SEATS OF POWER, SEATS OF PANTS
A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States
A SNAPSHOT OF THE ‘70 & ‘80’s
If you had asked me to describe the ‘60s in the midst of that period, I could have. If you had asked me explain the ‘70s a decade later, I would have said, “No way!” (One historian even wrote a book about the ‘70s entitled, The Decade That Never Happened). Living now in the 1990’s is like standing on a hill from which the contours of the ‘70s and ‘80s can be more clearly seen. There really is something to be said for historical perspective.
One of the things that helped to obscure the meaning of the 1970’s is the fact that the first three or four years seemed a continuation of the 60’s. During these years, the Vietnam War went on (it finally ended in 1975), along with the Anti-War Movement. The Women’s Movement was at its height, and the counter-culture was still going strong.
Perhaps the great dividing line of the ‘70s was the Watergate Scandal (1973-4) which itself owes much to the preceding decade. The Nixon White House organized a clandestine group called “the Plumbers” to discredit anti-war critics and later to break-in and bug the telephones in the Democratic Party Headquarters in the Watergate Complex. The scandal grew to monstrous proportions when the President tried to cover-up the crime ( the evidence coming from his own secret taping system) by, among other things, paying hush money to some of the criminal participants. After fighting for his political survival for over a year, Nixon realized he would be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. He chose to become the first American president to resign. Needless to say, what little public confidence was left in government after the Vietnam War was further eroded by Watergate. We were on our way toward becoming fairly cynical people.
When Nixon did resign, the new president (Gerald Ford) declared that “our long national nightmare to be over.” Ford filled out Nixon’s term, but failed to win one of his own. He was not a major figure.
Jimmy Carter followed Ford, and Reagan followed Carter in an election that brought the country into a new decade. That’s it, in this overview, for presidential goings on.
In retrospect, there were powerful forces at work in America. After twenty-five years of prosperity--and the expectation that it would continue forever--the American economy was rocked by a combination never seen before: recession and galloping, double-digit inflation which ravaged the country for most of the ‘70’s. The inflation was partially caused by the 10-year Vietnam War and by something else that would become a curse of the decade: the” Energy Crisis.” Simply put, the oil producing nations of the world got together to form an organization called OPEC and decided to regulate oil prices--in their favor (with the cooperation of U.S. oil companies). Gasoline prices in the U.S. shot up from 40-50 cents a gallon to over a dollar. Home heating oil went from 18 cents a gallon to 80 cents or more. Also, to flex their muscle, the OPEC nations induced oil shortages which led to long lines at gas stations. American prosperity had been built on cheap energy, used without a thought. The so-called oil crisis of the ‘70s did not make Jimmy Carter very popular. But for the first time Americans began to consider a thought that had been previously repressed: that the world’s resources might indeed be finite and that we might have to consider modifying our wasteful, materialistic way of life. (Once the oil shortage eased, that thought floated away-- though the modern environmental movement would really begin to play an important role in the USA).
Americans were in a down mood during the 70’s for other reasons. Not only had we lost the Vietnam War, not only was the economy going down the tubes, not only were we screaming at each other on gas lines, but an important foreign development was also helping to make us appear a “helpless giant.” Enter the “Iran Hostage Crisis.“
In 1979, a group of Americans was taken hostage by a new, radical fundamentalist government in Iran. For over a year, this issue preoccupied the Carter White House. But the President was unable to effectuate the release of the hostages, thus strengthening the perception (fair or unfair) that Carter was a weak, ineffectual President. The Iranians pointedly waited for President Reagan to be inaugurated before finally releasing the 53 American prisoners.
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With the election of Ronald Reagan (in 1980 and 1984), the transitional ‘70s came to an end, and a new theme emerged that marked the new decade: conservatism. Reagan came to office and used his conservative pulpit to to preach the virtues of “getting the government off your back” (meaning cutting government programs); of free market economics (meaning an end to government regulation); of “peace through strength,” (meaning a massive arms build up); of supply-side economics (meaning tax cuts for the rich and a reliance on private investment); of a hard-line against communism; of denying any limits on American growth; and, of a new American patriotism.
Much was already mentioned in the “Overview” but let me just add this:
• Jimmy Carter
Carter came from nowhere to win the Democratic nomination for president. A former Governor of Georgia and peanut farmer, Carter had been a dark horse indeed. That he finally won the presidency can be explained by the fact that his campaign theme of personal honesty (“I will never lie to you.”) resonated with what the American people wanted to hear after the Watergate scandal had further eroded their belief in government. Carter seemed to be, and was, a decent, honest man.
His humanitarian involvements since 1980 have certainly given him a praiseworthy reputation as an ex-president, although his presidency is still seen by many as weak and ineffective. He does have some achievements to his credit, however.
1) He helped heal the wounds of the Vietnam War by giving an amnesty to all draft resisters and by upgrading many dishonorable discharges for Viet vets;
2) He paved the war for a broader Israeli / Palestinian settlement through the Camp David Accords (1977);
3) For the first time, he connected foreign aid to the human rights record of recipient countries.
• Ronald Reagan
We cannot not yet know President Reagan’s ultimate place in history (or Carter’s for that matter), but this much can be said: Reagan, whose own family was supported by the WPA during the 1930’s, tried harder than any other president to dismantle the New Deal philosophy and programs which dominated the direction of the Federal Government ever since the Great Depression. Now, six years later it can be concluded that he didn’t succeed, though many regulatory controls were loosened and taxes were cut on the rich. President Reagan was determined to rebuild American military power (after Vietnam) through massive government spending on weapons. Ironically, through his combination of low taxes and high spending, he left office with budgets more unbalanced that any New Deal Keynsian would have dared imagine, and with the American national debt having quadrupled. Conservatives look back on Reagan as a champion, the man who tried to set right the true (more limited role) of government, who freed business from government restraints, and who inspired a new patriotism. Liberals remember him as the man who further unbalanced the distribution of wealth, put the homeless on the street, gutted social programs, and who abused presidential power in the so-called “Iran/ Contra Affair.”
The late ‘70s and the ‘80s saw the emergence of a new cultural theme--some would even call it the real “zeitgeist” of these periods. Gone were the activist and idealistic ‘60s, its social movements “burned-out,” and beaten down by repression and recession. In its place was the so-called “Me Generation” with it emphasis on self-absorption (self-help books), self-improvement (jogging), and exhibitionism (“disco dancing”). Gone were concerns about social issues and things like “justice” and “liberation.” Replacing them was the overwhelming, selfish (and proud of it) concern with ”ME.” The “personal” had replaced the “political.” Bob Dylan, please move over for James Taylor. The ‘80s continued this theme (supposedly) but the new emphasis fell on “Yuppies.” That is, in place of the radicals and hippies of the previous decade, we had lots of young middle class folks, enriched by Reagan policies, who wanted nothing so much as a new Volvo (a Saab would do, in a pinch) and a condo in Aspen.
The Punk subculture of the ‘70s never came to a whole lot. The Women’s Movement, however, continued to be strong through the ‘70s and most of the ‘80’s, reshaping the American consciousness and winning the struggle over the right to abortion (for now anyway). In the ‘70s, also, the Gay Liberation movement took shape, one of the last movements propelled by the energy of the 60’s. A decade later, AIDS had hit the Gay Community hard (though this was a primarily heterosexual problem in places like Africa). We have now lived under the shadow of this plague for almost 15 years. We have seen five L-S alumni die, and the school become a place where students can obtain birth control/ protection devices.
Rock and Roll recovered from the emptiness of Disco and went in some interesting directions in the 80’s and 90’s: rap, fusion, grunge, new wave, world beat, etc. Also, there was a revival of the ‘60s sensibility in the last two decades, with rock musicians leading the way at Live-Aid, Farm-Aid, etc
The story of George Bush, the Clinton presidency, and even the larger story of the collapse of communism (and whether American policies hastened or retarded it) , I will leave to historians of the ‘90s. I close with one last observation. In the 70’s, amidst economic decline and “energy shock,” Americans first gleaned the truth that planetary resources are limited, something that our boundless continent had long appeared to deny. In the ‘80s, we became aware that we were now part of a “global economy,” one in which other high skill or or low wage countries could produce certain things more efficiently, more cheaply, and better than we. We have gotten used to the prospect of unemployment, part-time “McJobs,” and the growth of a permanent “underclass,” as our former blue-collar industries and factories have been dismantled and exported abroad. These new “facts” have combined to force Americans to reconsider a few of their most cherished assumptions.
It appears that a worm of doubt burrowed into the American psyche, undermining our traditional self-confidence: Perhaps we would never again regain the preeminent position we enjoyed after World War II, as the uncontested, #1 economic and military power in the world. Perhaps “Progress” would not always ascend in linear fashion. Perhaps the future would not always shine more brightly than the past. Perhaps “the American Century” has come to a close.
The traditional sense of optimism with which Americans have faced the future--the conviction that their children would enjoy even more prosperous lives--these are now muted by a mood of diffuse apprehension. Question marks have replaced exclamation points. Even the familiar, if dangerous, certainties of the Cold War-era now disappeared. Who are the good guys, who the bad?
A new world is emerging from that created by World War II and its aftermath. Words like “Global Economy” have appeared to describe the still fuzzy outlines of this new international reality. From the vantage point of the 1990’s, it seems to this teacher that Americans now look toward the future--and wonder.
POSTSCRIPT: Looking Back from the Vantage Point of the Year 2000
Here are a few additional comments on America’s position in the world and how we see the future, offered five years after this chapter was first written. With the collapse of the USSR and the ending of the Cold War in the early ‘90s, America resumed the status it achieved after WWII as the world’s only superpower. Though Russia still possesses nuclear weapons, its economy lies in tatters, seemingly as beaten up by capitalism as by communism. In contrast, during the 1990’s, America’s economy boomed, particularly the stock market. The term “global economy” moved from new concept to cliche. Surely, the Internet has intensified this trend to global integration. South Africa ended apartheid. Peace broke out in Northern Ireland. The prospects for a resolution of the Israel/ Palestine conflict change daily, but are still within the realm of possibility.
In all these respects, the world has become a better place and American’s confidence in the future has been strengthened. But there has been bad news as well. The gap between poor nations and rich ones continues to grow. Africa is besieged by conflict and AIDS. The wars in Bosnia and Kosovo have killed tens of thousands. These tragedies, however, have not affected us very much in tangible ways.
The American psyche may now be a little more positive, despite the Clinton sex scandals and near-impeachment; despite the powerful tremors in the stock market; despite school shootings and random gun violence mayhem in places like Columbine and beyond; despite growing class divisions and the continuing fact of racism; despite road rage; despite increasing unease over weird weather and the “environmental crisis”; despite new concerns about the “global economy” which first surfaced in the WTO demonstrations in Seattle. (These brought together a new coalition of students, environmentalists, and unions against the new corporate world order.No doubt, it will be heard from more in the future).
The American sense of the future is somewhat more secure. However, it still lacks the unbridled confidence it enjoyed after WWII when the “American Century” began and which our present supreme position in the world would seem to justify. From the vantage point of the year 2000, there is more prosperity for many Americans, but still a sense of unease and doubt, perhaps precisely because of all the “despites.”
“The Energy Crisis”
Camp David Accords
Iran Hostage Crisis
Iran/ Contra Affair
“The Global Economy”
The Me Generation