The Myth of the Spat-Upon Veteran

A review of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam by Jerry Lembcke (New York: New York University Press, 2000; paper, ISBN 0814751474).

by Michael G. Livingston


[We reprint this article from five years ago because of its relevance to the movement that has grown up against the Iraq war, especially those forces represented by Iraq Veterans Against the War, Gold Star Families for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, and Veterans for Peace.]

Many Americans carry the image in their heads: the Vietnam vet, returning from war, gets off the plane in San Francisco and is greeted by protesters with shouts of “Baby Killer!” Then, out of the crowd, a protester rushes forward and spits on the vet. This image is so widespread that already by early 1991 (during the Persian Gulf War) polls showed that the majority of the American People believed the anti-Vietnam war movement had been anti-soldier and had, in many cases actually spat upon returning troops.

In The Spitting Image Jerry Lembcke shows how this image is a myth that serves the interests of the powerful who led the U.S. to war, and still lead the U.S. to war. Lembcke is a sociologist at Holy Cross College and a Vietnam veteran who was an active member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). His readable and well-documented book demolishes the lie that the antiwar movement was anti-soldier and that the vets were spat upon.

Of course it is hard to disprove a myth and hard to prove that something never happened. Still Lembcke has extensive evidence showing that “the spitting image” is an illusion created by the Nixon-Agnew administration and the mass media (especially Hollywood movies). From the beginning, the antiwar movement worked closely with veterans and active duty military personnel. Many leading antiwar activists were veterans of earlier wars. Many groups active in the antiwar movement, such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), worked to support GIs and defend GI political rights.

By 1968, a large number of Vietnam vets were key activists in the movement. Polls conducted at the time showed that most combat troops viewed the antiwar movement as their only real supporter. Other polls conducted at the time showed that over 94% of returning troops said they were greeted positively by people their own age who had not served in the military. Even more telling, there is no documentary evidence (not one letter, photo, news clip, press report, or police report) of an antiwar protester spitting on a returning vet. There are, however, a number of photos and published stories showing protesting vets being spat upon, sworn at, and pelted with trash by pro-war members of the VFW or American Legion. The documentary film Hearts and Minds, for example, has footage of protesting vets being greeted with jeers and abuse by pro-war supporters.

The stories of the veteran spat upon by antiwar activists started appearing in the late 1970s and all such stories have proven either demonstrably false or nearly impossible to prove.

Where did the myth come from and why do people believe it? Lembcke shows that the Nixon-Agnew administration sought to discredit and divide the antiwar movement by casting it as an internal enemy who stabbed “our boys” in the back. Nixon and Agnew also created a contrast between the good vet (pro-war, pro-Nixon) who was spat upon and the bad vet who was violent, crazy, and, not incidentally, against the war.

The U.S. defeat by Vietnam was a bitter pill for warmongers and others who believe that the U.S. is both the most powerful and righteous nation on earth. After 1975 the usefulness of the Nixon-Agnew myth to the right wing increased substantially.

Lembcke shows that Hollywood did a lot to develop and spread this myth, starting in the late 1960s. He devotes a chapter of the book to Hollywood films and how they have shaped false memories of the antiwar movement. The image Hollywood projected varied from movie to movie, but certain stereotyped roles were common from 1968 onward. Vietnam veterans were often portrayed as ultra-violent crazies or paramilitary vigilantes. Nowhere was the politically organized veteran shown; nowhere were the veterans’ criticisms of U.S. policy presented.

After the end of the war (and the defeat of U.S. imperialism) in 1975, Hollywood started to develop the image of “betrayal of our boys” by the antiwar movement. According to Hollywood, “we lost because of the protesters.” Lembcke discusses such movies as Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Rambo in detail to show how Hollywood created the image intentionally. While there are some, mostly non-Hollywood, exceptions such as the documentaries Hearts and Minds and No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger, the films that were viewed by most Americans perpetuated the myth.

Lembcke places the myth in an historical and sociological context, showing how similar myths appeared in Germany after its defeat in World War I and in France after its Indochina defeat at Dienbienphu in 1954.

The myth of the spat-upon veteran serves a political function. By making the issue “our troops” and not the policy of the war, the U.S. government and pro-war elements gain a powerful lever with which to manipulate the American people. The myth of the antiwar movement’s alleged hatred toward veterans also serves to alienate many from the movement, prejudicing folks against the movement while fostering political passivity. The struggle to regain the truth is not mere intellectual exercise. It is an effort, as Lembcke writes in his conclusion, to “reclaim our own history, the construction of our own memory, and the making of our own identity.”

The reviewer can be reached at livingstonmiguel@hotmail.com.