Chapter 12 The 1970s
The most important achievement of the federal government during the 1960s was the belated achievement of the goals it had declared a century prior during Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed equal protection irrespective of race, while the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected the right of Americans to vote. The 1970s began with the last major expansion of that right, as Congress overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment extending suffrage to eighteen-year-olds in March 1971. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment was ratified by the states within a few months with virtually no opposition. Similar amendments had been offered in previous decades, but the 1960s demonstrated as had no other epoch in US history the political activism of college-aged students. It also demonstrated the sacrifice of the younger generation in Vietnam. As that war continued to rage, most Americans agreed someone old enough to be drafted into the military should also have a voice in government.
Despite liberal and conservative support for the amendment, the dominant feature of America in the 1970s continued to be partisan conflict. However, the 1970s were unique from the previous decade in two major ways. First, the most recognizable forms of racial and gender discrimination had been outlawed and a new federal agency had been created to enforce these laws. Most whites believed this was sufficient and hoped that issues of racial equality would cease to occupy a leading place in the public dialogue. Second, the nation experienced political, military, and economic crises at home and abroad that shook the confidence of most Americans.
Americans had grown accustomed to economic and military hegemony throughout the previous three decades. The political upheavals that challenged Soviet rule throughout Eastern Europe during the late 1960s and the rising tensions between China and the Soviet Union suggested that the United States was prevailing in the Cold War. However, the economic and military might of the United States failed to produce victory in Vietnam, insulate the nation from economic decline at home, or guarantee access to Middle Eastern oil. In response to each of these crises, liberals of the New LeftRefers to those who supported liberal causes during the 1960s and 1970s, such as civil rights for women and minorities and the expansion of the welfare state to confront problems faced by the poor. Whereas the “old” left embraced Socialism, the “new” liberal activists generally sought to distance themselves from Marxist ideas in favor of grassroots action within the existing political system. sought to reassure Americans that the promise of the 1960s might still prevail. Conservatives sought to reinvent themselves by distancing themselves from the racial intolerance of their past while seeking a return to the economic and political hegemony America had once enjoyed.
The New Left was a loose coalition of postwar liberal reformers labeled as “new” to distinguish themselves from the Socialist “old left” of previous generations. Conservatives had rallied behind Republican President Richard Nixon. Eisenhower’s former vice president issued a campaign promise to restore “Law and Order,” a slogan that appealed to many Americans who were uncomfortable with the rapid changes of the past decade. However, Nixon had also tried to win over moderates and promised to end the war in Vietnam shortly upon taking office. Nixon’s pledge of “peace with honor” was vague enough, however, that as president he could still claim that his escalation of the war was exactly what he had promised on the campaign trail.
Nixon hoped that increasing military aid for South Vietnam while escalating the aerial attacks on the rest of the country would allow him to slowly withdraw ground troops without surrendering any more territory to the North. Publicly, Nixon spoke of victory. Privately, even Nixon doubted that the North Vietnamese would ever abandon their campaign to reunite all of Vietnam. Absent of exit strategy, Nixon chose to escalate the war in the hopes of convincing the North to accept an armistice similar to the agreement that ended US participation in the Korean War. Success in this regard, Nixon believed, would make him the most revered commander in chief since Eisenhower. Instead, US forces would belatedly withdraw from Vietnam, which quickly succumbed to Communist forces. Following revelations about some of his secret dealings, Nixon would have the lowest approval rating of any US president and be forced to resign in disgrace.