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Editors: Judith S. Baughman , Victor Bondi , Richard Layman , Tandy McConnell , and Vincent Tompkins
Date: 2001
From: American Decades(Vol. 8: 1970-1979. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Article
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Nondecade?

It is easy to dismiss the 1970s as the decade that never happened. The political and cultural trends of the 1960s continued to dominate life in the United States at least until President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974; the political and cultural trends of the 1980s were manifested with increasing visibility for the remainder of the decade. Feminism, drugs, progressive education, busing, pornography, exotic religions, paranoia, welfare, ethnic politics, long hair, blue jeans, platform shoes, and amphetamines lingered from the 1960s. Conservativism, cowboys, televangelists, flag-waving, energy saving, rising cost of living, teen moms, pickup trucks, overseas investments, Sun Belt shift, cocaine, sound bites, and acid rain anticipated the 1980s. The 1970s, it seems, have little to define them except, perhaps, their nothingness. Peter Carroll, one of the earliest historians of the age, even titled his study It Seemed Like Nothing Happened (1982). Historical events, of course, occurred. The Kent State shootings, the Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, the resignation of Nixon, the energy crisis, and the Iran hostage crisis all transpired during the course of the decade, but they are events identified with the spirit of the revolutionary 1960s or the avaricious 1980s.


The 1970s, in fact, have few icons, few symbols to define it, in the manner in which the blue eagle defines the 1930s or the peace symbol the 1960s—unless, perhaps, it was the N. G. Slater Company's ubiquitous smiley face. Two blank eyes and an ever-optimistic grin superimposed on a yellow sun, the smiley face was an image found on lapel buttons, bumper stickers, T-shirts, wall posters, and toilet seats in the 1970s. It is an almost absurdisticon, seemingly meaningless, and yet the perfect expression of the era. While other times featured dramatic events, the 1970s was the decade defined by two deep-seated ideological crises. In the 1970s a belief in the justice of U.S. overseas expansion and a confidence in the merit of a U.S. domestic reform movement were challenged and, to a great extent, found wanting. These concepts were fundamental to U.S. liberalism, and it was a decade of trauma for U.S. liberalism like none before: the assumptions of anticommunism abandoned, the tenets of the civil rights movement challenged, the programs of the Great Society discarded, the philosophy of progressivism forsaken. It was a decade which saw the shattering of basic, historically grounded assumptions regarding the United States and its citizens. Such a decade presented Americans with an opportunity to construct new philosophies and adopt new symbols—and they chose the smiley face—blissful, welcoming, optimistic. The smiley face is the perfect expression of such a traumatic decade, precisely because it so resolutely denies the injuries of the time. A nation in the midst of a collective repression, profoundly shaken, and yet acting as if nothing happened—the 1970s.

Vietnam and Its Aftereffects

The most obvious blow to certain common assumptions, at least regarding U.S. politics and economics, was the defeat of the United States in the Vietnam War. Yet, true to the era, there was relatively little analysis of the defeat. The Nixon administration implicitly and explicitly obscured the dimensions of the Vietnam failure, implicitly by abandoning the geo-political assumptions that involved the United States in Vietnam in the first place; explicitly by producing a "peace treaty" in 1973 that did little more than cover the U.S. retreat from Vietnam. Nixon was one of the most perceptive of the cold warriors in recognizing that the ideological rationale behind Vietnam was invalidated by history. The world had changed since the war began. The authoritarianism of Communist states softened. Tensions between the Chinese and Soviets had escalated, and the willingness of the Eastern Bloc to engage in trade with foreign nations increased. By the time of his 1969 inauguration, Nixon was prepared to seek détente with the Soviets and negotiations with the Chinese. He did not dramatically change U.S. policy in Vietnam—in fact, he escalated the war, drawing it out for another four years. His Vietnam policy, however, was predicated upon his vision of a new world order. The axioms of Nixon's war against Vietnam—we must fight the war to maintain our credibility abroad; we must conduct peace negotiations from a position of strength—were political cover against the Republican right wing for his new geo-political initiatives. But fate intervened. Nixon resigned, and Gerald Ford, who shared Nixon's ideology but lacked his political skill, replaced him. Ford lost the presidency in the next election when he failed to attract the unified support of both the conservative and moderate wings of his party.


The trauma of Vietnam forced Americans to question two basic assumptions about their place in the world. The first was a type of historical arrogance, a belief held by Americans since the 1840s that the United States was God's chosen nation, destined to teach a benighted world a better form of government. The U.S. experiment with "nation building" in Vietnam merely extended a colonialist policy already exercised in the Caribbean, the Philippines, and China. That since World War II both China and Vietnam rejected such efforts suggested to many Americans that, at best, U.S. democracy was not universally applicable, or, at worst, that God himself had withdrawn approval from his formerly divine mission.

A second assumption, closely tied to the first, held that American corporate capitalism was the best method of economic organization in an inefficient world. Operating with this assumption in mind, U.S. politicians, financiers, and industrialists had established a blueprint for the post-World War II reconstruction of the world economy at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. U.S. capitalism was expected to direct the global economy based upon free-market access to the raw materials, a positive trading balance, and financial transactions stabilized by U.S. currency. By 1971 Bretton Woods was dead, the United States developed huge trading imbalances, and the global economy was fractured into trading blocs. Nixon accelerated these trends, abandoned American leadership of a global economy, deregulated world currencies, imposed a temporary 10 percent fee on imports, and obscured this shift in policy with domestic wage and price controls. He understood what many Americans did not: the strategy of containment, the Cold War, and the war in Vietnam had badly overextended U.S. resources and crippled U.S. competitiveness with nonmilitary nations such as Japan and Germany, Vietnam forced Americans to abandon grand designs for the world economy and concentrate on maintaining competitiveness in an increasingly competitive world; it forced, in other words, a recognition of limits in a nation that had historically seen its horizons as limitless.

Twilight of Liberalism

Prior to the 1970s Americans had been as expansive in their expectation of social improvement as they had been in foreign policy or economics. These expectations were closely allied: U.S. liberalism assumed that a rising economy would resolve most social problems painlessly; a rising economy demanded market expansion; market expansion necessitated opening closed Communist economies. Most Americans also presumed they could have guns and butter, that the postwar prosperity was so great, so permanent, that the government could finance both New Deal-style assistance programs (President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society) and the anti-Communist crusade. It could not. Johnson had already pared back his domestic programs before he left office; Nixon was inclined to advance these programs, but he lacked money, congressional consensus, and, ultimately, the energy he demonstrated in foreign affairs. In the 1970s, although domestic reforms remained in place, they languished, disintegrating along with the U.S. economy. Expansion abroad had drawn to a close; so, too, had social reform at home.

Pop Culture Politics

What made these developments distinctive to the 1970s was that they were almost universally ignored or denied. Nixon's public image was so negative that his response to the ideological crises in U.S. politics and economics was overlooked. The domestic reforms of the 1960s collapsed along with the U.S. economy. Americans responded by simply abandoning politics, reform, and liberal ideology. Voter apathy soared. Especially when compared to the activism of the 1960s, the 1970s were an age of political and ideological passivity. Americans turned their attention from public issues to private concerns. The most prominent political movement of the era, feminism, emphasized that "the personal is political," and the most representative political figure of the decade, Jimmy Carter, cultivated an ingenuous intimacy that compensated for his lack of ideological consistency. While there was no broadly based national discussion of the meaning of defeat in Vietnam, stocktaking took place through the medium of popular books, oral histories, and novels such as Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July y Michael Herr's Dispatches, and Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War; through probing, visceral films such as The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and Apocalypse Now; through stage plays such as David Rabe's Streamers; and through television programs such as M*A*S*H. Issues of domestic reform were similarly displaced to pop culture. The Memphis State Tigers, failing to defeat the UCLA Bruins in the 1973 NCAA basketball playoffs, succeeding in unifying a city polarized by racial divisions since 1968. Helen Reddy's 1972 Grammy-winning pop hit, "I Am Woman/' became an anthem for feminists. The politics of race, gender, and class were debated as often on situation comedies such as All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or One Day at a Time as they were in political forums—generally with more telling effect. The more relevant magazines, films, and television became, the more politics and ideology became a variant of style and taste. On television feminism became a temperament rather than a philosophy, radicalism a gesture rather than a belief. Watergate was an uninterrupted media drama rather than a constitutional crisis, slavery a miniseries rather than a historical legacy. As politics and ideology were displaced into the entertainment media, they became entertainment; as they became entertainment, they became ephemeral. The 1970s made the 1960s a media event; Americans tired of it, and switched channels.

From Marches to Malls

What style and taste there was in the 1970s appears to be, in retrospect, almost unremittingly bad. The 1970s began in a drug-addled mix of psychedelic colors and brown shag carpeting; they ended in overpriced denim and white polyester vamping. Without a unified national political and economic ideology, there was no foundation for the stylistic focus, and so the 1970s were a decade of pastiche, failed experimentation, and infinitely disposable flash. Designers sold innovations—unisex clothing, the midi, platform shoes, nylon shirts, and Lurex blouses imprinted with photographs of mountains and forests—but for the most part, Americans were not buying. It was an age of aesthetic democracy: with authority challenged on all fronts, style originated in the street. The antistyle of the hippies became high style; and haute couture was forced to champion military surplus, blue jeans, and cowboy boots. Television went populist, embracing CB radios, Billy Beer, and outlaw truckers with sidekick chimpanzees. The best U.S. films rejected convention and expressed a gritty, cynical realism. Disco bubbled up from the gay and Latino underground, punk from the cellars of New York and London. Architects were influenced by Las Vegas; male literary lions by insurrectionary, articulate women; theatergoers by the dancers in A Chorus Line. Established arbiters of taste, in danger of being superseded, co-opted the new aesthetic democracy and watered it down: they added sequins to blue jeans; took Robert Venturi's populist architecture and pressed it into the service of the corporation; replaced the gritty realism of Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and John Cassavetes with the big-screen-as-television conventions of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; obscured the disco of Sylvester and made the Bee Gees stars; put the Ramones and punk in suits, turned down the guitars, and created the Knack and new wave rock. There was money to be made in culture in the 1970s, and while U.S. capitalism was faltering in the production of steel and automobiles, U.S. music, cinema, and television were sweeping the globe. The entrepreneurs of the age—Ted Turner, David Geffen, Bill Graham, and Robert Stigwood—specialized in discovering underground culture, refining it, and marketing it for a mass audience. Such entrepreneurs were instrumental in taking American culture from the streets and putting it into that shrine of American bad taste, the suburban shopping mall.


A decade characterized by such bad taste was also filled with bad men. The 1970s were certainly peopled by low-rent vulgarians and cookie-cutter villains: Idi Amin, Ugandan dictator and internationally acclaimed cannibal; Larry Flynt, who managed to distinguish himself as tasteless even among pornographers; G. Gordon Liddy, the Watergate burglar who defied feminists and proved that true masculinity is the capacity to withstand the heat of a candle flame and eat a diet of fricasseed rat; members of Congress, such as Bob Sikes, Wilber Mills, and Wayne Hays, who reaffirmed Capitol Hill traditions of skirt chasing, boozing, and bribery during a decade of reform; Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, who exhibited his winning attitude by throwing fits on the sidelines and abusing the players; Clifford Irving, the author who demonstrated that reality should never get in the way of a good nonfiction book; Howard Hughes, the object of living's fascination and a trend-setting eccentric, who, along with Harold Geneen, chairman of ITT, insisted that multinational capitalism leave no political intrigue untouched and no civic virtue uncorrupted; scores of celebrities, businessmen, and politicians determined to augment their notoriety through shameless self-promotion and ill-considered gestures of solidarity with the oppressed; armies of therapists, motivationists, and feel-good intellectuals endlessly hawking paperbacks and personal guides, educational reform plans, artistic manifestos, and stress-reducing tapes filled with the sounds of bird whistles and whale bellows.


Not everyone was a villain, of course. The 1970s had its share of heroes. In contrast to the actions of the Watergate conspirators, the high-minded, extraordinary behavior of a bipartisan group of figures, including Sam Ervin, Elliot Richardson, John Sirica, Peter Rodino, and Leon Jaworski, restored a guarded public confidence in American government. Ralph Nader and Cesar Chavez tirelessly defended the interests of U.S. consumers and farmworkers, while journalists such as Tom Wicker and Gloria Steinern publicized the plight of the marginalized and downtrodden with sympathy and intelligence. Dr. Donald A. Henderson of the World Health Organization oversaw the eradication of smallpox. Muhammad Ali returned from political adversity to become once again "the Greatest." Coach John Wooden led the UCLA Bruins to an unprecedented number of NCAA basketball championships in twelve out of his last fourteen seasons. Billie Jean King became a tennis champion and an inspiration to women. Such visible, symbolic heroes, however, were the exception in the 1970s. More often, real heroes took a low-key approach to problems, working at the local level for small victories and incremental progress. Church activists, environmental lawyers, rapecrisis counselors, teachers' assistants, and common citizens of every temperament took the national activism of the 1960s and brought it to their local communities. Typical of such heroes was twentyseven-year-old housewife Lois Gibbs of Love Canal, New York, a residential neighborhood near Niagara Falls. When noxious fluids began seeping into basements causing home-owners and their families to fall ill, she organized a grass-roots campaign which exposed the area as a toxic waste site. Because of her rallying efforts, the federal government designated Love Canal an emergency area, and the state of New York paid to have residents moved. Her efforts in the 1970s demonstrated the conviction so many had in the 1960s that one person could make a difference.


Perhaps because the media of the 1970s so ruthlessly scrutinized U.S. culture, several highly unusual, eccentric—sometimes weird—people shared the spotlight (albeit temporarily) with the heroes and villains of the decade. There was the mysterious hijacker D. B. Cooper, who jumped out of an airplane over the Northwest with thousands of dollars in stolen money and was never seen again; Evel Knievel, the Elvis-bedecked motorcycle Stuntman who jumped over anything for money—including Idaho's Snake River Canyon; Dr. Renee Richards, the male physician turned female athlete who whipped her fearsome first serve over the net at the U.S. Open only after winning a court case against sexual discrimination; Bobby Fischer, the chess player who proceeded from the championship to eccentric obscurity; the New York Dolls, the cross-dresser's answer to the Rolling Stones, who leaped into the music press with strange tunes about Frankenstein and sciencefiction freaks. In a decade characterized by growing weirdness, such instances paled in comparison with the case of Patricia Hearst, the nineteen-year-old publishing heiress who was kidnapped in 1974 by the bizarre revolutionary group the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Reportedly locked in a closet and brainwashed, Hearst emerged as the fiery radical "Tania" and helped the SLA liberate money from California banks. After she was captured by the FBI the next year, her trial became one of the great media events of the decade. The case became inspiration for a subplot in the 1976 Oscar-winning film Network, which was centered around the character of Howard Beale, a "madman of the airwaves," whose frustrated chant, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" became a real-life campaign slogan during the election year. The winner of that election, of course, was Jimmy Carter, who as president in 1979 pardoned Patty Hearst. Such was the circuitous route history would take in the strange and bizarre 1970s.


So many of the decade's weirdos had California addresses that the state soon became associated—in the minds of many elsewhere in the United States—with the strange and bizarre; but no other single locale so embodied the decade as did the Golden State. In the early 1970s California was the place to find hippie communes, solar-powered homes, Joni Mitchell, Rolling Stone, and Richard Nixon. In the middle 1970s California was the site of the Loud family that disintegrated on PBS, religious cults, porn stars, the Eagles, High Times, and Jerry Brown. In the late 1970s California was the home of singlesonly apartments, cocaine, TV Guide, Fleetwood Mac, and Ronald Reagan. The culture, fads, and trends of the 1970s, of course, were not limited to California, but the state seemed to embrace such things with singular zeal. Hot tubs and saunas could be found in the Upper Midwest, but southern Californians made them the center of social life; New York treated its mystics and gurus as crackpots, but Marin County made them respected businesspeople. Embracing the ridiculous, however, was a humorous tendency in a state given to innovation and experimentation. Californians pioneered hippie capitalism, media multinationalism, the fitness-wear and health-food industries, and the development of computers. No wonder Americans went West: the nation's population shifted to the Sun Belt; Motown Records moved from Detroit to L.A.; the respected Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubier-Ross moved there to open a healing center; and in the Oscar-winning Annie Hall, Woody Allen's New York-based hero, Alvy Singer, loses his friends—and his girl—to sunny California.


California was also associated with the Me decade, a descriptive term coined by author Tom Wolfe in 1976. Wolfe, among others, was sharply critical of the selfishness and narcissism of the decade, especially that of the therapists and gurus seemingly omnipresent in California. The decade was marked by a preoccupation with self. Magazines, paperbacks, pop music, television, and movies were filled with discussions of sensitivity and feelings. Looking good, feeling right, and eating healthily were ritualistic preoccupations of millions. Folksingers moved from protest songs to confessional ballads. The psychologist Heinz Kohut made the narcissistic personality the focus of his clinical study; cultural critics such as Christopher Lasch and Daniel Bell inveighed against narcissism in culture; even artists such as Vito Acconci, busy puncturing, pulling, coloring, and otherwise mutilating his skin in the name of "body art," gave expression to the period's self-obsession.


The 1970s were also anxious, even paranoid. Conspiracies abounded. Films such as The Parallax View, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, and Marathon Man were pervaded by shadow maneuverings and sinister figures. Paranoia was central to the novels of Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. Some researchers suggested hidden conspiracies in the assassination of John Kennedy, the disappearances of ships and airplanes, and the building of the pyramids of Egypt. Even the O'Jays' pop hit "Backstabbers" expressed the fear of betrayal. Life did give real cause for alarm. Watergate boosted national anxiety, and paranoia was at the heart of the scandal. Nixon's suspicion that he would be betrayed by his own subordinates led to the installation of the infamous taping system within the White House; his unfounded fear that the Democrats would use the same dirty tricks against him that he was using against them provided the impetus for the Watergate burglary; his anxieties regarding the public exposure of broad administrative misdeeds led to the Watergate cover-up. And the upshot of the scandal was that the government was covering things up, breaking the law, lying. Other revelations of governmental skulduggery followed. As they had long suspected, 1960s activists found out that their organizations had been infiltrated and subverted by agents of the FBI, CIA, and local police. The FBI assembled dossiers on thousands of Americans and illegally wiretapped such prominent figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas. Congressional hearings in the middle of the decade revealed that the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) had monitored overseas calls, subverted foreign governments, and contracted with the Mafia. The government conducted secret drug tests and medical experiments on thousands of unwitting subjects, the most sensational example of which was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study of the 1940s, revealed to the public in 1972. The U.S. Public Health Service had allowed African-American men to die from syphilis in order to study the disease's effects, rather than cure them of the malady. Given such practices, Americans in the 1970s had cause to keep looking over their shoulders.


Because the 1970s were the crisis decade for established American political, economic, and social assumptions, it was also a decade wherein Americans attempted to construct new, more realistic, ideologies. The exposure of government misdeeds exemplified the willingness of some political figures to resist the more brutal effects of governmental power and demonstrated their confidence that U.S. institutions were capable of honesty and reform. Members of Congress and of the Ford and Carter administrations tried to scale back the power of federal bureaucracies such as the CIA, FBI, and NSA. Congress undertook sweeping reforms of itself, designed to limit the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations. Domestic-policy specialists in the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations attempted to construct a realistic fiscal program. The Nixon administration attempted to abandon the foreign policy of the Cold War, an effort extended under Ford and Carter, and all three presidents tried to restructure the relationship between U.S. government and business to meet the challenges of a transformed global economy. These experiments make the 1970s a rewarding period for historical study, but they also dramatically reveal the limits placed by the public on institutional and ideological innovation, because all of these innovations failed. They failed primarily because the American public did not embrace them, preferring to support established institutions. Politicians who attempted to speak frankly to the public concerning the changed conditions of life in the United States in the 1970s usually paid a heavy political price. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, William Simon, Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger, Stansfield Turner, and Andrew Young all attempted, at one time or another, to address the limits of U.S. domestic or foreign power, and all were rebuffed by the public for their remarks. The most obvious victim of this process was Jimmy Carter, whose 1979 energy address bluntly discussed the economic woes of the United States, as well as the prospects for a more realistic economy. His defeat in 1980 was fundamentally a repudiation of his candor, as well as a repudiation of détente, economic realism, and limited domestic reform—political concepts substantially shared by all three presidential administrations in the 1970s. Nixon, Ford, and Carter all promised to continue the American standard of living found in the postwar period, but only if Americans accepted certain compromises: geopolitical equality with the Soviets and the Chinese; economic equality with Europe and Japan; and tightening the scale of governmental assistance. Americans rejected these compromises and found in Ronald Reagan a political temperament unalloyed by compromise. President Reagan demanded victory in the Cold War (even if it were not militarily or economically achievable); U.S. global leadership (regardless of balance of trade); maintenance of governmental assistance to the middle class alone. The 1970s pop-culture attraction to nostalgia illuminates the political temperament: rather than change with the times, Americans preferred to retreat into an idealized imagined past with unassailable truths. Containing almost no ideological innovations, the conservatism of the late 1970s reasserted traditional verities regardless of contemporary realities. Thus in the 1980s the problems of the 1970s were not resolved so much as simply dismissed—the energy crisis, for example, merited almost no discussion in the 1980s, despite the fact that the structural weaknesses behind the crisis in the 1970s remained. But the problems of the 1990s—the economically destabilizing cost of defense expenditures, balance of trade and the administration of the global economy, the scale of domestic reform, the politics of race—resemble those of the 1970s because these problems remain unaddressed by the American people. The 1970s are perhaps the most crucial decade in the postwar period because the decade's problems promise to be—in the next decade—those which Americans can no longer avoid.


This is one of nine volumes in the American Decades series. Each volume will chronicle a single twentieth-century decade from thirteen separate perspectives, broadly covering American life. The volumes begin with a chronology of world events outside of the United States, which provides a context for American experience. Following are chapters, arranged in alphabetical order, on thirteen categories of American endeavor ranging from business to medicine, from the arts to sports. Each of these chapters contains the following elements: first, a table of contents for the chapter; second, a chronology of significant events in the field; third, Topics in the News, a series, beginning with an overview, of short essays describing current events; fourth, anecdotal side-bars of interesting and entertaining, though not necessarily important, information; fifth, Headline Makers, short biographical accounts of key people during the decade; sixth, People in the News, brief notices of significant accomplishments by people who mattered; seventh, Awards of note in the field (where applicable); eighth, Deaths during the decade of people in the field; and ninth, a list of Publications during or specifically about the decade in the field. In addition, there is a general bibliography at the end of this volume, followed by an index of photographs and an index of subjects.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468302559