“So where do these stories come from?”
The reporter was asking about accounts that soldiers returning from Vietnam had been spat on by antiwar activists. I had told her the stories were not true. I told her that, on the contrary, opponents of the war had actually tried to recruit returning veterans. I told her about a 1971 Harris Poll survey that found that 99 percent of veterans said their reception from friends and family had been friendly, and 94 percent said their reception from age-group peers, the population most likely to have included the spitters, was friendly.
A follow-up poll, conducted in 1979 for the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs), reported that former antiwar activists had warmer feelings toward Vietnam veterans than toward congressional leaders or even their erstwhile fellow travelers in the movement.
I was glad the reporter was interested in the origin of these stories, because beginning even before the war ended, news organizations had too often simply repeated them – even though some stories had the hallmarks of tall tales all over them. Even The Times once quoted, matter-of-factly, a veteran telling of how he arrived stateside from Vietnam on a stretcher with a bullet in his leg, only to be splattered with rotten vegetables and spat on by antiwar college kids.
Whoppers like these go unchallenged by reporters and scholars perhaps because of their memoirist first-person quality, stories told by the men who say it happened to them. I collect the stories, I told the reporter, and have a spreadsheet with about 220 first-person “I was spat on” accounts.
But you don’t believe the stories, right? she asked. Acknowledging that I could not prove the negative – that they were not true – I went on to say there is no corroboration or documentary evidence, such as newspaper reports from the time, that they are true. Many of the stories have implausible details, like returning soldiers deplaning at San Francisco Airport, where they were met by groups of spitting hippies. In fact, return flights landed at military air bases like Travis, from which protesters would have been barred. Others include claims that military authorities told them on returning flights to change into civilian clothes upon arrival lest they be attacked by protesters. Trash cans at the Los Angeles airport were piled high with abandoned uniforms, according to one eyewitness, a sight that would surely have been documented by news photographers – if it had existed.
And some of the stories have more than a little of a fantasy element: Some claim the spitters were young girls, an image perhaps conjured in the imaginations of veterans suffering the indignities of a lost war.
Listeners, I speculated, are loath to question the truth of the stories lest aspersion be seemingly cast on the authenticity of the teller. The war in Vietnam was America’s longest war at the time, and its first defeat. The loss to such a small, underdeveloped and outgunned nation was a tough pill for Americans to swallow, many still basking in post-World War II triumphalism. The image of protesters spitting on troops enlivened notions that the military mission had been compromised, even betrayed, by weak-kneed liberalism in Congress and seditious radicalism on college campuses. The spitting stories provided reassuring confirmation that had it not been for those duplicitous fifth-columnists, the Vietnamese would have never beaten us.
The “war at home” phrase captured the idea that the war had been lost on the home front. It was a storyline promulgated by Hollywood, within which veteran disparagement became a kind of “war story,” a way of credentialing the warrior bona fides of veterans who may have felt insecure about their service in Vietnam. In “First Blood,” the inaugural Rambo film, the protagonist, John Rambo, flashes back to “those maggots at the airport, spittin’, callin’ us baby killers and all kinds of vile crap.” The series supported the idea that decisions in Washington had hamstrung military operations. “Apocalypse Now” fed outright conspiracy theories that the C.I.A.’s secret war run from Washington had undercut the military mission. “Coming Home” and “Hamburger Hill” played on male fears of unfaithful wives and girlfriends, a storyline hinting that female perfidy and the feminist subversion of warrior morale had cost us victory.
Women had been prominent in the opposition to the war. Two organizations, Women Strike for Peace and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, led early protests; Cora Weiss, Jane Fonda and Joan Baez lent their social and celebrity standing to the efforts to end the fighting. New Left organizations such as the campus-based Students for a Democratic Society intersected with the burgeoning women’s movement to boost young women into leadership roles in the antiwar movement. Placards reading “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No” – no to the draft, that is – lent credence to the fears of conservatives who were pro-war and distraught over loosening strictures on premarital sex and believed that the rising of the women meant societal collapse.
The adoption of long hair, embroidered shirts and bell-bottom pants and general rejection of military bearing by men in the movement evinced a softening of conventional sex-gender boundaries. By the late 1960s, troops in Vietnam were battling authorities over hair length and the right to wear love-bead necklaces and draw peace symbols on their helmets.
Finger-pointing for the loss of the war began even before it was over. The pacifists and radicals who stoked the antiwar movement were easy targets for the patriotic right wing looking for scapegoats, but the visibility of women in the resistance to the war made them suspects as well. After Ms. Fonda went to North Vietnam on a peace mission in 1972, she was denounced as a traitor in profanely sexist language and tarred as “Hanoi Jane.” Years later, the feminist author Susan Faludi wrote that fears of emasculation having cost America its victory in Vietnam were the basis of a backlash against women in the 1980s.
But, the reporter pressed, why spitting? Resisting the urge to plunge into the Freudian exegesis I wanted to take, I pointed to the long history of spitting imagery in legends of betrayal. In the New Testament, Christ’s followers spit on him in renunciation of their loyalty. Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, soldiers returning from the front claimed to have been spat on by women and girls. The German stories were studied by historians and found to be part of the “Dolchstosslegende,” or stab-in-the-back legend, that the military had been betrayed behind the lines, sold out at home.
Anticipating the question, I agreed that the presence of such stories in religious teachings and myths only pressed more questions to the fore about where the biblical Apostles and German folklorists got them, questions that will keep professors and students of cultural studies occupied for years.
But, I ventured, where the stories go – how they play out in the political culture – is more important than where they come from. The reporter seemed interested. In Germany, I recalled, the imagery of shell-shocked World War I veterans became a stand-in for the nation’s lost pride and damaged sense of racial superiority. The riffs of betrayal in the photographs, films and news reports of veterans made victims by war kept alive the certainty that enemies outside the gates could never defeat a rearmed and unified Germany; the stories incited a dangerous witch hunt that led to the Holocaust.
Is the abiding American discomfort with the war it lost in Vietnam and the enduring allure of the spat-upon veteran stories indicative of betrayal preoccupations at work in our own culture? Is it the post-Vietnam lost-war narrative that feeds the back-to-the-future sentiments in campaign promises to restore and rebuild America? And are the recent public and political spectacles of nativism and gun-toting masculinity symptoms of a wounded people more than deviant personalities?
The reporter was interested.