The Magazine

Two Miserable Decades

Don’t worry, it was even worse in the 1970s. Or was it?

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Happy times are all alike, nestled in the comfortable batting of peace, growth, and stability. Every unhappy time is unhappy in its own way.

sorry no gas

America has been blessed because, since the end of the Great Depression, our nation has experienced only two periods of deep discontent that lasted a decade or more. The first was the 1970s. We are living through the second today. Which was worse? 

The popular mind often misremembers the past. For instance, these days the 1950s are held out as a time deserving special scorn. Stories set in the Eisenhower era are often shot through with contempt for the racism, sexism, hypocrisy, and dissatisfaction of American life. But this is revisionism; by many measures—wages, unemployment, home sales, marital stability, births, savings rates, upward mobility—the ’50s were an idyll.

What’s more, the happy times of the 1950s stretched into the 1960s. So long that “The ’60s” as we remember them—Woodstock, long hair, free love—didn’t really get underway until 1967 and continued well into the 1970s. That’s one of the central insights of David Frum’s wonderful book about the ’70s, How We Got Here. His other insight is that whatever people want to believe about the ’50s and ’60s, the stretch from 1967 to 1979 was a rarely mitigated disaster. 

Many people remember the headlines from the 1970s: the shooting war in Vietnam and the quiet but existential threat of the larger Cold War; a president nearly impeached; oil shocks that forced people to stand in line for gasoline. But the problems in America were both broader and deeper.

The economics of the 1970s, for example, were brutal. In 1969, the unemployment rate was 3.5 percent, the lowest it had been since the mid-1950s. (The postwar average has been about 5 percent.) By 1975 unemployment had more than doubled, to 8.5 percent. While people were working less, so was their money, as inflation ate into the value of the dollar. In the 1960s, the inflation rate rose above 2 percent only twice—until 1968. At which point it began steadily increasing, reaching 11 percent in 1974, 9.1 percent in 1975, and 11.3 percent in 1979. To understand the effect this financial terror had on the national psyche, consider how often inflation fears have recurred during the last 30 years—even though inflation hasn’t topped 6 percent since 1982.

Everyday life wasn’t much better than economic life. Terrorism first came into vogue in the 1970s. Sometimes it was a thuggish hijacking, with criminals commandeering an airplane and demanding passage to Cuba. Sometimes it was deadly, like the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Nobody much remembers it today, but in March 1977 Muslim radicals with machine guns and machetes marched into the B’nai B’rith headquarters in Washington, just five blocks north of the White House, and took 100 workers hostage. They herded the hostages onto the roof, where one was killed and two others were shot over the course of a standoff that lasted two days. Simultaneously, affiliated terrorists took over D.C. city hall, where future mayor Marion Barry was shot and a radio reporter was shot and killed. 

The B’nai B’rith incident was soon lost in the wash of small-scale attacks and bombings from Islamic extremists, Black Power radicals, and student leftists that punctuated life in the ’70s—none of which seems to have left much of an impact. One prelude to the ’70s did have lasting consequences. During the “long, hot summers” of 1964-68, 329 “important” riots took place in 257 U.S. cities, according to Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s authoritative America in Black and White, with a toll of some 300 dead, 8,000 injured, and 60,000 arrested. The riots in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, Newark, and, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Washington, D.C., were only the most famous. These eruptions helped drive the middle class out of urban cores in the ’70s, sending cities into decline and making the new underclass permanent.

Violent crime was almost nonexistent in the 1950s, but by 1973 it was rampant, and the Department of Justice had to create a new accounting system to keep track of it all. As Frum reports, in 1973 the FBI found that “37 million Americans—meaning one household out of every four—had suffered a rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, or auto theft.” In cities, the victimization rate was 1 in 3. In 1960, there were 9,000 murders in America. By 1975, the number was in excess of 20,000. (In 2010, with America’s population 50 percent larger, there were 14,000 murders.) Perhaps the most evocative statistic concerns schoolchildren. In 1979, 1 out of every 20 public school teachers reported being physically assaulted by a student during the previous year.

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