Two big myths persist about the United States and Vietnam. The first is that when U.S. soldiers returned from the war there, protesters spat upon them in disdain. The second is that no one vilified the Americans more than the Vietnamese, who continue to despise the United States for its behavior a half-century ago.

As U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to visit Vietnam on Sunday, the frequency with which observers have repeated both myths has risen. Conservatives are more likely to embrace the first and liberals more commonly invoke the second, but they’re both wrong. 

Consider the idea that U.S. soldiers faced hostility and scorn upon their return, which Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) repeated last week. “That lack of welcome home is still a national shame,” McCain said. “You had 18- or 19-year-old draftees who did their duties and were literally spat upon by their fellow citizenry when they returned.”

Held captive and tortured in Vietnam for over five years, McCain is a war hero. He endured solitary confinement, regular beatings, and cracked ribs. But he is wrong about what happened to returning American soldiers.

According to a 1971 Lou Harris poll, 94 percent of Vietnam veterans reported receiving friendly homecomings from Americans in their age group who had not served in the military. Nor were they routinely spat upon, a myth that henchmen of U.S. President Richard Nixon propagated to stigmatize the antiwar movement.

If Americans persist in seeing their past as exceptional, they’ll never have a clear-eyed view of the present.

In his 1998 book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, sociologist Jerry Lembcke investigated hundreds of news reports about protesters spitting at returning soldiers. He couldn’t confirm a single one. Most of the alleged witnesses to these episodes told Lembcke that they had heard about a spitting from a friend or a relative instead of seeing it themselves.

They were also influenced by popular culture, which eagerly embraced the spitting myth. “I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport,” Sylvester Stallone complained in First Blood, released in 1982, in which he played Vietnam veteran John Rambo. “Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me ‘baby killer’ . . . Who are they to protest me? Huh?” 

Today, this myth has provided a powerful image to dismiss Americans who protest against U.S. military interventions. If you oppose the use of U.S. force overseas, someone will accuse you of failing to “support our troops,” an accusation that inevitably brings comparisons to the Vietnam era. Yet most of the troops in that period did feel supported.

As conservatives cling to the myth of the rejected Vietnam veteran, meanwhile, liberals have been more likely to invoke the myth that the United States played a uniquely evil role in Vietnam.

Liberals have therefore been surprised by Vietnam’s eager embrace of Obama and his two predecessors, who both received warm welcomes when they visited. And they’re often stunned to discover that Vietnam is one of the most pro-American countries in the world. A 2014 Pew Research Study found that 76 percent of Vietnamese have a positive view of the United States, compared to 51 percent of Germans, 23 percent of Russians, and ten percent of Egyptians. “Quite a shocker that Vietnam likes us,” one commentator wrote on the Pew website, in a typical post.

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong at the White House in Washington, July 2015.
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong at the White House in Washington, July 2015.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Of course, the Vietnam war was a tragedy, in which around three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans died. But the idea that it still dominates Vietnamese attitudes today is itself an expression of U.S. arrogance, because it ignores the long history of conquest that preceded the U.S.-Vietnam war (1963–75). Chinese warlords invaded the area over two thousand years ago. The Vietnamese still venerate Trieu Au, a female warrior who rode an elephant into battle against the Chinese in 248 AD and committed suicide rather than surrendering to them.

Vietnam won its independence from China in 1428, but France conquered it in the 1800s and ruled it until 1954. French authorities banned the Chinese characters that the Vietnamese had used to read and write, and they extracted natural resources from the colony with a brutal ferocity: between 1917 and 1944, for example, a fourth of the 45,000 workers at a Michelin rubber plantation died.

Compared to these occupations, the United States’ war in Vietnam was a blip on the historical radar. I realized that during my own visit to Vietnam several years ago, when I asked one of my hosts, a physician at a hospital in Hanoi, why there wasn’t more anti-American sentiment in the country. “Before you were the French and the Chinese, and they were here for a lot longer,” he said. “What makes you think you’re so special?”

Americans aren’t, of course. But if they persist in seeing their past as exceptional, they’ll never have a clear-eyed view of the present. The right-wing version of U.S. exceptionalism celebrates the United States’ allegedly distinctive commitment to ideals of peace and justice, while the left-wing narrative holds the United States solely responsible for war and repression. But neither claim does justice to the complexities of a place like Vietnam.

Nor does the war in Vietnam provide simple answers to the hard question of whether the  United States should intervene overseas, as too many people on every side assume. To the right, “Vietnam” still conjures weakness in the face of a totalitarian foe; to the left, it’s an ongoing symbol of U.S. imperial overreach. But that leaves out the Vietnamese, who don’t fit into the rigid ideological categories that Americans often try to impose on them.

The United States and its military were not innocent victims in Vietnam, as per the Rambo myth, but they weren’t the only guilty party either. It’s time Americans started thinking about other chapters in Vietnam’s long history, instead of assuming that the United States is always the main act.

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  • JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN is Professor of Education and History at New York University. He is the author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, which will be published in August by Oxford University Press.
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