Introduction

From: The 1970s

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Introduction The 1970s are a decade of ill repute. “A kidney stone of a decade ,” one character in the popular cartoon strip Doonesbury called it. The nation’s core institutions seemed to be breaking down as the United States, in most tellings of the story, sank into a mire of economic decline, political corruption, and military retrenchment . The last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam in defeat and demoralization, a new outcome for armed forces that, despite something closer to draws in the War of 1812 and the Korean War, had little experience with outcomes other than victory. The United States withdrew from, or scaled down, much of its presence in international affairs, from Southeast Asia to Panama to Iran. Public confidence in the nation’s leadership withered. Richard Nixon disgraced the office of the presidency in the Watergate scandal and became the nation’s first chief executive to resign. Gerald Ford could not overcome his status as an appointed president to get elected in his own right, while Jimmy Carter failed to win reelection. None of the three presidents brightened the country’s dimming economic prospects. An eightfold increase in the price of oil stemming from Middle Eastern turmoil exacerbated inflation from Vietnam War spending, which combined with a slowing economy to create the new dilemma of “stagflation.”Americans ’ confidence in the economic future of their families sank. The nation’s largest city, New York, came within a whisker of declaring bankruptcy in 1975. Neither major political party offered compelling solutions to the country’s serious problems. Ford, a longtime U.S. congressman from Michigan, recalled how as a freshman in the House of Representatives he had listened to President Harry Truman describe the state of the union as “good.” When Ford’s own chance came to make the annual 2 INTRODUCTION presidential address, on January 15, 1975, he was blunt: “I must say to you that the state of our Union is not good.”1 If the nation’s military, political, and economic institutions sputtered in the 1970s, the private lives and culture of its citizens seemed equally wracked by confusion and failure. Families, the traditional foundation of American society, unraveled amid soaring divorce rates. This change brought liberation and relief to millions of people, but also psychological distress and considerable downward mobility for many women and children. Another measure of dissatisfaction was the widespread use of addictive drugs, ranging from legal versions such as alcohol and prescription medications, to recreational ones such as marijuana and cocaine, to unforgivingly destructive ones such as heroin. One nonpartisan critic suggested wryly that the fact that Ford and Carter had actually lived in the White House was “a possible explanation for the rampant substance abuse at the time.” Another measure of uncertainty was a distinct decline in the percentage of collegians who agreed that “students are morally obligated not to cheat” on exams. Basic matters of cultural taste also seemed out of whack, particularly in retrospect. The appeal of orange shag carpets, polyester pantsuits, wide ties, the“happy face” logo, and disco music was mysterious to many Americans at the time and to more ever since. Only films seemed to improve , artistic creativity being often associated with periods of turmoil and uncertainty. Recalling the decade as a time of “bad hair, bad clothes, bad music, bad design, bad books, bad economics , bad carpeting, bad fabrics, and a lot of bad ideas,” writer Joe Queenan noted “the widespread feeling that America had taken a totally wrong turn in the ’70s.”2 Historians and other analysts have described the 1970s in a similar vein. The decade served as a “virtual synonym for weakness , confusion, and malaise,” historian Andreas Killen declared in his revealingly titled book, 1973 Nervous Breakdown. Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Kennedy lamented “the odd blend of political disillusionment and pop-culture daffiness that gave the 1970s their distinctive flavor.” Two of the best historians of these years, Beth Bailey and David Farber, found them to INTRODUCTION 3 be perhaps “our strangest decade,” a period of “incoherent impulses , contradictory desires, and even a fair amount of selfflagellation .” Observers such as Philip Jenkins and David Frum portrayed a nation in the throes of cultural anxiety and moral decline, while others emphasized the origins of the modern conservative movement that arose partially in response to the sense of disorientation that was so pervasive at the time. The familiar narrative of the 1970s offers a largely depressing and forgettable decade, one most Americans were...



Subject Headings

  • United States -- History -- 1969-.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1960-1980.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1969-1974.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1974-1977.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1977-1981.
  • United States -- Economic conditions -- 1971-1981.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- 1945-1989.
  • United States -- Commerce -- History -- 20th century.
  • Equality -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Nineteen seventies.
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