The Seventies: The Great Shift In American Culture, Society, And Politics

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9780306811265: The Seventies: The Great Shift In American Culture, Society, And Politics

Sweeping away misconceptions about the "Me Decade," Bruce Schulman offers a fast-paced, wide-ranging, and brilliant examination of the political, cultural, social, and religious upheavals of the 1970s. Arguing that it was one of the most important of the postwar twentieth-century decades, despite its reputation as an eminently forgettable period, Schulman reconstructs public events and private lives, high culture and low, analyzing not only presidential politics and national policy but also the broader social and cultural experiences that transformed American life. Here are the names, faces, and movements that gave birth to the world we now live in-from Nixon and Carter to The Godfather and the Ramones; from Billie Jean King and Phyllis Schlafly to NOW and the ERA; from the Energy Crisis to Roe v. Wade. The Seventies is an astutely provocative reexamination of a misunderstood era.

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About the Author:

Bruce J. Schulman is Director of American Studies at Boston University. A frequent contributor to publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Schulman lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

The Sixties and the Postwar Legacy

The Seventies began, of course, in the wake of "the Sixties" and have remained ever since in their shadow -- the sickly, neglected, disappointing stepsister to that brash, bruising blockbuster of a decade. "The sober, gloomy seventies," as one journalist put it, "seemed like little more than just a prolonged anticlimax to the manic excitements of the sixties." Sure, pundits constantly debate the era's parameters, suggesting that the "real Sixties" did not begin until the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the riots in Watts, or the Summer of Love, or that they lasted until Nixon's resignation, the fall of Saigon, the breakup of the Beatles or release of "The Hustle." But they agree on a common portrait -- the same mug shot of the Sixties as a time of radical protest and flower power, polarization, experimentation, and upheaval. Depending on one's point of view, they are the source of everything good or everything evil in contemporary life.

If one date delineated the end of the Sixties and the beginning of the Seventies, it was the year 1968. It struck many observers, then and now, as a revolutionary moment. Nineteen sixty-eight marked simultaneously an annus mirabilis and an annus horribilus, a year of miracles and a year of horrors. For many it seemed to be the Year of the Barricades, to quote the title of one book on the tumultuous events of 1968. Certainly, violent confrontations between the generations erupted around the world. In France, left-wing students occupied the University of Paris. Led by a man known simply as Danny the Red, students seized parts of the Sorbonne and clashed with police on the streets of the Latin Quarter. On May 13, huge crowds marched in protest against the sitting government, against university regulations, against the distribution of wealth and power in French society. Prime Minister Georges Pompidou warned that "our civilization is being questioned -- not the government, not the institutions, not even France, but the materialistic and soulless modern society." He compared the chaotic scene to the "hopeless days of the 15th century, where the structures of the Middle Ages were collapsing."

Rebels manned a different sort of barricade a few hundred miles to the east. In Prague, the capital of communist-dominated Czechoslovakia, student protests in late 1967 had blossomed into the Prague Spring -- a buoyant, defiant, just plain ballsy challenging of the Soviet-backed regime. The Prague Spring offered a small dose of political opening and a cultural renaissance, inspired by rock music and avant-garde poetry. And then, horribly, Soviet tanks trampled those hopes, rumbling into Czechoslovakia to re-install a hard-line communist dictatorship.

Across the Atlantic, the United States would not prove immune to violent confrontation. An explosion of racial outrage after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., brought smashed windows and tense confrontations between police and protesters within a few blocks of the White House. A few weeks later, radical students at Columbia University in New York City brought the barricades into the ivory tower. The Columbia unrest unfolded at a time of growing student protest across the country -- against the war in Vietnam, against restrictive campus policies, and against traditional curricula and courses. At Columbia, violent protests led to the cancellation of final exams and an early end to spring semester. The campus revolt also convinced many Americans that revolution was at hand -- that young radicals had moved from mere protest toward power. They would seize control of "the machine," if it would not cease to pursue inhumane ends.

The Sixties appeared as a historical divide, a decade of turmoil with the future hanging in the balance. But the era, and its climactic twelve months, have also been recalled, as "the Year the Dream Died" -- the year, to quote one journalist, "when for so many, the dream of a nobler, optimistic America died, and the reality of a skeptical conservative America began to fill the void."

In April, an assassin murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., the man most closely associated with such noble dreams. After King's death, his vision of racial harmony -- even the modest hope of the races living side by side in peace -- evaporated. 1968 marked the fourth consecutive year of massive racial violence in America's cities. The end was nowhere in sight, and indeed a race war on the nation's streets seemed a real possibility.

Certainly African Americans displayed growing frustration at the slow pace of reform. Militance bubbled through the nation's black neighborhoods, fueled by the radical black nationalism of organizations such as the Black Panther party and leaders like Stokely Carmichael. "When white America killed Dr. King," Carmichael warned after the shooting in Memphis, "she declared war on black America and there could be no alternative to retribution....Black people have to survive and the only way they will survive is by getting guns."

At the same time, white backlash mounted in the nation's cities and suburbs, a seething resentment most powerfully revealed in the enthusiasm for the independent campaign of George C. Wallace. In 1968, the Alabama governor famous for his stand-off with Martin Luther King during the Selma marches launched a third-party campaign for president. Wallace combined his hostility to civil rights with a populist contempt for the high and mighty. Champion of the little guy, he denounced "briefcase totin' bureaucrats," pointy-headed intellectuals, and federal judges who wouldn't mind their own business. Crowds roared approval as the governor mocked "Yale Ph.D.s who can't tie their own shoelaces, hypocrites who if you opened their briefcases you'll find nothing in them but a peanut butter sandwich."

In September 1968, national polls showed Wallace with the support of nearly 25 percent of American voters; the Alabama governor was running strong not only in the white South, where his defense of racial segregation had made him a hero, but also in the urban North. In Rustbelt cities, Wallace's advocacy of law and order, contempt for antiwar protesters, and opposition to further civil rights advances won him the admiration of many working-class white ethnics. The early Sixties vision of peaceful, nonviolent reform -- of ending poverty and racism -- evaporated.

In their distress, many Americans looked to a leader who could heal the nation's wounds. They found their man in Senator Robert F. Kennedy, out on the campaign trail for president. On the night of King's assassination, Bobby Kennedy rejected his wife's advice to cancel his scheduled appearance in Indianapolis and instead addressed the crowd. Kennedy paid tribute to King's life and work and then appealed directly to his audience. "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed." But, the candidate pleaded, "we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times....What we need in the United States is not division," Bobby concluded. "What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black."

Kennedy resuscitated the hopes for peaceful, meaningful reform. His campaign, after tough fights across the country, faced its decisive test in the June California primary -- the contest that would likely decide whether he could win his party's nomination for president. Kennedy won the primary, addressed the cheering crowd in his campaign hotel, and headed toward the press room for interviews. On the way, a young man fired a snub-nosed revolver at Bobby from point-blank range. He collapsed onto his back. Five others fell in the hail of bullets. All of them would survive. But the next day, after three hours of surgery and other heroic efforts to revive him, Robert Kennedy died.

If those assassinations did not extinguish the extravagant hopes of the era, one small, historically insignificant event in the fall of 1968 signaled the end of the optimistic, liberal 1960s. On October 20, thirty-nine-year-old Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of the martyred president, married a sixty-two-year-old Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Socrates Onassis. The mystery of this event -- why would she? how could she? -- shocked the nation for weeks. Comedian Bob Hope made light of it. Referring to Spiro Agnew, the Greek-American governor of Maryland running for vice president on the Republican ticket, Hope jested, "Nixon has a Greek running mate and now everyone wants one." For most, it was no laughing matter but the tawdry end of Camelot. The shining knight had died, and now the swarthy villain carried off his noble lady. The dream that was the 1960s, it seemed, had died. The stormy, uncertain Seventies had begun.

The End of "The Great American Ride"

Its drama aside, 1968 should not be torn from the fibers and wrappings of history; its real significance lay as a cultural divide. The last days of the Sixties signaled the end of the post-World War II era, with its baby boom and economic boom, its anticommunist hysteria and expansive government, and the beginning of another age, the long 1970s, which defined the terms of contemporary American life. After two decades of postwar prosperity, Seventies Americans took for granted a set of political assumptions, economic achievements, and cultural prejudices. But after 1969 Americans entered a disturbing new world. The experiences of the postwar generation would offer little guidance.

During the postwar era America enjoyed unchallenged international hegemony and unprecedented affluence. The boom ushered ordinary working Americans into a comfortable middle-class lifestyle; millions of blue-collar workers owned the...

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