Jodi Wilgoren writes in today’s New York Times (March 15, 2004) that Cedric Brown, a citizen who asked a question of Sen. John Kerry at a campaign forum, claimed that when he was a West Point cadet during the Vietnam era, “he was spat on, he said, by antiwar protesters.”
In Tour of Duty, his new book about Kerry, historian Douglas Brinkley writes that “While in the Mekong Delta or along the DMZ GIs always dream of ending their tour, of coming home to a national embrace. But when they got home nobody was there to greet them. They were shunned as if they harbored a contagious disease.” He goes on to cite historian Marilyn B. Young’s The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990 to support his thesis. Young writes, “Later, many veterans would tell stories of having been spat upon by antiwar protesters, or having heard of veterans who were spat on. … It doesn’t matter how often this happened at all. Veterans felt spat upon, stigmatized, contaminated.” [Emphasis, I assume, in the original.]
I don’t know about Ms. Young, but as one who has actually been spat upon, I can tell you there is a big difference between feeling you’ve been spat upon and sensing the slithering saliva as it traverses your face.
But did any Vietnam vet get gobbed on by an antiwar protestor? Holy Cross professor Jerry Lembcke (a Vietnam vet) investigated hundreds of news accounts of antiwar activists spitting on vets for his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. But whenever he pushed sources for more evidence or corroboration from a witness, the story always collapsed. Many times, the person who had been spat on turned out to be a friend of a friend or somebody’s relative. Lembcke writes that nobody ever convinced him that any spitting incident between protester and vet took place. It may have happened, but Lembcke is still waiting for a contemporaneous police report or other documentary evidence that would prove it. (For an earlier “Press Box” piece on the Vietnam vet spit myth, click here.)
I won’t criticize Wilgoren for not giving Cedric Brown the fifth degree about an incident from his past. Had he claimed that he’d once milked a cow or played bass in a garage rock band, I wouldn’t expect Wilgoren or anybody in the press corps to confirm the assertions by deadline. But Brinkley doesn’t have the deadline excuse for writing so naively, and if he accurately portrays Young on the subject, neither does she. Journalists and scholars everywhere should be skeptical about the spit story and shouldn’t be shy about asking for proof. The spit story is an urban (and rural) myth until proved otherwise, and that’s the way it should be treated.
Don’t argue with me. Argue with Jerry Lembcke. But if you must, my e-mail address is email@example.com. (Thanks to reader Evan Schultz for the pointer to the Times story. E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)