restricted access CHAPTER 1 Crosscurrents of Crisis in 1970s America

From: The 1970s

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Chapter 1 CROSSCURRENTS OF CRISIS IN 1970S AMERICA Big trouble splashed into most Americans’ lives in the 1970s. Few symbols embodied this as fully as the 25-foot great white shark that rose from the murky depths to devour swimmers and terrorize a Long Island beach town in the blockbuster movie, Jaws. The film opened on June 20, 1975, after an unprecedented television advertising campaign, and quickly became the first movie to earn over $100 million, the model for future summer blockbusters, and one of the two most popular films of the decade (along with 1977’s Star Wars). Jaws spawned a series of spoofs and parodies, including a towering hit man in a subsequent James Bond film with sharpened metal teeth who was nicknamed“Jaws.”But the film’s extraordinary success stemmed from its ability to tap into a range of popular fears. One was the common anxiety about deep water and what might lurk below the visible surface, especially beyond the artificial clarity of chlorinated swimming pools. Another was the memory of the last great threat to cruise just beneath the waters of the nation’s Atlantic coast, killing unsuspecting Americans on the surface: the German U-boats of the early months of World War II in 1942. Most obviously, the efforts of the town’s leaders in the film to cover up the shark attacks in order to preserve the tourist trade evoked for Americans in 1975 pervasive concerns that authorities , for their own interests, might be keeping some hidden evil from public view. In the era of investigations of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and CIA efforts to assassinate foreign leaders, such concerns were more realistic than paranoid. Three years earlier, another very popular film had used different dangers of the deep to examine growing anxieties about Figure 1.1. Americans by the 1970s learned to worry about unknown dangers hidden beneath the surface. Released in 1975, Jaws was the first big summer blockbuster film. Courtesy Universal Studios. CROSSCURRENTS OF CRISIS 21 where American society and perhaps all of Western culture were headed. In The Poseidon Adventure (1972), a tidal wave—improbably in the Mediterranean Sea—capsized a cruise ship bound for Greece, leaving the boat upside down and requiring the passengers to escape up through the bottom or hull. At one level a simple escapist adventure tale, the film also raised larger questions .With ancient Greece, the cradle of Western civilization, lost as a compass and everything turned literally upside down— by the civil rights struggle, by antiwar protests, by the counterculture and the movement for women’s liberation—how were people to survive and go forward in this new era? A charismatic Roman Catholic priest, played by Gene Hackman, provided guidance to the other passengers for an escape from disaster. He was bound for work in Africa,“the future” as he called it, a multicultural , inclusive view of the world beyond just Europe and of the United States beyond just European Americans. While Jaws reflected the shift in the second half of the 1970s toward sheer entertainment and profit-making, The Poseidon Adventure also imagined disaster but captured some of the optimism of egalitarian reform that still motivated many American citizens in the first half of the decade.1 Events of the previous decade of the 1960s had knocked loose certain longstanding foundations of American society and thought. Traditional hierarchies of whites over nonwhites, men over women, and adults over youth no longer seemed commonsensical or even acceptable. Popular attitudes, particularly among younger Americans, toward sexuality, dress, and language were more tolerant and less judgmental, the standards of acceptable behavior less clear. This less confident culture was then buffeted by powerful crosscurrents in the 1970s that reshaped both the nation and the world beyond it. Military, political , economic, and environmental crises unfolded rapidly on top of each other, leaving many citizens uncertain of which to address first and how to do so. In the backwash of defeat in Vietnam and humiliation from the Watergate scandal, and in the midst of inflation and an oil crisis, distrust of government pervaded American society. The loss of confidence in public author- 22 CHAPTER 1 ity laid the foundation for deregulation and a turn toward the free market, a path that led to growing disparities between rich and poor. At the same time, the more tolerant and individualistic mainstream American culture increasingly rejected old forms of group discrimination and inequality.2 Challenges to the...


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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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