The 1970s were an interesting and sometimes thrilling time to be alive in America. Referred to as "The 'Me' Decade" by author Tom Wolfe, it heralded the movement away from '60s-style communitarianism toward individualism. Political scandal rocked this decade like no other and distrust of government was at an all-time high. The sexual revolution seeded in the '60s had paved the way for the women's liberation movement and American culture underwent a dramatic coming-of-age.
Culture and Society
The arts, music and culture to emerge in the first half of the '70s largely reflect the antiwar and counterculture sentiments and the political unrest that carried over from the '60s. American folk rock was at its most prolific in the '70s with bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Band at their best, and saw a boom in the singer-songwriter genre. British rock bands like the Rolling Stones and The Who continued to be enormously popular, as were "supergroups" like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Disco emerged in the second half of the decade with bands like The Village People, ABBA and the BeeGees, whose hit "Stayin' Alive" was the anthem of the 1977 disco-themed blockbuster Saturday Night Fever. People packed cinemas in record numbers to see The Godfather (1972), Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) and got scared out of their wits by The Exorcist (1973). Women increasingly took part in the workforce, as epitomized in the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970-1977). The landmark court case of Roe v. Wade (1973) was a turning point in women's reproductive rights but also became a flashpoint in the so-called "culture wars" that still divide Americans today. The gay rights movement gained steam in the Seventies, with America's first gay pride parade held in New York City in 1970 and the first openly gay individual elected to public office in 1974.
The killing of four unarmed student war protesters by the National Guard at Ohio's Kent State University in 1970 sparked nationwide protests that shut down many of the country's colleges. The distrust of government sparked by opposition to the war in Vietnam grew greater as political scandals unfolded. No sooner had President Richard Nixon scored a smashing victory over liberal antiwar Democrat George McGovern in the 1972 election than he found himself embroiled in the Watergate scandal. Beginning with the burglary of Democratic Party headquarters, the scandal soon metastasized into a litany of abuses including FBI spying on Americans and political dirty tricks. The Watergate scandal dominated newspaper headlines for a year and a half and two intrepid reporters for the Washington Post kept digging up more dirt, memorialized in 1976's All the President's Men. Congressional hearings mesmerized the country with tales of scurrilous doings in the White House -- much of it, it was revealed, secretly tape-recorded. Nixon was compelled to resign in 1974 after the House voted several articles of impeachment and his successor Gerald Ford ignited a firestorm by pardoning him. Democrats swept into Congress in huge numbers in 1974 in the scandal's wake and Jimmy Carter, who promised the American people he would never lie to them, defeated Ford in the 1976 election. Internationally, an agreement signed in 1973 ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the U.S. and U.S.S.R. continued to pursue détente, which essentially ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979.
During the first half of the 1970s, the economy was characterized by "stagflation" -- with both unemployment and inflation at uncomfortably high levels. The economic optimism of the previous decade -- the "go-go" Sixties -- gave way to an unease -- famously called a "malaise" by Jimmy Carter. Voter turnout in the 1976 presidential election was unenthusiastically low, even though Americans were celebrating the Bicentennial with celebrations and fireworks. The 1970s economy in America -- and the globe -- was deeply impacted by an international oil crisis, brought on by an embargo on oil exports put in place by Arab countries following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The price of oil would quadruple before it was over and in the meantime gas was rationed and drivers found themselves in lines at gas stations that were sometimes a mile long or more. Many decided to dump their "gas guzzlers" for compact cars, many of them imported. Inflation continued to plague the country throughout the '70s and many manufacturers -- particularly car makers -- blamed "sticker shock" for slow sales. By the end of Carter's term, short-term interest rates had peaked at nearly 20 percent.
Technology and Science
The 1970s saw ambitious unmanned expeditions to far-away planets with the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes and Stephen Hawking proposed his theories of black holes. The emergence of the first microprocessor in 1971 led to the the personal computer and eventually the multiplicity of electronic devices we employ today. The 8-bit Apple II, considered by many to be the machine that drove the personal computer revolution, made its debut in 1977. Microwave ovens became increasingly popular in the American home, as they got smaller and less expensive. In 1976, Betamax and VHS were dueling for supremacy in the video recording wars, but by the end of the decade VHS had come out on top. Cassette tapes, introduced in the '60s, became increasingly popular throughout the '70s and pushed the 8-track into the dustbin of history. The '70s heralded the video game era with appearance of the Atari console and games like Pong and PacMan. Genetically modified organisms were first created in 1973 and in 1977 the first complete DNA genome was sequenced. The first child conceived by in-vitro fertilization or IVF, Louise Brown, was born in Britain in 1978.
- The Seventies: The Great Shift In American Culture, Society, And Politics; Bruce J. Schulman
- A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present; Howard Zinn
- The Nation: The Legacy of the 1970s Fiscal Crisis
- Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images