A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Part 7
AN ERA OF TRANSFORMATION

The 1970s represented the end of an era. Throughout the thirty years after World War II American politics had functioned on the premise that nothing was impossible if America wished to achieve it. We would be guardians of freedom, send a man to the moon, conquer social injustice, eliminate poverty, develop impressive technology—in short, control the universe. That sense of confidence and of power had been a hallmark of all political factions in the country, even young radicals who thought that by their own endeavors they could change the world. In the 1970s, however, a new sense of limits struck home. The United States suffered its first loss in war. Richard Nixon became the first president forced to resign in disgrace, in large part because he himself had no sense of limits to his own presidential power. The oil-producing countries of OPEC quickly made Americans conscious of their dependence on the rest of the world during the 1973–74 oil boycott and the sporadic shortages thereafter. When Iranian revolutionaries held American diplomats hostage for more than a year, the sense of being subject to powers beyond one’s control became a reality reinforced by every newscast. The American tendency toward hubris—the arrogant confidence that one can do anything—had come face to face with the realities of human frailty, mortality, and interdependency.

By the time that President Richard M. Nixon resigned in disgrace, Americans’ basic faith in their political system had been shaken. The years of polarization and the Vietnam War had taken an enormous toll on the American public. And as more and more evidence of governmental wrongdoing surfaced—Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia; Watergate—the nation felt betrayed. Jimmy Carter spoke directly to that sense of betrayal when in 1976 he told the American people that they deserved a government as good as they were, one based upon faith, honesty, integrity, dignity, and respect for traditional

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