The myth of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran refuses to die. Despite Jerry Lembcke's debunking book from 1998, Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, and my best efforts to publicize his work, the press continues to repeat the fables as fact.
Earlier this month, Newsweek resuscitated the vet-spit myth in a dual profile of John McCain and Chuck Hagel. Newsweek reports: "Returning GIs were sometimes jeered and even spat upon in airports; they learned to change quickly into civilian clothes."
Nexis teems with such allegations of spat-upon vets and even includes testimonials by those who claim to have been gobbed upon. But Lembcke—a Vietnam vet himself—cites his own research and that of other academics to assert that he has never uncovered a single news story documenting such an incident.
If spitting on veterans had occurred all that frequently, surely some veteran or soldier would have called it to the attention of the press at the time. … Indeed, we would imagine that news reporters would have been camping in the lobby of the San Francisco airport, cameras in hand, just waiting for a chance to record the real thing—if, that is, they had any reason to believe that such incidents might occur.
In researching the book, Lembcke found no news accounts or even claims from the late 1960s or early 1970s of vets getting spat at. He did, however, uncover ample news stories about anti-war protesters receiving the saliva shower from anti-anti-war types.
Then, starting around 1980, members of the Vietnam War generation began sharing the tales, which Lembcke calls "urban myths." As with most urban myths, the details of the spat-upon vets vary slightly from telling to telling, while the basic story remains the same. The protester almost always ambushes the soldier in an airport (not uncommonly the San Francisco airport), after he's just flown back to the states from Asia. The soiled soldier either slinks away or does nothing.
One of the early vet-spit stories appears in First Blood, the 1982 film that was the first of the Rambo stories. John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone, claims to have been spat upon by protesters at the airport when he returned from Vietnam. "Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer," Rambo says. "Who are they to protest me?"
Like other urban myths, the spit story gains power every time it's repeated, and nobody challenges it. Repeated often enough, it finally sears itself into the minds of the writers and editors at Newsweek as fact.
Now, it's possible that a Vietnam veteran was spat upon during the war years. Lembcke concedes as much because nobody can prove something never happened. Indeed, each time I write about the spit myth, my inbox overflows with e-mail from readers who claim that a spitting protester targeted them while they were in uniform. Or the e-mail writer claims it happened to a brother or a friend at the airport or bus station.