A Legacy of Leadership: Governors and American History

By Clayton McClure Brooks | Go to book overview

Governing the 1970s

Although Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon in 1969 had left Americans hopeful for the future, a number of pressing issues remained to be resolved and new crises arose in the 1970s that drew governors ever further into national and international concerns. Political scandal made many Americans distrustful of government. As this disaffection grew, governors responded by reviving the ideal of state government as close to its citizens and the protector of American democracy. But the challenges of the decade made this goal difficult. Deindustrialization began as jobs in the manufacturing sector shrank, displacing workers in steel and other industries and triggering a population shift from northern manufacturing centers to cities in the South and Southwest where economic opportunities in other labor sectors were growing.

In addition to this economic unease and displacement, protests over Vietnam reached a fever pitch in the early years of the decade. Much of this antiwar activism centered on college campuses as students rebelled against the policies of the national government and President Richard Nixon’s seeming indifference to their concerns. Disagreement escalated to bloodshed on May 4, 1970, when National Guardsmen fired shots into a group of student protestors at Kent State University. Four were left dead, and the country was stunned. Speaking before the 1970 winter meeting of the National Governors’ Conference, Spiro Agnew, former governor of Maryland (1967–1969) and Nixon’s vice president, called upon the nation’s governors to band together and quell the antigovernment discontent. “What is the greatest issue today? It is not the war in Vietnam, nor inflation, nor the environment…. Simply stated it is ‘Will the Government of this country remain in the hands of its elected officials, or will it descend to the streets?’” He was convinced that governors could control the situation, advising them to “just launch a campaign to exert the force of public opinion to drive these bizarre extremists from the preemptive positions on our television screens, and the front pages of our newspapers.”1 But most governors were hesitant to adopt Agnew’s fiery and divisive rhetoric. The United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, yet domestic discontent remained.

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