A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

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

How the Seventies Changed
America

Nicholas Lemann

The only major historical account of “The Seventies” to appear before the year 2000 was titled It Seemed Like Nothing Happened. And much of what did happen was bad: Watergate, recession, the oil crisis, the Iranian hostage situation, polyester leisure suits. The 1970s have passed into the historical imagination as a wasteland, a failure of a decade lost between the great dreams of the 1960s and the “Reagan revolution” of the 1980s. But in this article from American Heritage, respected journalist Nicholas Lemann argues that this “runt” of a decade was in fact far more significant than anyone dreamed.

“That’s it,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then U.S. ambassador to India, wrote to a colleague on the White House staff in 1973 on the subject of some issue of the moment. “Nothing will happen. But then nothing much is going to happen in the 1970s anyway.”

Moynihan is a politician famous for his predictions, and this one seemed for a long time to be dead-on. The seventies, even while they were in progress, looked like an unimportant decade, a period of cooling down from the white-hot sixties. You had to go back to the teens to find another decade so lacking in crisp, epigrammatic definition. It only made matters worse for the seventies that the succeeding decade started with a bang. In 1980 the country elected the most conservative President in its history, and it was immediately clear that a new era had dawned. (In general the eighties, unlike the seventies, had a perfect dramatic arc. They peaked in the summer of 1984, with the Los Angeles Olympics and the Republican National Convention in Dallas, and began to peter out with the Iran-contra scandal in 1986 and the stock market crash in 1987.) It is nearly impossible to engage in magazine-writerly games like discovering “the day the seventies

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