The Crisis of Authority p. 807-834

Chapter 30 Study Guide

The turbulence of the 1960s continued into the 1970s as the American people seemed to fragment into separate groups, each more concerned with its own agenda than with a broader national agenda. Minorities that had made gains toward social justice and racial equality began to emphasize their own distinct cultural identity and often favored separatism over assimilation and integration into American culture. The advocates of identity politics among young African American, Mexican American, and Native American activists argued that the government should stop viewing the American public as a collection of individuals and should instead address the needs of specific identity-based groups.

Among Mexican Americans, migrant workers under the leadership of Cesar Chávez and Delores Huerta began that groups national movement for social justice. Using Mexican mutualistas, or cooperative associations, as their model, the strike of Mexican American migrant workers against the large grape growers of California's San Joaquin Valley successfully fostered a nationwide consumer boycott of table grapes. This in turn led the growers to accede in 1970 to the workers demands for better wages and working conditions. More radical Mexican American activists, calling themselves Chicanos, rejected integration and assimilation into American society and argued for the liberation of la Raza from the oppressiveness of American culture and society. Not only were these more radical Mexican American activists successful in challenging discrimination, they also laid the groundwork for Chicano political power at the local level.

Young Native Americans, influenced by identity politics and cultural nationalism, also rejected assimilation and began to concentrate on a shared culture among all American Indians (the pan-Indian approach) rather than on distinct tribal concerns and differences.

Not only did activists among America's ethnic and cultural minorities begin to emphasize their uniqueness as a group, American policymakers also began to stress group outcomes over individual outcomes in framing remedies for discrimination and inequality. This as well as practical concerns caused a shift in emphasis on the part of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and to the first affirmative action program, the Philadelphia Plan, instituted by the Nixon administration in 1969. Soon, not only was affirmative action applied to government contracts but led corporations and educational institutions to adopt such programs as well. Critics of such programs argued that efforts to overcome past discrimination against women and minorities through numerical goals or quotas would only create discrimination against other individuals. As the economic problems of the 1970s continued and deepened, the nation witnessed a backlash against affirmative action on the part of white working-class men.

In addition to the activism of women and of cultural and ethnic minorities, the late 1960s and early 1970s also gave rise to gay activism and to the gay rights movement. Gay activists, inspired by the Stonewall Inn riot in June 1969, worked not only for legal equality but also adopted the identity politics of other groups by promoting Gay Pride and the creation of distinctive gay communities and lifestyles.

Nixon had implied in his presidential campaign in 1968 that he would end the Vietnam War, the war continued and even widened. As Nixon implemented the policy of Vietnamization, American troops began to withdraw from Vietnam. However, at the same time, Nixon, believing as Johnson had believed that American credibility was at stake, intensified the bombing of North Vietnam and began a secret bombing campaign against North Vietnamese arms depots and army sanctuaries in neutral Cambodia. Revelation of the invasion of Cambodia reinvigorated the antiwar movement and led to the disasters at Kent State University and at Jackson State. Ultimately, the United States and North Vietnam signed a cease-fire agreement in January 1973, and withdrawal of American troops began. In April 1975, however, with both the South Vietnamese and the North Vietnamese having violated the cease-fire agreement, the South Vietnamese government collapsed and Vietnam was reunified under the North's communist government. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Americans began to debate its causes and consequences. Just as they had disagreed over the course and conduct of the war, they were now unable to reach any real consensus on its lessons for the nation.

Although a great deal of energy was expended on questions relating to the Vietnam War during Nixon's presidency, Nixon considered other foreign policy matters, especially the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, to be more important. In an attempt to create a global balance of power, Nixon and Henry Kissinger (Nixon's national security adviser and later his secretary of state) adopted a grand strategy. By means of détente with the Soviet Union and the administration's opening to the People?s Republic of China, Nixon and Kissinger sought to achieve the same goals as those of the old containment doctrine, but through accommodation rather than confrontation. Despite détente, the United States still had to respond to crises rooted in instability. Nowhere was the fragility of world stability via the grand strategy more apparent than in the Middle East, where war again broke out between the Arab states and Israel in 1973. While the Soviet Union and the United States positioned themselves by putting their armed forces on alert, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo against the United States. Kissinger was able to persuade the warring parties to agree to a cease-fire; OPEC ended its embargo; and, through shuttle diplomacy, Kissinger persuaded Egypt and Israel to agree to a United Nations peacekeeping force in the Sinai. But many problems remained, and the instability of the region continued to be a source of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.

President Nixon also believed, just as previous presidents had believed, in America's right to influence the internal affairs of Third World countries. It was out of this belief and the concomitant belief that the United States should curb revolution and radicalism in the Third World, that Nixon accepted the Johnson Doctrine in Latin America, as evidenced by the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile and in attempts to prevent the radicalization of Africa.

We also find a Nixon who, with the continuation of chaos into the 1970s, was convinced that society was on the verge of anarchy and that his perceived enemies were responsible for the ills that plagued the nation. Positioning himself for his reelection campaign in 1972, Nixon followed a southern strategy to further attract white southerners to the Republican Party. That and other factors led to Nixon's landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election. Unfortunately, that victory did not guarantee an end to the crisis atmosphere that had plagued the nation since the late 1960s. Nixon's obsession that he was surrounded with enemies set the stage for the Watergate scandal. Involving a series of illegal activities approved at the highest level of American government, the scandal caused more disillusionment with government and increased the somber mood of the people. Some of these activities, such as the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, had been undertaken to discredit political opponents; others, such as the paying of hush money to witnesses, were part of an elaborate cover-up.

Beyond the illegal actions, the Watergate scandal was a constitutional crisis; the imperial presidency threatened the balance-of-power concept embodied in the Constitution and the guarantees of individual rights embodied in the Bill of Rights. We see the constitutional nature of the crisis in the clash between the executive and judicial branches of government, the impeachment hearings undertaken by the House Judiciary Committee, and ultimately the resignation of the president. Unlike the scandals of previous administrations, the activities linked to Watergate were aimed not at financial gain but at monopolizing political power. After citing the events associated with Watergate, the authors outline and briefly evaluate congressional attempts to correct the abuses associated with the scandal.

The nation's disillusionment with its government produced by the crises of the 1960s and early 1970s intensified further when governmental leaders could not deal successfully with the disruptive economic forces of the 1970s. In Economic Crisis we examine the nature of the economic crisis and its causes. This section also covers the responses of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations to the economic and energy crises, the continued deindustrialization of the American economy, the growth of the Sunbelt, the fiscal crisis experienced by some of America's cities in the North and Midwest, and the beginnings of the tax revolt movement.

In an era of cultural transformation, we discuss the emergence of the current environmental movement, the turn by many Americans to born again Christianity and to a therapeutic culture in their search for meaning and belonging in an age of conflict and limits. It was also during the 1970s that American culture witnessed a new openness about sex and a sexual revolution, both of which were factors in the changing nature of the American family. The roots of America's emphasis on diversity may also be seen during this decade.

When Jimmy Carter assumed the presidency in 1977, he and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance at first pledged a new foreign policy course for the United States. However, this course was challenged by Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, by Democratic and Republican critics, and by the Soviet Union, which reacted in anger and fear to the human rights aspect of Carter's policies. The Cold War seemed to have its own momentum. Despite the Carter administration's achievements in Latin America and the Middle East, it was overwhelmed by critics at home, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The grain embargo, the 1980 Olympics boycott, and the Carter Doctrine all seemed more reminiscent of the containment doctrine and the sources of the Cold War than of a new course in American foreign policy. Furthermore, the excesses in which the United States had engaged in the past in its attempts to defeat revolutionary nationalism and create stability in the Third World, protect American economic interests, and contain the Communist threat rained down on the Carter administration in the form of Islamic fundamentalism as expressed in the Iranian hostage crisis. In this crisis America's missiles, submarines, tanks, and bombers ultimately meant nothing if the lives of the hostages were to be saved. In this atmosphere, the United States welcomed the threat to Iran by the secularist, anticommunist Saddam Hussein regime in neighboring Iraq.

The Reagan Revolution: 1980-1988

1981-88 Ronald Reagan's presidency.

1981 Reagan survives assassination attempt. Reagan's initial tax cut implemented. Sandra Day O'Connor appointed to the Supreme Court.
CIA begins aiding Nicaraguan Contras. Reagan fires striking air traffic controllers. Betty Friedan publishes Second Stage.

1982 Unemployment peaks at nearly 10 percent. Federal judge orders breakup of AT&T. Nuclear freeze movement stages rally in Central Park.

1983 Secretary of the Interior James Watt resigns. Reagan announces Strategic Defense Initiative. Suicide truck bomber in Beirut kills 241 marines.
United States invades Grenada.

1984 U.S. and French researchers identify HIV as cause of AIDS.

1985 United States becomes a debtor nation for first time since 1914.
Reagan and Gorbachev meet at Geneva summit.

1986 Iran-Contra scandal breaks. Condemning apartheid, Congress bans all imports from South Africa. Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos flees to the United States. Reykjavik Summit ends in disappointment. Gorbachev introduces glasnost and perestroika. Reagan?s Tax Reform Act passed. Supreme Court rules against sexual harassment in the workplace. Congress passes Immigration Reform and Control Act. Space shuttle Challenger explodes after lift-off.

1987 Stock market crash. Palestinians launch the first intifada.
Reagan and Gorbachev sign INF Treaty.

1988 Bomb downs Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland.

1989-92 George Bush's presidency.

1989 Supreme Court allows broader state regulation of abortion.


Culture: The United States underwent a significant cultural shift in the late 1960s, one in which American youth challenged many of the accepted cultural norms and values of previous decades. Many young people challenged traditional conventions in areas such as dress, personal behavior, and morality, while also offering a deeper critique of the values of consumerism, conformity, and militarism that they believed dominated American society. This emergence of youth culture proved deeply polarizing, as many older Americans (and young ones as well) reacted negatively to the threats that they saw to the society around them.

American Diversity: The mobilization of minorities proved to be one of the most far-reaching movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Building on the example of the African-American civil rights movement, women, Latinos, Native Americans, and gays and lesbians all sought greater rights and recognition in American society. The efforts by these groups resulted in a number of gains, although some observers have argued that the new "rights-consciousness" of the 1960s resulted in the emergence of a fragmented society in which the search for common values is subordinated to the desire of various groups to advocate their own goals and interests.

War and Diplomacy: Richard Nixon and his closest foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, came into office looking for a way to extricate the United States from Vietnam while also maintaining American credibility before both our allies and enemies. They sought to turn the war effort over to the South Vietnamese, while at the same time continuing a policy of heavy bombing of North Vietnam and spreading the war into neighboring areas. Nixon's "Vietnamization" policy was part of a larger "Grand Design" in foreign policy, in which he and Kissinger hoped to improve relations with the Soviet Union and China and gradually allow the United States to expend fewer resources in costly interventions throughout the globe.

Politics and Citizenship: Richard Nixon's administration ended with his resignation in one of the biggest scandals in the nation's history, Watergate. While evidence showed that Nixon and members of his administration had been engaged in a series of unsavory activities meant to discredit opponents and undermine the democratic process, a number of historians and commentators have placed his actions in the context of the trend toward an "imperial presidency," beginning with FDR in the 1930s. Nixon's resignation and the events around it bred (or confirmed) the mistrust many Americans felt and still feel toward politics and government.

The Environment: While Americans' consciousness of the need to protect the world's natural environment had developed in fits and starts throughout the twentieth century, the 1960s and 1970s witnessed a growing awareness of the dangers posed by unchecked economic development and consumption of natural resources. Spurred by the new science of ecology, environmental groups promoted the need for both legislative measures and private efforts to preserve the nation's natural heritage.

Digital History

The 1970s & 1980s

The three decades of the 20th century were shaped by three fundamental challenges that arose in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first was a crisis of political leadership. Public cynicism toward politicians intensified, political party discipline declined, and lobbies and special interest groups grew in power. The second challenge involved wrenching economic transformations. Economic growth slowed, productivity flagged, inflation and oil prices soared, family income stagnated, and major industries faltered in the face of foreign competition. The third challenge involved growing uncertainty over America's proper role in the world. A major challenge facing policymakers was how to preserve the nation's international prestige and influence in the face of mounting public opposition to direct overseas interventions. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter attempted to strengthen the United States' influence in foreign affairs through détente and arms control negotiations. President Reagan emphasized sharp increases in military spending and an assertive foreign policy. Reagan addressed economic stagnation and inflation through deregulation, tax cuts, reductions in government budget deficits, and the development of new computer and communication technologies. The collapse of Eastern European Communism and the Soviet Union made the United States the only superpower.  

Biography of America

Contemporary History (series 25)
The entire team of historians joins Professor Miller in examining the last quarter of the twentieth century. A montage of events opens the program and sets the stage for a discussion of the period -- and of the difficulty of examining contemporary history with true historical perspective. Television critic John Leonard offers a footnote about the impact of television on the way we experience recent events. 

Lecture Outlines

Watergate Crisis of the 1970s

The Presidents

Richard Nixon