War protest no spit in the face

The history of anti-war protesters assaulting returning GIs is in fact largely myth.

Oliver Steinberg

One passenger featured in The Minnesota DailyâÄôs Nov. 18 Metro Transit profile told the reporter that anti-war protesters attacked him when he got off the plane after his military tour of duty in Vietnam, that he was âÄúpicked up and thrown into a stack of chairsâÄù and that in Atlanta, protesters there spat on him. I doubt it. I constantly took part in anti-war activism in those days, and I never heard of any such attacks on servicemen. There was violence âÄî always, at first, one-sided violence from the police aimed at the so-called âÄúpeaceniks,âÄù who were, as that epithet implies, philosophical pacifists. As far as âÄúspitting,âÄù well, as a peace demonstrator, I was spat on by a fraternity student on the library mall at the University of Wisconsin in 1968 (the only war-protest-related spitting I ever witnessed). After enough tear gas and unprovoked clubbings from cops, many protesters lost their pacifism. I became acquainted with anti-war militants, and even the most militant didnâÄôt dream of assaulting the Vietnam vets. In fact, returning vets became the most respected and effective spokesmen for the anti-war movement, notably, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War organization. We protesters blamed the government for the war, but we knew that most soldiers had been drafted involuntarily. They were just pawns. We wanted young men to resist the draft, and draftees to oppose the war. You donâÄôt spit on people you hope to persuade to join you. Furthermore, if any average protester âÄî typically a skinny hippie or soft college student âÄî was foolish enough to physically assault an average GI just back from âÄòNam, the outcome would have been a severe ass kicking for the protester. While I suppose there may have been isolated incidents of confrontation at airports between soldiers and civilians, it is certain that no airport management would have tolerated organized demonstrations intended to harass the vets. Although airports back then were not the Orwellian zones they have since become, peace marches or rallies were always heavily surveilled wherever they happened and never took place without police officers being present. The claim that the alleged spitting took place in Atlanta is especially incredible, since the degree of police repression in that area was extreme, and the peace movement there was strongly repressed and intimidated. Furthermore, I have yet to hear or see any documentation of anyone arrested at an airport for assaulting a soldier in that era. If it happened, such a fight might well have been instigated by a stressed-out or angry vet, upon sighting some long-haired male or âÄúhippieâÄù-accoutered female, who merely by their appearance looked like a âÄúpeacenik.âÄù Even though these âÄúspitting on servicemenâÄù incidents rarely ever happened in reality, the story has become common urban legend. If you Google âÄúspitting on Vietnam vets,âÄù you will discover that Slate.com Editor-at-Large Jack Shafer has carefully investigated this story and has discovered a grand total of two contemporary accounts of uniformed GIâÄôs being spat on at airports or anywhere else, dating from about 1971. One of those soldiers was interviewed again by Shafer, and although details of his story arenâÄôt consistent with the first time he told it, it seems it may have happened. The other incident remains obscure. This information tends to reinforce everything I said in my letter to you, and I think you may find it interesting as an example of the persistence and ubiquity of unfounded, fanciful âÄúurban myths.âÄù Oliver Steinberg, Daily reader Please send comments to [email protected]