TCS Daily

The Long Shadow of the 1970s

By Kenneth Silber - October 7, 2004 12:00 AM

When I was a kid, there was a time when I regularly read the New York Daily News but only its back pages -- sports and comics. Then one day, I got curious about what was in the front of the newspaper, and I turned to the top story of that day. It was about the United States evacuating its embassy in Saigon. It was 1975, and I was nine years old.

That was my first moment of real interest in the wider world, and naturally I became more of a news consumer over the next several years. In the late 1970s, there was a pervasive sense of American decline. This was evident in news stories about matters ranging from inflation to Iran, Angola to unemployment, Soviet missiles to Jimmy Carter's "killer rabbit." Locally, New York was on the verge of bankruptcy, crime was rising, and the subways were covered with graffiti. The Queens public schools I attended were rife with fighting and drugs. The 1977 blackout brought widespread looting, unlike the 1965 blackout that New Yorkers had responded to with calm and camaraderie.

It was common at that time for commentators to speak of American problems as intractable, and of American decline -- social, economic, military -- as inevitable. But an alternative view, increasingly voiced by neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz, was that the country's problems stemmed largely from bad policies. In this view, U.S. weakness and naiveté in foreign and defense policy had led to debacles such as the Iran hostage crisis. The economy was being hobbled by excessive taxes, spending and regulation. Lenient courts and expanding welfare programs were producing social decay.

This neoconservative view was a criticism of liberal policies, yet it also differed in an important way from much conservative thinking. Conservatives had long been, almost by definition, pessimists; they believed they were on the wrong side of history. The neocon emphasis, however, was that problems could be solved, and national decline reversed, if the policies that produced those phenomena were changed. This optimism gradually seeped into conservatism more broadly. Meanwhile, liberalism took on a more pessimistic tone from the 1970s onward, in sharp contrast to its 1960s exuberance.

The neoconservatives, more importantly, were right. Policies could be changed, and were. The subsequent decades saw many problems that had seemed intractable -- crime, inflation, the Cold War -- become significantly reduced and in some cases even fundamentally solved. The Reagan administration, in its foreign and economic policies, played an enormous role in the country's turnaround from its 1970s malaise. However, over time, both sides of the political aisle and all levels of government played a role. The welfare reform of the 1990s, for instance, was ultimately a bipartisan achievement.

The 1970s have overshadowed the current presidential race in one obvious way -- in the discussion of what the candidates did or did not do during their military service. But far more important is whether the candidates have learned the broader lessons of the 1970s. It is not particularly clear, for example, that either President Bush or Senator Kerry grasps the economic dislocations that can be caused by rapid growth in government spending.

Presumably some lessons of the 1970s have been learned. No candidate is likely to return the top income tax rate to 70 percent, or to seek to impose wage and price controls throughout the U.S. economy. But it is hard to feel confident, particularly in the case of Sen. Kerry, that the full import of the 1970s experience of economic interventionism has been absorbed.

Regarding national security, there are more lessons from the 1970s. It should give pause to anyone who wants a "more sensitive" foreign policy, let alone a "more sensitive war on terror" such as Sen. Kerry has called for, that there was a time when U.S. policy was sensitive in this way. The Carter era was marked by a strong aversion to the use of force, for example in responding to an act of war by Iran with avowed restraint. The international turmoil of that period provides a cautionary note about the limitations of such an approach.

The most glaring lesson, however, is from Vietnam, something quite relevant amid Sen. Kerry's calls for accelerated troop withdrawals from Iraq (and amid unconfirmed reports that the Bush administration plans something similar). The U.S. defeat in Vietnam directly led to genocide and mass dislocations of people in Southeast Asia. It was a crushing blow to U.S. power and prestige that ushered in the highly dangerous international situation of the late 1970s and that sapped society's morale more broadly. The Vietnam War is much discussed these days by analogy with Iraq, but the disastrous consequences of losing a war have not received the attention they deserve.


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