,” Vietnam veterans were excluded from participating in veterans’ parades and treated as second-class citizens in veterans’ hospitals.[10] When VVAW conducted its march and guerrilla theater from Morristown, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1971, pro-war members of the VFW publically harassed the marchers.[11]

[1] Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 5.

[2] Ibid., 73.

[3] We can see from recent events in the United States how powerfully “fake news” can influence public opinion.

[4] Lembcke, 4.

[5] Ibid., 29.

[6] Ibid., 76-83.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 81.

[9] Ibid., 78.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.