W. Joseph Campbell

Blumenthal and his spat-upon claim: More myth?

In Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on May 19, 2010 at 4:43 pm

The New York Times articles this week about the Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general who falsely stated he served in Vietnam, mentioned but didn’t explore Blumenthal’s reference to having been spat upon by antiwar protestors.

The Times report Tuesday quoted Jean Risley, chairwoman of the Connecticut Vietnam Veterans Memorial Inc., as saying Blumenthal, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, once described indignities he and other veterans faced upon returning from Vietnam.

“It was a sad moment,” the Times quoted Risley as saying. “He said, ‘When we came back, we were spat on; we couldn’t wear our uniforms.’ It looked like he was sad to me when he said it.”

In a follow-up report today, the Times indirectly quoted former Congressman Christopher H. Shays as saying that at a recent event in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Blumenthal “brought up the subject of his military service and lamented that when ‘we returned from Vietnam’ Americans had spit on soldiers.”

The separate reports of Blumenthal’s recollections about veterans having been spat upon should prompt additional questions about the Senate candidate’s truthfulness–questions that go beyond his false claim of having served in Vietnam during the war. (Blumenthal, the Times has reported, secured “at least five military deferments from 1965 to 1970 and took repeated steps that enabled him to avoid going to war, according to records” the newspaper reviewed.)

Doubts have been raised over the years about accounts of soldiers being spat upon as they returned from Vietnam. Jerry Lembcke notably challenged such claims in his 1998 study, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.

Lembcke noted “that stories of veterans being abused by anti-war activists only surfaced years after the abuses were alleged to have happened.”

He also wrote that his “search through news stories and polls … revealed no basis for the widespread belief that the alleged spitting incidents actually occurred.”

Lembcke, a Vietnam veteran who became an opponent of the war, returned to the topic in 2005, writing in a commentary in the Boston Globe:

“Stories about spat-upon Vietnam veterans are like mercury: Smash one and six more appear. It’s hard to say where they come from. For a book I wrote in 1998 I looked back to the time when the spit was supposedly flying, the late 1960s and early 1970s. I found nothing. No news reports or even claims that someone was being spat on.”

He also noted:

“GIs [returning from Vietnam] landed at military airbases, not civilian airports, and protesters could not have gotten onto the bases and anywhere near deplaning troops. There may have been exceptions, of course, but in those cases how would protesters have known in advance that a plane was being diverted to a civilian site?”

Now, I haven’t studied the spat-upon claims to be in a position to embrace Lembcke’s findings, independently. It is a touchy and disputed topic. But I am impressed with the earnest quality of Lembcke’s research.

Moreover, I incorporate in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, a telling observation in Lembcke’s book about the tenacity of myths.

It appears as a chapter-opening quotation in the discussion in Getting It Wrong about the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate:

“Unlike a society with a strong oral tradition, American today remembers its history through visual imagery.”

True enough: The cinema can be a powerful force in pressing media-driven myths into the collective memory.

I also was impressed with Lembcke’s point that myths “help people come to terms with difficult periods of their past. They provide explanations for why things happened. Often, the explanations offered by myths help reconcile disparities between a group’s self-image and the historical record of a group’s behavior.”

Or, as might be paraphrased in the matter of Blumenthal’s dissembling, myths can help reconcile disparities between an individual’s self-image and the record of his behavior.

WJC

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