The Magazine

Terrorism and Liberalism in the '70s

A decade of spinelessness helped pave the way for the election of Ronald Reagan

Feb 7, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 20 • By DAVID FRUM
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Supineness in the face of terrorist violence was such a distinctive trait of the 1970s that the phenomenon acquired a useful shorthand name: the Stockholm Syndrome, after an incident that occurred in the summer of 1973. Two ex-cons attempted to rob a bank in the Swedish capital. Police burst in on the robbery and, to protect themselves, the crooks grabbed four hostages and fled into the bank vault. The police besieged the robbers for five days, and finally flushed them out by drilling holes in the vault ceiling and dropping tear gas inside. Then a curious thing happened. One of the hostages emerged to announce that she had fallen in love with and intended to marry the lead crook. The syndrome entered ordinary speech a year later when Patty Hearst, the media heiress, threw in her lot with the political radicals who had kidnapped her. She denounced her family and fiance on tape recordings. "I have changed -- grown. I've become conscious and can never go back to the life we led before. . . . My love . . . has grown into an unselfish love of my comrades here, in prison and on the streets." Hearst even toted a gun alongside her captors in an April 1974 San Francisco bank robbery.

The Stockholm Syndrome seemed to grip the whole world. All too often, it was the targets of terrorism who endured the blame for the gunmen's crimes. The influential French newspaper Le Monde expressed this line of reasoning forcefully in a 1977 commentary on the outrages of the Baader-Meinhof gang: "Only a society that is itself monstrous can produce monsters."

The Carter administration fell victim to the Stockholm Syndrome, too. In a speech given soon after the Iranians took 52 American diplomats in Tehran hostage, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance urged Americans not to get too upset over the incident. "Most Americans now recognize that we alone cannot dictate events. This recognition is not a sign of America's decline. It is a sign of growing American maturity in a complex world." When Vance's boss, President Jimmy Carter, warned a few weeks later that there was a limit to American maturity, the Ayatollah Khomeini mocked him: "He [Carter] sometimes threatens us militarily and at other times economically, but he is aware himself that he is beating on an empty drum. Neither does Carter have the guts for military action, nor would anyone listen to him." (When Carter finally attempted military action, which crashed and burned in the Iranian desert in April 1980, Vance resigned in protest.)

But America was not an empty drum. After a decade of insults, large and small, the Iran hostage-taking snapped the country out of its defeatist funk. Disc jockeys began playing a comic new song to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann": "Bomb, bomb, bomb; bomb, bomb Iran." "What's flat and glows in the dark?" went a popular joke. The punch line: "Iran, 24 hours after Ronald Reagan's inauguration." The Iranians must have heard the joke too. Before the 24 hours had elapsed, all the hostages were released.

The humiliations of the Carter years stiffened America's spine. A constellation of influential ex-Democrats -- Paul Nitze, Irving Kristol, Eugene Rostow, and Norman Podhoretz -- formed a "Committee on the Present Danger," to rally the country for rearmament. In 1975, only 18 percent of Americans said the country was spending "too little" on defense. In 1978, still only 28 percent said the country was spending "too little." But by 1980, an overwhelming 60 percent majority worried the country was spending too little.

Carter never quite managed to understand what the country was bothered about. He scorned Ronald Reagan's demand for firmness and resolve, telling reporters that Reagan's criticisms of his policies reflected Reagan's "apparent inability" to understand the complexities of arms control. "If you've got just a strong military and you are jingoistic in spirit, and just show the macho of the United States," Carter explained to 50 Chicago suburbanites a month before the 1980 election, "that is an excellent way to lead our country toward war. . . . The Oval Office is not a place for simplistic answers. It is not a place for shooting from the hip. It is not a place for snap judgments that might have serious consequences." But if the choices were simplistic answers or Carter's answers, simplicity could look mighty appealing. In September 1980, Leon Jaworski, a former Watergate special prosecutor, signed up as the honorary chairman of "Democrats for Reagan." When reminded by a reporter of his earlier harsh assessment of the Republican nominee -- not five months before Jaworski had described him as "an extremist whose over-the-counter simplistic remedies and shopworn platitudes trouble the open-minded and informed voter" -- Jaworski replied, "I would rather have a competent extremist than an incompetent moderate."

It was the collapse of social order at home and the ebbing of American prestige abroad that shattered Democratic liberalism. As anti-Vietnam protesters battled police outside the 1968 Democratic convention, a pollster asked the American public whether Mayor Daley had done right to unleash his cops to club and arrest unarmed students carrying "We are your children" placards. Sixty-six percent said yes, Mayor Daley was right; only 20 percent said no. The Daley poll asked Americans to take sides between the forces of order and the forces of disorder. By inventing excuses for riots, condoning crime, and cringing before terrorism, Democratic liberals finally convinced the public that only conservatives and Republicans could be trusted to maintain order. "Since 1960," observed a Yale anthropologist who lived for two years of the middle 1970s in Canarsie, a working-class neighborhood adjacent to Kennedy Airport in New York, "the Jews and Italians of Canarsie have embellished and modified the meaning of liberalism, associating it with profligacy, spinelessness, malevolence, masochism, elitism, fantasy, anarchy, idealism, softness, irresponsibility, and sanctimoniousness. The term conservative acquired connotations of pragmatism, character, reciprocity, truthfulness, stoicism, manliness, realism, hardness, vengeance, strictness, and responsibility." In 1980, the Roosevelt Democrats of Canarsie voted overwhelmingly in favor of Ronald Reagan, the Jewish precincts nearly as heavily as the Italian ones.

Americans in 1980 were not returning to the era of laissez faire. Rugged individualism no longer swayed them. But neither did the soft social-democratic ethos of the middle years of this century that had ushered in a bloody decade of terrorism. Americans were moving on to something new: a creed that blended the antique ideal of self-reliance with a new sense of entitlement. It was a fuzzy political idea -- perfect for the fuzzy era to come -- and the struggle to imbue it with meaning would define the politics of the post-Cold War era.