Follow-up – 4:30 PM: ‘Spitalize This’ Update: Jerry Lembcke’s ‘Search for Evidence’ Appears Not to Have Gone Very Far
Second Follow-up – Monday Feb. 5: ‘Spittle-ize THIS’ Update: (copy of first follow-up post carried into Feb. 5 for visibility reasons) Jerry Lembcke’s ‘Search for Evidence’ Appears Not to Have Gone Very Far
This is the spittin’ image of a bogus controversy.
The claim is that the stories of Vietnam War veterans being spat upon when returning home, or when found out to be vets during the years following when they returned home, or being spat upon during the Vietnam Era simply because they were in the military, by those opposed to the war, is an urban legend.
There’s at least one very big problem: Bob Greene’s 1988 book (The Homecoming; HT a Coutercolumn Commenter via Instapundit) says that the original “spat-upon” claims are very valid, and supported by oodles of evidence:
“Were you ever spat upon when you returned home to the United States?” asked syndicated columnist Greene of the Vietnam veterans among his readership. He received over 1000 letters in reply, many recounting specific details of just such a painfully remembered incident. Evidently this recollection of “hippies” (as they are often called in the letters) spitting on combat veterans has become one of the war’s most unpleasant, enduring images.
Among the apology-owers are the authors of this local post (“The Spat-Upon Veteran Myth”) and this one (“Bill Sloat: Ace News Hawk, or Modicum of Credibility?”). Both gentlemen clearly are talking about more than just one veteran’s remembrance in their posts. Guys, even if Bill Sloat’s memory of specifics isn’t up to your standards, you’ve got Bob Greene’s 1,000 letters to work on debunking. Oh, and I already know of Bob Greene’s sordid downfall, but if you’re going to claim that it matters, you’re then going to have to explain how it would affect his ability to read and record the content of letters. Good luck.
UPDATE: Oh guys, when you get through Greene’s 1,000 letters, mosey on over to Blackfive (post and comments), Countercolumn (post and other comments), Dan Riehl, and Jawa Report. Then explain how this story ended up on the CBS Evening News.
Are y’all ashamed of yourselves yet?
UPDATE 2: Game, set, match …. SKUNK (HT Instapundit updating). The “we were wrong, we’re sorries” are officially wayyyyy overdue, and will be cheerfully accepted as lapses in judgment by those involved, at least one of whom is too young to have any memory of the time period involved.
UPDATE 3: Jim Lindgren at Volokh makes a good point about newspaper report availability in the pre-online news database age (i.e., roughly 1980 and prior), which is also supported by someone who directly e-mailed me — “Lembcke says he examined more than 400 newspapers, I believe. How could he do that? Most were not online. I think the earliest electronic libraries began in the early 1980s, and they did not include prior year paper clippings …..”
UPDATE 4: Some recall of what America was like from 1974-1980 would be appropriate, especially in light of the 2005 Slate piece by Jack Shafer, where lead debunk-attempter Jerry Lembcke is quoted saying:
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. â€¦ 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 thingâ€”if, that is, they had any reason to believe that such incidents might occur.
- As many of the Blackfive commenters have noted, returning vets were largely not interested in getting noticed, and had such contempt for the spitters that they didn’t wish to do anything to dignify their existence or give them more visibility.
- Once Vietnam War support had eroded and the “baby-killer” protest movement had made its mark, there was a (largely accurate) perception that there would be no sympathy on the part of the press for stories of soldiers being spat on.
- Lembcke, of course, doesn’t know whether a soldier attempted to get visibility for his story and was rebuffed. His ignorant and automatic assumption 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” is very likely 180 degrees wrong — The TV cameras would just as likely to have been waiting to see a soldier lose his cool and pulverize a spitter so they could have “soldier out of control” headlines. It’s not exactly a secret that a large portion of the press turned against the war and its participants with a vengeance and has never let go to this day.
- Also, I suspect that Lembcke’s search would not have included op-ed columnists. It would be interesting to see if Cal Thomas, Pat Buchanan, Bill Buckley, James Reston, Jack Anderson, or some of the other leading pundits at the time ever came across a soldier who had been spat on. There were also many more local op-ed columnists at the time who were likely outside the scope of Lembcke’s search.
But the largest point is this — from 1974-1980, (almost) NOBODY wanted to talk about the Vietnam War, its outcome, or those who had served. Not Gerald Ford after Saigon fell. Not, as I recall, any major candidate in the 1976 presidential race. Not Jimmy Carter after he became president (except for a respite to grant amnesty to draft-dodgers, which must have sent many who had served further into their shells; (UPDATE, 2PM — And let’s not forget that Hollywood took advantage of the void by developing the image of the returning Nam vet as a mentally unstable, stressed-out, dangerous head case). It was largely the collective consciousness that “it was a big mistake, and there’s no use talking about it. Let’s forget about it and move on.” In Japan to this day, there is almost nothing in the museums about the period from 1931-1945; for a time, this nation was giving Vietnam the same treatment.
So would I be surprised if Lembcke actually did look at 400 newspapers, and actually did find nothing? Not really. Talking about Vietnam didn’t become even marginally acceptable again until Ronald Reagan characterized it as a “noble cause” in August of 1980 during the presidential campaign (“It’s time that we recognized that ours was in truth a noble cause.”) — a statement that the press regarded as a serious gaffe but which in reality contributed to Reagan’s comeback from way behind in the polls to his convincing defeat of Carter in November.
In light of the history, why would I be surprised if the spat-upon stories really didn’t start appearing until 1980? And are the stories false because they were suppressed for so many years? Of course not, and the detailed accounts being posted at blogs and in comments during the past few days serve as ample proof of that.
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