There is a flap about whether returning Vietnam veterans were really spat upon (via Instapundit). One commenter at Countercolumn says that Bob Greene, a former Chicago columnist, wrote a column in the 1980s saying that it was a myth. He received so many stories of spitting that he interviewed the purported victims and wrote a book concluding that many such stories were probably true.
Then Jerry Lembcke wrote a book saying it was a myth, that he researched news stories and they started appearing around 1980. I have no independent source of information on this, but having done literally thousands of WESTLAW and LEXIS/NEXIS searches, I can say that when something starts appearing in the press in the early 1980s, that is almost always a function of when these two news services started including the full texts of major newspapers. (I find a clear Feb. 1, 1981 reference in the New York Times.) Although I can't say for certain that Jerry Lembcke made this error in his research, I can say that my students make this error all the time. I haven't yet read either Greene's or Lembke's book, but in my experience when someone says that a word usage or a story starts appearing around 1980 or in the early 1980s, they are almost always reflecting the limitations of their online search database, rather than the origins of the phenomenon they are tracing.
I'm suspicious of the coincidence between Lembke's account and the beginning of full-text coverage in WESTLAW and LEXIS. In other words, did Lembke's research show that such stories began appearing in the early 1980s, or did his research show that by 1981-82, when the major newspapers came online in full text, the story was already well known?
UPDATE: In the comments below are several seemingly credible first-hand accounts of being spat on. In addition, several note a bunch of 1971 published stories (I found one in the June 2, 1971 Chicago Tribune) involving the claims of an anti-John Kerry serviceman that he was spat on.
I was also able to confirm my speculation above that the spitting meme may have been spread long before 1980. Alfred Kitt, after he had resigned as General Counsel to the Army and was working at Yale, wrote a heartfelt Sept. 15, 1971 op-ed in the Washington Post, looking back on working in a situation in which many thought him a war criminal--and even his own family was against him. Kitt also discussed the plight of the ordinary soldier, including this sentence: "You can’t be fond of being spat on, either literally or figuratively, just because of the uniform you’re wearing."
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