The Spitting Image
The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam is a 1998 book by sociologist Jerry Lembcke. The book argues that the common claim that American soldiers were spat upon and insulted by anti-war protesters upon returning home from the Vietnam War is an urban legend intended to discredit the anti-war movement. Lembcke writes that this discrediting of the anti-war movement was foreshadowed by Hermann Göring's fostering of the stab in the back myth, after Germany's defeat in Europe in 1918.
A persistent criticism leveled against those who protested the United States's involvement in the Vietnam War is that protesters spat upon and otherwise derided returning soldiers, calling them "baby-killers", etc. Lembcke says he found no evidence to suggest this ever happened and suggests it may have come in part from the common chant by protesters aimed at President Lyndon Baines Johnson, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" One of the hallmarks of the period's anti-war movement was its stated support for the troops in the field and the affiliation of many returning veterans with it. At the time he wrote The Spitting Image he had not found a single media report to support the claims of spitting. He theorizes that the reported "spitting on soldiers" scenario was a mythical projection by those who felt "spat upon" and was meant to discredit future anti-war activism. He suggests that the images of pro-war antipathy against anti-war protesters helped contribute to the myth. Lembcke argues that memories of being verbally and physically assaulted by anti-war protesters were largely conjured, arguing that not even one case could be documented. He denied the truthfulness of hundreds of accounts mailed by fellow veterans to the Chicago Tribune.
However, some news accounts that mention spitting do exist, although there has been no evidence to support those accounts. After a review of contemporary news sources, Northwestern Law School professor James Lindgren claimed to have found news accounts that discussed spitting incidents. Lembcke provided an 18-point response to Lindgren at http://www.slate.com/id/2159470/sidebar/2159648/ expressing interest in one of Lindgren's claims. A December 27, 1971 CBS Evening News report on veteran Delmar Pickett who said he was spat at in Seattle appears to also have some validity as a claim, but not as evidence that the incident reported actually happened. Additionally, Puerto Rican veteran and federal prisoner Oscar López Rivera wrote that he and other soldiers returning from Vietnam were called baby killers at the University of Wisconsin (Madison). (From a handout published by the Comité Pro dErechos Humanos, Exposición Antesala de la Libertad, Comité 32XOSCAR. 2013.)
Covering this same topic is author and columnist Bob Greene's 1989 book Homecoming: When the Soldiers Returned from Vietnam, in which Greene prints letters he had solicited from veterans, asking to hear from them if they had been spat upon and focuses on firsthand accounts of their treatment. Greene's book includes 63 accounts involving spitting, and 69 accounts from veterans that did not believe anyone was spat upon after returning from Vietnam. Like Lembke, Greene began by questioning whether the spitting stories even made sense, noting:
"Even during the most fervent days of anti-war protest, it seemed that it was not the soldiers whom protesters were maligning. It was the leaders of government, and the top generals—at least, that is how it seemed in memory. One of the most popular chants during the anti-war marches was, “Stop the war in Vietnam, bring the boys home.” You heard that at every peace rally in America. “Bring the boys home.” That was the message. Also, when one thought realistically about the image of what was supposed to have happened, it seemed questionable. So-called “hippies,” no matter what else one may have felt about them, were not the most macho people in the world. Picture a burly member of the Green Berets, in full uniform, walking through an airport. Now think of a “hippie” crossing his path. Would the hippie have the nerve to spit on the soldier? And if the hippie did, would the soldier—fresh from facing enemy troops in the jungles of Vietnam—just stand there and take it?"
Greene anticipated receiving a few letters that he could run as a day's column. He did request that respondents give such details as they could recall. To his astonishment, he received in excess of 1,000 responses, many of them emotionally wrenching. The tsunami of response convinced him he had material for a book; he collated Homecoming from a selection of these letters. He contacted purported authors of the letters to verify their identity and solicit their permission to print the epistles. He also used a source in the Veterans Administration to verify that the veterans had military service in Vietnam. He decided he did believe spitting occurred, stating,"There were simply too many letters, going into too fine a detail, to deny the fact." Greene concluded, "I think you will agree, after reading the letters, that even if several should prove to be not what they appear to be, that does not detract from the overall story that is being told." Interestingly, the persons described as assailing the veterans came from a wide spectrum of American society, not just hippies.
Those reprinted letters detailing being spat upon made up the first section of Homecoming. To round the book out, Greene included three additional sections. One of them contained responses from veterans who claimed they weren't spat upon; many of them did not believe any of their fellow veterans were spat upon. Another section, which Greene noted came from his smallest category of responses, relates acts of kindness shown toward the writers because they were veterans. The concluding section of Greene's book is a collection of instances where Vietnam veterans were not spat upon, but were insulted and/or abused.
Lembke claims that some of the stories that Greene published "have elements of such exaggeration that one has to question the veracity of the entire account." He also points out that there were several newspaper accounts of pro-war demonstrators spitting on anti-war demonstrators and suggests that these accounts may have been reinterpreted over the years. In The Spitting Image Lembcke acknowledges that he cannot prove the negative—that no Vietnam veteran was spat on—saying (p. 68) it is hard to imagine there not being expressions of hostility between veterans and activists.
The Spitting Image asserts that the claims of abuse of soldiers by antiwar demonstrators became ingrained in the American consciousness only some years after the war had come to a close; Lembcke attributes the legend's growth to films relating to Vietnam, notably Rambo. He writes that these claims were used by President George H. W. Bush as a way to help sell the Gulf War to the American people. Lembcke believes that the myth is currently useful in promoting the yellow ribbon campaign; it has led some to think that for one to support troops, one must also support the war, because it ties together the ideas of anti-war sentiment and anti-troop sentiment, although a common chant has been "Support the Troops: Bring them Home!"
Reviews of Jerry Lembcke's book
A Los Angeles Times book reviewer wrote:
- "The image is ingrained: A Vietnam veteran, arriving home from the war, gets off a plane only to be greeted by an angry mob of antiwar protesters yelling, 'Murderer!' and 'Baby killer!' Then out of the crowd comes someone who spits in the veteran's face. The only problem, according to Jerry Lembcke, is that no such incident has ever been documented. It is instead, says Lembcke, a kind of urban myth that reflects our lingering national confusion over the war."
- Stabbed in the back! The past and future of a right-wing myth Kevin Baker Harpers June 2006
- CBS Evening News, (Charles Collingwood reporting) 
- Vietnam Veteran CBS News broadcast from the Vanderbilt Television News Archive
- Clarence Page, September 2, 1998 
- Homecoming; When the Soldier Returned from Vietnam; Bob Greene; G. P. Putnam's Sons; 1989; pp. 10-16
- Homecoming; When the Soldier Returned from Vietnam; Bob Greene; G. P. Putnam's Sons; 1989; pp. 17-85
- Homecoming; When the Soldier Returned from Vietnam; Bob Greene; G. P. Putnam's Sons; 1989; pp. 87-148
- Homecoming; When the Soldier Returned from Vietnam; Bob Greene; G. P. Putnam's Sons; 1989; pp. 149-174
- Homecoming; When the Soldier Returned from Vietnam; Bob Greene; G. P. Putnam's Sons; 1989; pp. 175-269
- Spitting on the Troops: Old Myth, New Rumors by Jerry Lembcke