PART THREE: How They Stabbed Us in the Back Myth was Created


This is the final part of a three part article on Veterans being spit on. It is follow-up to Part Two: Spitting Image: this Legacy of Vietnam is a MYTH

No one has yet to refute with reliable documented evidence the scholarly work by Vietnam Vet Jerry Lembcke though a few have tried. However, Lembcke was attacked more for who he was (the messenger, a member of VVAW, despite being a successful college professor – liberal or not) rather than providing strong undeniable evidence that significant numbers of Veterans were spit upon by the stereotypical female anti-war activists

[evidence that has BTW not been provoked, instigated, or staged. VT. Ed].

But, Lembcke wrote his research way back in July 1998 that was over 11 years ago. Most recent crack at in explaining how this myth came about was written by Kevin Baker in his article, “Stabbed in the back! The past and future of a right-wing myth” in June 2006 about three years ago and ties the myth to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Robert L. Hanafin
Major, U.S. Air Force-Retired
VT News Network &
Our Troops News Ladder
“Stabbed in the back! The past and future of a right-wing myth”

This is an extract of those portions that relate only to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan:

Regarding Vietnam, Baker reminds us that “We were told that American troops were not being “allowed” to win, if the Navy was not allowed to mine Haiphong harbor, or our Air Force to flatten Hanoi, or reduce all of North Vietnam to a parking lot.

However, despite these claims that U.S. Forces in Vietnam were not being allowed to win, Vietnam was a war with no real defeats on the ground. U.S. troops won every battle of any significance and inflicted exponentially greater casualties on the enemy than they suffered themselves.

Even the great debacle of the war, the 1968 Tet offensive, though it caught most U.S. and South Vietnamese Commanders totally off guard, led to a firefight at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon still ended with an overwhelming American military victory and the Viet Cong permanently neutralized as an effective fighting force. It is difficult to claim betrayal when you do not lose a battle.

[Ask most proponents of the ‘we could have won in Vietnam had THEY allowed us to,’ and even they will tell you that U.S. ground forces eventually won most engagements of any significance. In fact, to my knowledge neither our Navy nor Air Force ever lost an air, sea, or river battle against the North Vietnamese Air Force or Navy achieving both air superiority and control of the river networks at least in South Vietnam despite the communist north getting military support from both China and the Soviet Union.

If any reader knows of any major land, air or naval engagements we lost in Vietnam by all means correct me. VT. Ed]

Worse yet, when Democrat Lyndon Johnson decided to not seek re-election due to Vietnam, Republicans could not provide any meaningful alternative strategy.  Richard Nixon was able to take office in 1969 only by offering a “secret plan” to get the boys home from Vietnam, not by promising to hugely escalate the fighting or risk a wider conflict. Nixon became the first Republican president since the turn of the century to take office while a major war still hung in the balance, and now all the fantasies began to fall away. More than 21,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam during Nixon’s time in office, and there were no Democrats to blame it on.

[Note of non-partisanship: History has a twisted sense of humor when politicians ignore it or repeat its mistakes. Today it could be argued that Democrats cannot provide any meaningful alternative strategy for Iraq or Afghanistan. Obama was able to take office in 2009 only by offering to bring a few boys and girls home from Iraq, not by promising to hugely escalate the fighting or risk a wider conflict in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

Barack Obama became the first Democrat president since the turn of the 21st century to take office while not one but two major wars hung in the balance, and now all the fantasies are beginning to fall away. How many more Americans will die in Iraq and Afghanistan during Obama’s time in office, and there will be few Republicans to blame it on? This time who will be the scapegoats? Our troops? I think NOT. VT. Ed]

The only political hope for the Nixon administration was to turn its gaze outward – to blame the people themselves, or at least a portion of them. Nixon, as historian Rick Perlstein has observed, “had a gift for looking beneath social surfaces to see and exploit subterranean anxieties,” and he had been on hand at the creation of this game.

Initially, the divisions he sought to exploit were much the same as those he had manipulated back in the 1940s, though they were now aimed at broad swaths of the general public-the children of the New Deal, as it were. The leading tactics included employment of the same sorts of code words [communism, and UNAMERICANISM] so bluntly wielded twenty years before, along with a good deal more street muscle from federal law enforcement and Nixon shock troops the Hard Hats.

[It was sort of like the right-wing using strong arm tactics by sending angry mobs to Town Hall meetings. Hell it worked; the mainstream media placed more attention on angry white men and women or exaggeration of parts of the health plan than it did on the essence of the argument The media focused more on anger and hate toward the Messenger (Obama and the Liberals) than they did his message (his health plan) because instigating angry mobs makes news instead of reporting it. What is mainstream corporate media best at, and it is not journalism. You got it – they are best as instigation be it war, government corruption, scandal, or angry mobs. The objective or media is not reporting but instigating further divisions [polarization of the American people] hoping for violence in order to make more news. VT. Ed]

The code words used then were updated for the Global War on Terror to replace Communists with Terrorists or Traitors. Over and over, Vietnam antiwar protesters were called Communists, perverts, or simply “bums” – the last epithet from Nixon’s own lips. The large percentage of college students in their ranks were depicted as spoiled, obnoxious, ungrateful children.

hardhatnixon_01Older, more established dissidents were ridiculed by Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, himself to leave office in SHAME in a series of William Safire‒authored speeches, as “nattering nabobs of negativity,” and, unforgettably, as “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” These invective’s were, of course, doubly disingenuous; it was Agnew and Safire who very much wanted such persons to be known by the damning label of “intellectual,” and what the vice president was really calling them was fags.

All these bums and effetes might be Un-American, but their disapproval still was sufficient to demoralize our fighting men in Vietnam and thereby put them in imminent peril. And on hand to take the torch from an increasingly beleaguered Nixon was a new Republican master at exploiting subterranean anxieties, Ronald Reagan. As early as 1969, Reagan was insisting that leaders of the massive Moratorium Days protests “lent comfort and aid” to the North Vietnamese and that “some American will die tonight because of the activity in our streets.”

The Nixon Administration now had its new demons – a concept made an art by the G.W. Bush Administration.

People who voiced their opposition to the Vietnam War were traitors and even killers, responsible for the death of American servicemen, and as such almost any action taken against them could be justified.

hardhats2The Nixon White House even had its own blue-collar shock troops. In the weeks after Kent State, “hard hats” — the slang for workers in construction and the building trades — staged a series of demonstrations in support of Nixon. In one New York city demonstration, the “hardhats” attacked a group of antiwar demonstrators with “fists, boots, and hammers, chanting ‘Love It or Leave It.’ These blue collar workers, ironically traditionally Democratic voters, from the Labor Unions were one of the groups Nixon hoped to attract away from the Democratic Party with the politics of polarization.

[Back in the day, we knew these shock troops as Hard Hats. Ironically, given the emergence of Labor Against the War it is more difficult for an administration Democrat or Republican to rally such blue-collar shock troops, but given Union ties to the Democratic Party, the Dems could if it served a political end. In fact, Hard Hats could have been used against right-wing angry mobs (wink) VT. Ed]

Repeatedly, on suspiciously media-heavy occasions, construction workers [Hard Hats] appeared to break up antiwar demonstrations and beat up peaceful demonstrators. The protesters had been shown up by real working-class Americans-and their class allies in the police force eagerly closed ranks backed by National Guardsmen avoiding combat in Vietnam in lieu of riot control here at home.

[In fact, if the spit on myth [as a politically motivated myth] had any ounce of truth in it, I would much rather have been spit on and kicked a young ladies ass than stomped on by construction workers, police, and National Guard members avoiding serving in Vietnam. VT. Ed]


Neither Nixon, nor Agnew, nor the war would survive a second term. With the shameful, panicked helicopter evacuation of Saigon, U.S. prestige in the world dropped precipitously-but none of the other dominoes followed.

By 1975, the American right should have found itself utterly discredited.

In fact, given the Report to Congress on the excesses of our federal intelligence community upon which most right-wing myths have been based on – the right should have been put asunder in 1976.

Instead, the right under the likes of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and Shaun Hannity would use the lessons they learned to get around this 1976 report to make a comeback that eventually led us into the Global War on Terror.

As the only entity in government who could balance out if not stop this come back, liberals and moderates either caved, gave up, or collaborated via pressure from the Defense Industry that pays off all political parties. Hell, if a Communist or Socialist Party ever really did stand a chance of coming to power in America, bet your bottom dollar the defense industry would be paying off their politicians. Vietnam as a war that conservatives [including the rank and file of the VFW and American Legion back in the day] had fervently supported had ended in defeat, but with none of the consequences they had prophesied.

Instead, the entire operating right-wing belief in “monolithic communism” was debunked in the wake of our evacuation from Saigon, as Vietnam attacked Cambodia, China invaded Vietnam, and the Soviet Union and China clashed along their border. Eventually the collapse of the Soviet Union as we knew it symbolized by dismantling the Berlin Wall. The only party to benefit from the failure of the domino effect was Ronald Reagan who presided over the fall of the Soviet Union.

[Yes the Vietnamese went through a period of purging elements of the former South Vietnamese government or U.S. collaborators, and yes it led to countless deaths of innocent and not so innocent Vietnamese, but both China and Russia who backed North Vietnam both financially and militarily would later become enemies of a united Vietnam trying to retain independence from its other former Communist benefactors.

The Vietnamese were more interested in being Independent Communists not part of any Communist World movement. Both Democrats who started the Vietnam War, and Republicans who inherited it much like the Republicans who started the GWOT with collaboration from Democratic Party conservatives and moderates from the Left, it is now Democrats who inherit two or more wars with no end in sight. What was once demonized at Bush’s Wars is wide open for demonizing as Obama’s wars and not only from the right-wing for political hay. VT. Ed]

Lessons for young Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans who will inherit this political wedge from their war.

The cultural division that Richard Nixon had fomented to try to salvage the war in Vietnam would take on a life of its own long after the war was over and Nixon had been driven from office in disgrace. It cleverly focused on the men who had fought the war, rather than the war itself. If Vietnam had been an unnecessary sacrifice, if world Communism could no longer be passed off as a credible threat to the United States, then the betrayal of our fighting men must become the issue.

Vietnam, for the right, would come to be defined mainly through a series of closely related, culturally explosive totems. The protesters and the counterculture would be reduced to the single person of Jane Fonda, embalmed forever on a clip of film, traipsing around a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun. The Soldiers, meanwhile, were transformed into victims and martyrs. It became general knowledge that they had been savagely scorned and mocked upon their return to the United States; those returning through the San Francisco airport were especially liable to be spat upon by men and women protesting the war.

Of course, those who were able to return at all were the lucky ones. Soon after we had bugged out of Saigon, millions of Americans became convinced that American prisoners of war had been left behind in Vietnamese work camps, by a government that was too cowed or callous to insist upon their return. Numerous groups sprang up to demand their release, disseminating flags with a stark, black-and-white tableau of a prisoner’s bowed head against the backdrop of a guard tower, a barbed-wire fence, and the legend: YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN POW- MIA.

It would do no good to point out that there is no objective evidence that veterans were ever spat upon by demonstrators or that POWs were ever left behind or that Jane Fonda’s addle-headed mission to Hanoi did anything to undermine American forces. The stab-in-the-back myth is much more powerful than any of these facts, and it continues to grow more so as time passes.

Just this past Christmas [2006], one Faye Fiore wrote a feature for the Los Angeles Times” In contrast to the hostile stares that greeted many Vietnam veterans 40 years ago.” The POW/MIA flags, with their black-and-white iconography of shame, now fly everywhere in the United States, just under the Stars and Stripes; federal law even mandates that on at least six days a year-Memorial Day, Flag Day, Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day, Independence Day, and one day during POW/MIA Week (the third week of September)-they must be flown over nearly every single U.S. government building.

There has been nothing else like them in the history of this country, and they have no parallel anywhere else in the world-these peculiar little banners, attached like a disclaimer to our national flag, with their message of surrender and humiliation, perennially accusing our government of betrayal.

If the power of the stab-in-the-back narrative from Vietnam is beyond question, it still raises the question of why. Why should we wish to maintain a narrative of horrendous national betrayal, one in which our own democratically elected government, and a large portion of our fellow citizens, are guilty of horribly betraying our fighting men?

“Ironically, it was Nixon’s own administration that first “left behind” American POWs in North Vietnam.”

The answer, lies in Richard Nixon’s ability to expand the Siegfried myth from the halls of power out into the streets. Government conspiracies are still culpable, of course; ironically, it was Nixon’s own administration that first “left behind” American POWs in North Vietnam. Yet this makes little difference to the American right, which never considered Nixon ideologically pure enough to be a member in good standing, and which has always made hay by railing against government, even now that they are it.

Culture War is the permanent condition of American politics and Veterans and troops the pawns.

What Nixon and a few of his contemporaries [Donald Rumsfeld] did for the right was to make culture war the permanent condition of American politics. Given this state of permanent culture war, it is not surprising that the G.W. Bush White House trotted out the stab-in-the-back myth when its Iraq project began to run out of steam early last summer.

Robert L. Hanafin
Major, U.S. Air Force-Retired


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Readers are more than welcome to use the articles I've posted on Veterans Today, I've had to take a break from VT as Veterans Issues and Peace Activism Editor and staff writer due to personal medical reasons in our military family that take away too much time needed to properly express future stories or respond to readers in a timely manner. My association with VT since its founding in 2004 has been a very rewarding experience for me. Retired from both the Air Force and Civil Service. Went in the regular Army at 17 during Vietnam (1968), stayed in the Army Reserve to complete my eight year commitment in 1976. Served in Air Defense Artillery, and a Mechanized Infantry Division (4MID) at Fort Carson, Co. Used the GI Bill to go to college, worked full time at the VA, and non-scholarship Air Force 2-Year ROTC program for prior service military. Commissioned in the Air Force in 1977. Served as a Military Intelligence Officer from 1977 to 1994. Upon retirement I entered retail drugstore management training with Safeway Drugs Stores in California. Retail Sales Management was not my cup of tea, so I applied my former U.S. Civil Service status with the VA to get my foot in the door at the Justice Department, and later Department of the Navy retiring with disability from the Civil Service in 2000. I've been with Veterans Today since the site originated. I'm now on the Editorial Board. I was also on the Editorial Board of Our Troops News Ladder another progressive leaning Veterans and Military Family news clearing house. I remain married for over 45 years. I am both a Vietnam Era and Gulf War Veteran. I served on Okinawa and Fort Carson, Colorado during Vietnam and in the Office of the Air Force Inspector General at Norton AFB, CA during Desert Storm. I retired from the Air Force in 1994 having worked on the Air Staff and Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon.