The idea that Vietnam veterans returning from the war were spat upon by protesters is fixed in many minds, notably the score of readers who e-mailed me to dispute my Jan. 30 column that declared the story an “urban myth.” They know vets got spat on because it happened to them, they wrote.
Also taking exception to my piece were Dan Riehl at the NewsBusters blog, Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy, and others. My piece took the stand—following Jerry Lembcke’s 1998 book, Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam—that the spit stories began to proliferate in 1980 or thereabouts. (For a thumbnail of Lembcke’s argument, see this paper.) But both Riehl and Lindgren helpfully point to several mentions of spat-on vets published or broadcast during the Vietnam era.
Indeed, the spit meme was in circulation well before that. Former Defense Department official Alfred B. Fitt wrote a Sept. 15, 1971, Washington Post opinion piece about the divisiveness of the war in which he concluded, “You can’t be fond of being spat upon, either literally or figuratively, just because of the uniform you’re wearing.” In a Nov. 30, 1971, New York Times op-ed, Army magazine Editor in Chief L. James Binder wrote, “The uniform of [Army] soldiers is spat upon in the streets and its wearers are denounced in public places as ‘war criminal.’ ” A June 9, 1971, op-ed (whose provenance I cannot vouch for) states that veteran Jim Minarik claims to have been “twice spat upon” as well as “denied restaurant service” because of his uniform. (The op-ed is posted in the comment section of this Web site.)
There’s more. The Television News Archive lists an abstract from a Dec. 27, 1971, CBS Evening News segment in which returning vet Delmar Pickett tells of being spat upon in Seattle. (I’ve ordered a copy of the segment and will write about it upon receipt. Addendum, March 6: See this follow-up.)
Alas, none of the leads provided to me by readers contains anything that confirms that the incidents took place: I’ve yet to locate a news account that documents a specific spit altercation or a police or court paper trail that would back the accusations. Of course, the lack of a newspaper clip or a criminal justice filing doesn’t prove that no vet got spat on when he returned. Also, Lindgren writes quite sensibly in his blog item about the inadequacy of search for pre-Nexis newspaper stories. Just because I can’t find the stories doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Likewise, the two-score e-mails I’ve received from vets who pshaw the spit stories and say they and their comrades experienced no hassles upon return doesn’t prove nobody ever got spit on.
And yet … if vets were being spat upon with such abandon as my e-mail correspondents claim, at least one documented case should exist in which a cop or a reporter was called after a fistfight broke out after one of the many alleged spit assaults on a vet by protesters at San Francisco International Airport.
Prodded by Lindgren and others, I looked deeper into pre-Nexis databases, finding a May 6, 1972, New York Times op-ed by Chaim F. Shatan. Now deceased, Shatan was the co-director of the postdoctoral psychoanalytic training clinic at New York University, and a proponent of “post-Vietnam syndrome,” a loose description he and his colleagues applied to the psychic suffering some vets described in the “group rap” sessions they initiated in 1970.
You don’t have to believe in post-Vietnam syndrome or its successor, post-traumatic stress disorder, to appreciate Shatan’s sympathy for vets. As he catalogs the “basic themes” of post-Vietnam syndrome, he mentions the vets’ sense of guilt—for having killed and for having survived. He discusses their feelings about being victimized by “inadequate V.A. treatment and paltry G.I. benefits,” and made scapegoats for atrocities their superiors were responsible for. His vets felt “duped and manipulated” by their government and brutalized by combat and combat training.
Obviously, Shatan dealt with a tiny subset of returning Vietnam vets who presented as disturbed to him. The overwhelming majority of returning Vietnam vets did not make these sorts of complaints. But if protesters spit on vets as frequently as some testify, wouldn’t Shatan have included in his op-ed some mention of this extreme ostracism or the anxiety that they might be ostracized in such a fashion?
Again, I prove nothing by citing what’s not in Shatan’s op-ed. I remain prepared to believe that vets were spat on by protesters when they returned and will continue to monitor my e-mail for evidence of such a travesty.
My e-mail is email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Slate’s machine-built RSS feed.