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Dec-26-2012 22:12printcomments

Who Really Spat on Veterans During the Vietnam War?

"Nixon used hippies as political footballs. Every time there was a rally, orders were given to bust heads"
- Redford Givens, San Francisco War Protester

war protester shot down during a demonstration at Kent State University
No photographs of veterans being spit on during the Vietnam War exist, but this image of a war protester shot down during a demonstration at Kent State University has always existed. Photo courtesy: Kent State

(SACRAMENTO, CA) - Americans overwhelmingly believe that U.S. combat veterans returning from Vietnam were spit upon by anti-war protesters in airports. Many vets will tell you it happened, and others will tell you that they never saw anything close to it.

G.I. Joe Cartoon

I have had vets tell me details about experiencing this and I believe them, but is there more to the story than meets the eye?

A former Vietnam era protester from San Francisco who worked with many of the era's most vocal protesters, Redford Givens, says the people doing the spitting weren't hippies, but government provocateurs.

Traditionally, an agent provocateur which is French for "inciting agent" is a person employed by the police or other law enforcement body who acts undercover and entices or provokes another person to commit an illegal act with the deliberate purpose of inciting wider conflict or harm.

In other words, he says the "hippies" who society largely believes harmed these veterans, were most likely posers, and not authentic. He believes they were government agents.

"Nixon used hippies as political footballs. Every time there was a rally, orders were given to bust heads. What would have stopped him from ordering this?"

The anti-war movement of the 1960's was without a doubt, a thorn in the side of the national military machine. Network and local TV coverage of war violence at demonstrations and nightly reports of combat in Vietnam contributed to the cessation of hostilities there in the 1970's.

Responding to this article the first time I published it, Bob Ingraham of Vancouver, BC said:

"We opposed the WAR, not the poor GIs who were forced into it. Any assault on a GI was probably the work of a pro-war agent provocateur because I never saw any of it and I hung with a VERY anti-war group. You don't win people to your side by insulting them or beating them up." - Redford Givens, San Francisco War Protester

I returned from Vietnam to San Diego Naval Hospital, via Travis AFB, in March, 1966. I was barely conscious on arrival at San Diego, and faced a long recovery from the gunshot wound that had shattered my right femur. (I had been wounded in Operation Utah, on March 5, 1966, when my company of U.S. Marines was ambushed by an NVA unit. I was a Navy hospital corpsman.)

For the next several months, the only contact I had with civilians was with my parents, my (soon-to-be) fiancée, and various friends and even San Diego beauty contestants who came to visit me. During my first leave home, the editor of my home town newspaper interviewed me about my experiences, and the VFW invited me to speak about my experiences in Vietnam, and to show slides I had taken. I was *not* complimentary about the American role in Vietnam. I suppose by that time I had become a war protester.

The only time I was ever directly confronted by someone about my service in Vietnam was when a colleague, a teacher in a Canadian high school, told me that I shouldn't have been in Vietnam. Although I agreed with her, I disagreed that I had much choice. I ended up being invited to give a lecture about Vietnam to her History 12 class.

Otherwise, I was never spat upon or encountered the slightest negative response to my service in Vietnam.

In keeping with that statement, Vietnam Vet Wayne Michael responded by saying:

I'm sure someone ran into someone who spit at them but from my experience most of what you have heard or read is a urban legend.When I came back through San Francisco nothing happen all the way back to NYC. A friend who I served with and still a close friend today claims he was hit with a orange that came out of nowhere at LAX, but there was no overt anti-war statement. If anything the silence/apathy towards us Vietnam Veterans was more painful than any protest would be. But most of us are long over it and have moved on.

As a former U.S. Marine who has covered combat operations in the two must recent wars, I can not imagine combat hardened soldiers and Marines allowing long-haired hippies to hawk spitballs at them without getting hurt. In perfect form, our own writer Gordon Duff wrote:

Just being a Marine in training in California brought out a lot of hate from people, not "hippies" but locals who were sick of Marines. The idea of anyone spitting on me at an airport would be amusing. The newspapers would be filled with hundreds if not thousands of accounts of "hippies" being killed in airports. Has anyone ever seen a hippie in an airport? Could they afford the parking? Imagine the sign: please give me your spare change so I can go to the airport and wait all day so I can spit on a 200 pound Marine and hope to outrun him before he stomps me into the ground. Hell, I would give him anything I had. The real enemies are the 400 corporations that denied Vietnam Veterans jobs out of policy. Burger King still has a "Vietnam Veteran" employment denial box on its applications.

More corroboration of this basic point comes from Dave Curry VVAW's National Coordinator in 2008, he confirms the same point and adds that he came back like many Veterans in airports not accessible to the public:

We army guys came in through Travis. (NO CIVILIANS) And yes even being against the war when I returned; anybody spit on me might be hurt.

It was proven through impeachment proceedings that President Nixon lied to his country. To people like Givens, the notion of agents posing as hippies in order to discredit the movement is not that hard to swallow.

Just a comedy, but 'Up in Smoke' had police
parading as Buddhist monks

The scene brings to mind a pathetic portrayal of 1970's police in Cheech and Chong's "Up in Smoke" which shows Stacey Keach as "Sergeant Stadenko" and his band of boys normally dressed in blue, parading "undercover" as Hare Krishna's in orange robes with tambourines trying to gain access to a rock show in LA, in order to arrest the movie's main characters who are marijuana smugglers.

Can we really conclude that the government of the late 1960's was beyond such tactics?

Givens says the protesters were trying to end a war and that being violent with returning combat veterans would have been highly contradictory to their overall point of lessening violence and death in the world.

"One of my friends put flowers in the GIs rifles at a demonstration. We NEVER had any hostile interaction with GIs. Peaceful demonstrations ended with police attacks that were characterized as 'hippie violence.'"

He says stories about soldiers being insulted were complete fiction.

"We opposed the WAR, not the poor GIs who were forced into it. Any assault on a GI was probably the work of a pro-war agent provocateur because I never saw any of it and I hung with a VERY anti-war group. You don't win people to your side by insulting them or beating them up."

Self-described as an "unrepentant hippie", Givens says he can also testify to the positive effects marijuana and other illicit drugs had on some extremely burned out, combat shocked returning Viet Nam vets in the 1960s; certainly another taboo subject in some circles, but an undeniable truth in others.

His entire point stands in contrast to what so many perceive as the typical American experience, and yet this individual and many others in San Francisco are the same exact people pictured in images from the 1960's and early 70's protesting the war in Vietnam.

U.S. Navy Veteran Ken Dalton who served from 1970-74, offered his recollections:

Lately there's been a lot of "chatter" about G.I.'s being spit on during the Vietnam war era so I just thought I'd get into this spitting controversy.

The closest thing I ever got to being spit on was when I took the Sante Fe from San Diego to L.A. to visit a friend in Pasadena in October 1970. While walking down a dark street in Downtown L.A. in my navy dress blues, a car with a few black guys drove by when the guy in the front passenger seat yelled and called me a honky mothetf^%$#r. I honestly believe it had more to do with the racial problems in the country rather then feelings about people in the military service or the war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, being alone on a dark street in a bad section of town and being called a racial slur by a car load of guys kind of shook me up. Shortly after that incident, I went up to a couple of white L.A. cops while trying to get directions to Pasadena. I overheard one cop say to the other," lets beat up some niggers tonight" ( his exact words). After that, I kind of understood where those brothers were coming from. Also, many years later when the Rodney King story broke, I wasn't the least bit surprised.

About an hour later that same evening I was walking down Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena when some young girls in a mustang yelled to me. This time, it was the kind of yelling an eighteen year old sailor, or for that fact, a fifty six year old retired firefighter would like.

Another spitting story I would like to share is the one a gung ho navy reserve lifer and hard core republican told me. As he was quoted in a recent article which was published in a local North Jersey newspaper, Frank was at a bar in Haledon, New Jersey in 1975 where he was spat on for being in the navy. He forgot that when he first told that story to me, he said it happened in a diner in Wayne, New Jersey. Nice going Rambo! Peace and Solidarity

Former Marine Glen Saunders also left a comment with regard to the reported spitting incidents said to have taken place in airports across the United States during the Vietnam War:

Three trips over and back and never witnessed any spitting. The closest I came to what I believed was a "Hippie" attack was a young girl offering me some fresh fruit in the Salt Lake City, Ut. airport. Of course I was really young then and the Marine uniform probably blinded her. Semper Fi

Soldiers trudging through the jungle in Vietnam.
Photo courtesy: anselm.edu

John Zutz with Milwaukee Vietnam Veterans, left a comment on the first article I wrote about this controversial political hot button and this one convinced me for a final time that the theory of this being an overrated pro-war story is right on the money.

Tim,

I read your spitting article and I believe you have the correct take on the subject. I don't believe many vets received any expectorant.

I've talked to thousands of Vietnam vets, and a good percentage of them have told me they were spat on. I ask them all what they did.

Did they report the assault to the cops? Did they stomp the hippie to till he couldn't walk?

NONE of the guys I talked to reacted in any of those ways.

These were veterans who had been in firefights 48 hours earlier, who were used to reacting to the slightest provocation. How many hippies does it take to face down a returning combat vet?

For contrast I have my own story. About 2 months after I got out of the Army I wandered into the local veterans clubhouse (I can't remember whether it was Legion or VFW) and asked the bartender how I could join the organization. There were 5 - 6 older guys drinking beer and they asked me where I had served. I told them I had just returned from Vietnam.

They began telling me that they were in the "good war" and that I was a loser. I answered back and things became pretty heated. The bartender escorted me out because he was afraid someone would get hurt.

Later I participated in anti-war protests. I was never treated disrespectfully by any protesters. But even though no saliva struck me, I was spit on by those veterans.

Marines in Vietnam carry one of their
own to safety. Photo: bias.blogfodder.net

What was your experience? Consider this a fact finding mission, and please don't judge me for suggesting that hippies did not harass war veterans, I concede that it is entirely possible that they did. In fact, there is almost no doubt that some war protesters did spit on veterans if the problems with this specific problem were anywhere close to what they are described as being.

But was it the rampant problem it is remembered for today? That is my question to both veterans and former protesters.

If it happened, there also should be some proof through photographs. If we could see photos of that nature then we could possibly identify who was doing the spitting, and perhaps learn that there were hippies harassing returning vets, or maybe we will learn that the harassment actually came from an organized arm of the United States government or even a state or local agency.

Author Jerry Lembcke is the Viet vet who wrote The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, in 1998. He 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.

Lembcke says he found no evidence to suggest this ever happened and suggests that vets being called "Baby Killer" 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?"

A Lt. Col who was held captive in the
Vietnam War returns home to his family

On the other hand, Columnist Bob Greene's 1989 book Homecoming summarizes interviews with several dozen Vietnam veterans and focuses on firsthand accounts of mistreatment from anti-war protesters. He claims that protesters did indeed commit these acts.

Unfortunately, Greene fell from grace when his employer of 24 years, the Chicago Tribune newspaper, fired him for sexual misconduct.

While Lembcke served in Vietnam, Greene gained his fame touring with rock star Alice Cooper which led to one of his most popular national hits; Billion Dollar Baby in 1975. I guess it is all up to the individual to learn what the truth is, and it is a good idea, because nothing evokes raw emotion like this subject.

As a present day war reporter and photographer, I have a serious problem with people abusing veterans of war, but I also have a problem with campaigns of lies and deceit intended to create something that wasn't, or didn't.

I hope this article brings some real feedback from those who were there, and please be civil because this is not intended to put people on a warpath, it is about establishing truth in a world where all sides far too often uses propaganda for fuel.

There are many more comments on the original article located here: salem-news.com/articles/february252008/vietnam_protest_2-25-08.php


Photo by Justin King

Tim King: Salem-News.com Editor and Writer

Tim King has more than twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. Tim is Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. His background includes covering the war in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, and reporting from the Iraq war in 2008. Tim is a former U.S. Marine who follows stories of Marines and Marine Veterans; he's covered British Royal Marines and in Iraq, Tim embedded with the same unit he served with in the 1980's.

Tim holds awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing from traditional mainstream news agencies like The Associated Press and Electronic Media Association; he also holds awards from the National Coalition of Motorcyclists, the Oregon Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs; and was presented with a 'Good Neighbor Award' for his reporting, by the The Red Cross.

Tim's years as a Human Rights reporter have taken on many dimensions; he has rallied for a long list of cultures and populations and continues to every day, with a strong and direct concentration on the 2009 Genocide of Tamil Hindus and Christians in Sri Lanka. As a result of his long list of reports exposing war crimes against Tamil people, Tim was invited to be the keynote speaker at the FeTNA (Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America) Conference in Baltimore, in July 2012. This is the largest annual gathering of North American Tamils; Tim addressed more than 3000 people and was presented with a traditional Sri Lanka ‘blessed garland’ and a shawl as per the tradition and custom of Tamil Nadu

In a personal capacity, Tim has written 2,026 articles as of March 2012 for Salem-News.com since the new format designed by Matt Lintz was launched in December, 2005. Serving readers with news from all over the globe, Tim's life is literally encircled by the endless news flow published by Salem-News.com, where more than 100 writers contribute stories from 23+ countries and regions.

Tim specializes in writing about political and military developments worldwide; and maintains that the label 'terrorist' is ill placed in many cases; specifically with the LTTE Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, where it was used as an excuse to slaughter people by the tens of thousands; and in Gaza, where a trapped population lives at the mercy of Israel's destructive military war crime grinder. At the center of all of this, Tim pays extremely close attention to the safety and welfare of journalists worldwide. You can write to Tim at this address: tim@salem-news.com. Visit Tim's Facebook page (facebook.com/TimKing.Reporter)




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thomas bruzan USMC H2/7 Fleet Mari March 28, 2014 10:26 pm (Pacific time)

I was spit on and calllded a babykiller.In retrospect those people shouuld have been executed,discrasser to our country, they should have been kneecapped first,no mercy

For the Veterans who had to deal with it, I am sorry.  Major respect to all of you.


Anonymous January 4, 2013 3:26 pm (Pacific time)

Vietnam, like the moon landings never happened.

Editor: And here I was believing all of this.


chuck orr December 30, 2012 5:22 pm (Pacific time)

came back to the world May 18,1970 they just shot 4 at Kent State 60,000 had marched on Washington. nobody spit on me. nobody said welcome home either.


Anonymous December 29, 2012 10:34 am (Pacific time)

Anon. @ 8:14 a.m. :Roger it appears we were in Vietnam at approximately the same time, but of course that really does not mean we had similar experiences. Combat is similar and also quite different,from my experience as both a platoon leader and as a member of a small specialized team. Before I went to Vietnam the first time, I had the opportunity to meet some very fine Marines who greatly impressed me in 1965/65. They had come to the JFK Warfare Center, Ft. Bragg and went through some very hardcore training programs. At least 50% made it all the way through, which was better than the Navy personnel, but below the 85% that the Air Force personnel accomplished. They had some very talented career personnel. I never did understand the reasoning behind the Marine infantry "Tactics and Strategies" SOP, maybe that is why we had such different battlefield results. Glad to hear you made it back okay and have carved out some worthwhile life endeavors. We are all getting a bit older, but I believe most of us Vietnam veterans still have plenty of juice left, at least the ones I associate with. There will always be vastly different opinions on our war, and all the others, so maybe that is the real victory we have, a place where diverse opinions can co-exist. The people of South east Asia really got screwed when congress cut the funding, but you have to go over there to see for yourself. Many fled that area because of such incredibly evil that filled the void when we left, but my observations is that very few people know what's going on, but a whole bunch sure think they know.

Editor: For the record, this is a shill that always writes anti-Marine BS and also expresses racism and other detestable behaviors.  


Roger E. Bütow December 28, 2012 4:39 pm (Pacific time)

One of the things that I constantly argue with Tim about is allowing the generic name ANONYMOUS to be used in the magazine....If and When I drop into the lineup I'm frustrated, not sure if it's redundant postings by one individual or separate ones by several different parties.
So to ANON 12/28/2012 @ 8:14 am, I must concur with several of your comments and thoughts.
I joined the USMC in the mid-60s, got out a few years later. The Vietnam Tour was typically 13 months at that time...and I'd estimate that your 90% never fired a weapon a skosh high, but it probably wasn't more than 15% who did fire and/or were fired upon in the boonies.
It took (back then) about 6-7 Marines in support to put one in the field, so your math is close.
And yes, my experience was that almost EVERYBODY just wanted to come home (DEROS), whether shot, shot at, or not. Once there, who could doubt what an absolute waste it was, it was (as we're seeing in the Middle, Far East and Israel/Palestine) a civil and/or tribal war among relatives, among blood-related families that have feuded forever.
The French got out of Indochina because they figured that out, the Russians out of Afghanistan because of the same. Iraq is no different.
All of the Semitic people have been in chaotic, incestuous violence for thousands of years.
I also agree that all of our experiences herein were different hence different emotional or subsequent psychological responses.
The paper that crossed my desk, the intell reports colored mine negatively.
We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are.
Frankly, I was mildly shunned when I got out, but nothing nasty.
I did stay away from veteran's groups afterwards, I don't march in our yearly Laguna Beach Patriot's Parade, I'd had it with reliving some critical years lost, including whatever last innocence or naiveté about politicians I had previously.
I'd already experienced the JFK murder as a high school junior...Once I saw RFK slaughtered (who in June 1968 I voted for my first time in a booth), MLK, and Malcolm X, I just couldn't relate to social change out of the barrel of a gun.
And yes, recent revelations by VC field officers reflects a simple but painful fact: The NVA/VC were beaten at TET, were rolled back and in hot retreat. They felt defeated. A coup de grace could have been administered if our leaders had let us chase them back to Hanoi, killing everyone in our path.
This is bizarre in its irony: General MacArthur wanted to roll back the Reds in Korea but Truman halted him, maybe China or North Korea wouldn't have become so arrogant.
Ditto for the first Gulf War---If Bush had let the now deceased Schwarzkopf free rein, rolled Saddam Hussein back into Bagdad we might have saved lives wasted some 10 years later.
Politicians and the CIA spooks run wars---I suggest reading GHOST WARS if you want to pull back the curtain----Military men know how to win. Once civilians get involved, ones who haven't been in combat, I just don't know.
I think it was Clemenceau (France) who said "War is too important to be left to generals." Maybe he meant French generals, but I think he thought politicians were better at the wheel....
Lenin, Mao Tse-Tung and von Clausewitz believed war to be nothing more or less than politics in some other guise or mode.

Tim King: Thank you Roger!


Anonymous December 28, 2012 8:14 am (Pacific time)

Most officers, and enlisted personnel in Vietnam served in a non-combatant roles, so what they witnessed in Vietnam was most likely quite different from mine. It is estimated that around 90% of those who served in Vietnam never fired a weapon. I personally was never spat on, but I was medevaced back to the states. Because Travis was fogged in we landed at Oakland Naval Airstation...not sure that was it's correct name, it's been since the spring of 1968. I was wounded towards the end of the TET 1968 offensive in which we cleaned the clocks of the NVA/VC. At any rate in Oakland we in litters were hung two high on the sides of blue military buses with large red crosses on each side of the bus. Two had died on the way home and they were in body bags in the rear of the bus, on the floor. At the gate on our way up to Travis, at least a dozen or more cruds egged our bus in which the driver had to pull over because he could not see. The crowd tried to get into the bus, and here I was with an IV in my arm. The police came and I assume arrested them. It was several years after that incident before I ate another egg. In college, including graduate school I never mentioned I was a Vietnam veteran, nor did I join any veterans' fraternal organizations. My return home was something that impacted me in a very negative way, but I have managed to have a great life. It is those Vietnam veterans who quite frankly never did anything outside of waiting to DEROS, that assume they have such great insight on Vietnam. Most learned what they think they know from various articles, agenda-driven Hollywood movies/television programs, and other vets who are also pretty info limited. I was in a unit that Westmoreland used as a spearpoint all over the country. I have returned to Vietnam (and other SE Asian locales) 3 times, and not as a tourist or on some healing journey, but to search for MIA's. Pretty sure as a former First Lt. Mr. Stone and I have completely different experiences while in Vietnam and on our returns. Frankly, several million served (Ha! And the number goes up by those who never went!), and we all have individual experiences, all different. Here is a link on Myths about Vietnam. There are many similar sites. May your information journey be beneficial. http://www.uswings.com/vietnamfacts.asp


Ralph E. Stone December 27, 2012 9:32 am (Pacific time)

I served as a U.S. Army officer in Vietnam. I was there during the Tet offensive. After my tour, I was discharged in San Francisco before my flight home to Massachusetts. I encountered no hostility. I was never spat upon. I entered law school in Boston -- a hotbed of anti-war protests -- shortly after my discharge. At that time, many young people went on to graduate school to avoid the draft. I made no secret that I was a Vietnam veteran and had many a friendly debate about the war with my fellow class mates, many of whom were there to avoid the draft. Of course, by then I too was thoroughly disenchanted with the war and enjoyed the give-and-take of the discussions and gentle jibes.

Tim King: Thank you Ralph!


Anonymous December 27, 2012 8:16 am (Pacific time)

Actually it was LBJ that really went after the protestors with zeal on a federal level. It was Nixon who eventually brought some calm. You must remember that it was local governments and their law enforcement that were dealing with local protestors, not the feds. Look up Chicago 1968 proests at the democratic convention. People like to beat up on Nixon, but he was more involved in national governing, something you saw in other presidents except for Carter and the oBama cartoon. Most Vietnam vets would not talk to someone like Tim King on any level, so your sampling is skewed. Unlikely you even have a superficial knowledge in assessing a statistical survey and designing questions for a survey.

Tim King: Your comment is for the birds, I think your part about VVN Vets not speaking to me is downright entertaining.  You could not be more wrong.

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