Monday, October 16, 2017

The Case of the Spitting Legionnaire

A couple of days ago, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Jerry Lembcke "The Myth of the Spitting Antiwar Protester." Lembcke wrote a book a few decades ago debunking that myth but it is still going strong... stronger than ever, actually. The trope of "they're spitting on our veterans" is popular with anti-kneeling fanatics who maintain that athletes who protest during the national anthem are "spitting on the graves" of those who died to defend the flag and the freedom to do as you're told and stand during the national anthem.

I have always found Lembcke's argument and evidence compelling but I don't like to take anything for granted. So I did a little extra digging. Some of that was digging through a stash of old Amex/Canada magazines that I have held onto for 45 years or so. A Vietnam veteran named Al Reynolds wrote an account published in the May-June 1973 issue reporting on the Vietnam Veterans Against the War contingent in the "Home with Honor" parade staged in New York City at the end of March of that year.

As far as I know that is the only contemporaneously published eyewitness account of veterans being spat upon. The veterans in question were anti-war protesters and the alleged culprit was a presumably "patriotic" spectator. Reynolds' account, by the way, is substantially corroborated by the FBI's file on the VVAW. Although it doesn't mention spitting, it does refer to jeering and to three thwarted attempts by angry spectators to climb over barriers presumably to attack the protesters.

I also searched several news databases to see if I could find any other contemporaneous accounts of either that event or others. Here is where things get intriguing. The New York Times carried a review of a play by Tom Cole, titled Medal of Honor Rag that referred to an American Legionnaire in Seattle who waited at the gate in the airport to spit on returning G.I.s because they were losing the war. I suspect that this alleged "legionnaire" is actually a fictionalization of the VVAW "Home with Honor" parade episode. All of the standard elements of the spitting myth are present in Cole's play: the airport, the spitting, and the anti-war hippies screaming "baby killers" at the arriving servicemen. The one difference is that it is a pro-war "patriot" doing the spitting.

Medal of Honor Rag was first performed in Boston in April of 1975 and is supposed to be set in 1971. The first of the "Rambo" movies, First Blood was released in 1982. It contained the following transparently plagiarized bit of dialogue:

Rambo: Nothing is over! Nothing! It wasn't my war. You asked me, I didn't ask you. And I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn't let us win. Then I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me! Spitting! Calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me? Huh? Who are they? Unless they been me and been there and know what the hell they're yelling about.
So there it is, folks. The making of a myth. An older woman in a fur coat, with carefully teased hair, her face distorted with rage, spitting at Vietnam veterans protesting against the war is transformed into a Legionnaire, with a red face, waiting at the airport gate to spit on returning G.I.s for not winning the war and finally into anti-war "maggots" protesting poor little John Rambo who was just doing what he had to do to win. So where does that leave us in October 2017? My, my, look at all the rhinestone Rambos!


Kevin O'Neill said...

I blame the whole alt-fact GOP craziness on Reagan. 'Voodoo economics' was the real beginning of the end. Shortly after Gingrich took power in the house I came to realize that any conduct Republicans accused Democrats of doing, you could reliably assert that they (Republicans) were guilty of said conduct themselves.

This looks another case of that 180 degree spin. said...


This was all pre-Reagan, who did not get into office until 1981. These stories were making the rounds a good decade earlier or so. My cousin was a marine in Vietnam who claimed to have been spat upon when he returned. I have never asked him the details, and I am not about to go now and accuse him of having made it up or repeated some general phony meme, even if he did. But it was all well before Reagan, whatever the truth. (I have little active communication with him as it is.)

Sandwichman said...

Nope, Barkley. The ubiquity of these stories is NOT "pre-Reagan"; it is post-Rambo (1982).

If you don't know the details of your cousin's story, it is not only hearsay but feeble, dubious hearsay. Can you recall the approximate DATE you heard this from your cousin? The circumstances of the conversation? Memory is a very imprecise thing. Story telling INEVITABLY enhances the imprecision of memory with symbolically significant and identifiable elements. In other words, your vague recollection "evidence," unsupported with concrete detail = zero.

Barkley Rosser said...

Going senile, S-man. Don't remember exact date. Maybe it was post-Rambo. However, I do remember that when the Vietnam memorial went up in November, 1982, there was a lot of commentary at the time about how this marked a change in attitude from previously, that now people were finally taking the unhappiness and concerns of Vietnam vets seriously, even if they disagreed with some of their hysteria about MIAs and all that. I remember very well that the tales of people spitting on returning vets were at the top of the list of reported indignities that the vets suffered on their return, with the memorial beginning to undo that, and it did.

If you want to push this, S-man, I shall check on this matter. Certainly the returning vets were treated badly in various ways by some people, and there was quite a bit of publicity about it, pre-1982, although I shall double check on the spitting story.

Sandwichman said...

There were indeed stories about the bad treatment of returning G.I.s prior to 1982. Most of that had to do with the neglect experienced by G.I.s in terms of employment opportunities, no G.I. bill, relatives and friends who didn't want to hear about peoples' experiences in the war. No doubt when returning veterans viewed antiwar demonstrations on the news, for example, they FELT it as an challenge to the sacrifices they had made and the integrity of their own motives.

But there is an important difference between "what you are doing makes me feel humiliated" and "you are doing something in order to humiliate me." The spitting myth crosses that line and attaches a vindictive motive to protesting against the war in the same way that Trump's attacks on NFL players falsely attributes kneeling to disrespect for the flag and for veterans.

Dig deep, Barkley, and stop making excuses for a deliberate propaganda campaign of vilification of war opponents.

Sandwichman said...

In addition to Lembcke's book, you may want to consult "Toward a Revised Story of the Homecoming of Vietnam Veterans," by Paul Lyons. The Louis Harris Organization conducted a survey in 1971, "A Study of the Problems Facing Vietnam Era Veterans on their Readjustment to Civilian Life" published by the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. said...


I did some digging on this. Take it that I have already accepted that it is highly likely that my cousin did not tell the truth, although, as noted, I am not going to try and go double check on it with him, this being a sensitive topic, obviously. I do not remember when I heard the story from him.

So, my checking has found two points, these coming from sites sympathetic with Lembcke's argument. Snopes,com identifies the beginning of the spitting stories as being 1980, not 1982, which would fit with my very definite memory that the spitting stories had been around for at least some time when the Vietnam Memorial Wall went up in Washington in November, 1982. I went there at that time and talked to a lot of people there. That account says that indeed this was something that was cooked up later and maybe there never were any spitting incidents, but that this story that it is all post-Rambo from 1982 is not accurate, although the Rambo movie probably spread those tales further and entrenched them further in public consciousness.

Another source noted that there is not much electronic recording of newspaper articles prior to 1980. This means that somebody like Lembcke claiming that there were no such incidents because an electronic search of newspaper articles for the time period did not find any does not prove anything.

I do not know whether or not there were spitting incidents for real. I do not remember when exactly I first heard about them or when I heard from my cousin about my cousin's alleged incident. But the reports of them certainly predated 1982 by at least some time. They definitely had been around for at least some time by 1982, even if that was only for a few years.

Lembcke may or may not be right. I do not know. But I would suggest that questioning his account (or parts of it) is not a matter of falling for some kind of phony propaganda. I do not think we are going to know for sure whether or not there were any actual spitting incidents, even though I think it is probably true that the number was exaggerated at a later date and substantial portions of Lembcke's account are true.

Unknown said...

I was 23 in 1969 and avoided the draft, bad bone spurs, you know. I lived in the Midwest then. I did not see any abuse of returning soldiers, and my recollection of the muscle mass of the average versus the average protesting hippie make aggressive moves by anti-war people unlikely. I was told to stay out of the military by returning soldiers on many occassions, and no returnee ever told me to sign up.

Sandwichman said...

Barkley, did I say there were ZERO spitting stories before 1982? No, I did not. I said they only became UBIQUITOUS after 1982. Actually, if you read the OP, I wrote about a 1975 play in which there is a spitting story with all the standard elements.

Do I take everything Lembcke says without question? Again, in the OP, I mention that although I find his argument and evidence compelling, I like to confirm it with some of my own digging. Dig?

As for electronic news databases, I have the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and Time magazine. Some indications of frequency can also be gotten by searching journal articles and Google Ngrams. There are articles, in the Times, for example about the problems faced by returning G.I.s. No spit!

The issue is not whether there was or wasn't ANY incidents of overt hostility. It would be rather surprising if there weren't. The issue is whether such incidents were a commonplace feature of G.I.s experience. The issue is also about the formulaic nature of the alleged incidents: the airport, the hippies, the spitting, the shouts of "baby killer!" That is, it is about the revision of experience as a simulacra of popular culture. said...

Fair enough, S-man. I do think all these reports did get hyped up and exaggerated after the fact, whatever actually went on at the time.


Your personal anecdotes on this are basically worthless. That you did not hear anything of any of this and that the returning vets you know personally told you not to sign up proves a big fat nothing.

BTW, I am going to do a post here on Wednesday about the anti-war movement, which will have nothing to do with this issue.

Dan Crawford said...

This is an interesting conversation. I served two years in NY as a Conscientious Objector in 1972 and 1973 from an Ohio jurisdiction.

The last time I have looked at this time in a careful way was about 2000 when current high school students happened to be doing interviews of people from this time period, and I was the only known CO handy. What I found interesting was the students discovered other from this age group (who insisted on anonymity) who had stories to tell, such as going to Canada and returning, but because of uncontroversial (respectable?) standing in the community (one was in real estate) would not share their experiences on the record. So much for bearing witness and filling out the history of who protestors actually were.

The interviewing high school student sort of had lumped the whole group as 'draft dodgers' but without acrimony, which did not include 1-A job deferments, which included public schoolteachers oddly enough, which I could have claimed. Recollections of history serves many functions. But as Barkley wisely chooses not to explore on a personal basis, as I have found reactions to be at least strident in a variety of ways.

I realize my comment does not help with the post, but I would gladly revisit the issues in public again.

Sandwichman said...

I'm going to do a bit of a follow-up post.

Jerry Brown said...

I was very young when the Vietnam war ended. But last night after my poker game I remembered to ask one of our players who is a Vietnam Veteran about the spitting thing. He said pretty much what the post says- these reports are mostly false or at least way overblown. And he is a pretty aware kind of guy, being a professor of political science at a good university besides being an actual veteran of that war. His story confirms Sandwichman's post. Which is better than good enough for me.

Longtooth said...

I was on an AFROTC drill team from Fall of '64 to in 1965 through the summer of '66 before I resigned from AFROTC.

We practiced daily from 8:30 - 9:30 am at a highly visible location on campus. Anti-war activist protesters made pejorative statements at least every few days to us (many repeat offenders), but never made any more threatening gestures until spring '66 when there were two incidences of pushy-shovey and a fist or two were thrown and at which time we moved our practice drills to a more remote corner of the campus.

We marched in drill formations in fancy uniforms in Parades.. 4th of July of course, but also Xmas and other local parades around central CA up to Sacramento and in the San Joaquin Valley towns.... which had almost zero anti-war activists, unlike the metro areas. I probably marched in 15 or more0 parades during that.

Initially it was 99% thumbs-up all along the parade route and we were always cheered

But by mid '66 things had changed in the Bay Area. There were larger groups of anti-war protestors at the parades and we were jeered loudly by such groups at various points along the parade routes. But nobody spit or threw anything at us though.

Of course at that time the major build-up in Vietnam was just taking place with Johnson's escalation, so the majority ofthe public were either not too aware or were in favor of war to "stop the communists".

I resigned from AFROTC before the Fall Semester started in '66.

Then, in summer of '67 I was able to join a US Army reserve unit just across the SF bay bridge and opposite the Presidio (Ft Baker). On our week-end warrior drills 1x month I wore my uniform to and from drill each day (Sat & Sun) and driving through SF in the afternoons on the way home we stopped once to get a beer enroute... thinking nothing of it. We had relatively long hair, big bushy side-burns and mustaches, and looked very unlike the standard short-hair regular army. We had to walk 1.5 blocks from where we parked to the drinking establishment. There were 3 of us.

Within a 1/2 block we had three anti-war protesters following us closely making loud threatening gestures... and as we walked the crowd increased from 3 to 9 or 10.. surrounding us, trying to impede our way, shoving with shoulders, forcing us to make wide leeway to avoid direct contact if we could. We turned around and made our way quickly back to the car and slowly and carefully drove off while avoiding the protesters pounding their fists and hands on the car.

No harm done however. And nobody spit.

Nothing more that the imminent threat of a fight and we were way outnumbered... not to mention just as opposed to the war and the protester's were (just trying to say out of the draft and avoid going to Vietnam ... the alternative was Canada or for me, my relatives in Sweden).

That was the first and last time we stopped anywhere in our uniforms. That was in late '68 or early 1969.

So in my direct observation in uniform performing at patriotic parades until Fall '66 things got worse over time and much worse by '1968/69 if you were in uniform.

I have no idea where or when spitting actually occurred though I heard stories about vets from VN being spit on. The Vets I knew personally coming back from their tour of duty (enlisted men and officers) never told me any stories about anybody spitting at them but many stores about fights and jeering. These poor bastards were drafted and had no more interest in fighting the North Vietnamese than I did, but they did their duty under duress of not getting booted with a dishonorable discharge or high-tailing it to Canada and saved each others lives when put in the line of fire to kill or be killed.