There’s got to be a morning afterIn the summer of ’73, when the song was a hit, things were pretty messed up. I was reminded of this as I read a new book on the 70s. I had my 13th birthday party just 16 days into the decade that would shape my life. Over the next ten years, I would graduate from high school and college, get a drivers license, work in a supermarket and then a bakery, begin a doomed marriage, and visit Japan. The decade ended on a rainy night driving back from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, listening to the FM radio, or maybe an 8-Track. Gas was expensive then, over a dollar a gallon for the first time. It was 35 cent a gallon when I got my driver’s license in January 1973. Somewhere around Wilson or Mt. Olive, driving on wet pavement through a dark night, the 80s began.
If we can just hold on through the night
We got a chance to find the sunshine
Let’s keep on looking for the light.
Here is my review:
Edward D. Berkowitz, Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 283 pages.
For Berkowitz, the 70s as an era ran from 1973 to Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. He cites ’73 as a beginning because so many things that helped define the era occurred that year: the end of American involvement in Vietnam, an Oil Embargo, and the crisis of a president that included the resignation of the Vice President (Nixon would resign a year later). Berkowitz does a great job of describing the 70s, reminding me of all the twist and turns we had in those turbulent years. We had a president who, by visiting China, changed the history of the world in ways that we can only begin to understand. I don’t think I realized how close we were to National Health Insurance in the early 70s, an idea that died with the economic downturn in ’74. And then we had a whole series of scandals, starting with Nixon and Agnew, but they weren’t nearly as colorful as Wilbur Mills and his strippers.
The sixties was an optimistic decade; the seventies were pessimistic. In the 70s, according to Bruce Schulman, America got made over, and ‘its economic outlook, political ideology, cultural assumption and fundamental arrangements changed.” It was an era of declining productivity and extreme inflation. It was the era when much of the United States industrial strength started to slip and countries like Japan made great strides in their own productivity.
Politically, Berkowitz divides the seventies into political eras: the fall of Nixon, the Ford years, and the Carter years. Reading the book, I felt sorry for Carter (and am reminded of Obama’s challenges). First of all, most of his problems were inherited. Berkowitz points out that Carter’s attempt to be “transparent” actually made it harder for him to get things through Congress. Furthermore, Congress had new found powers inherited from a weakened executive branch following Watergate. Carter was also the first post-World War II president not to have a period of economic growth. Then, just when it seemed his luck couldn’t get any worst, it did. His administration ended with Three Mile Island and the Iranian hostage crisis. Berkowitz notes that the problems Carter inherited and faced may have been beyond any politician ability to handle, but that Carter’s moralizing issues didn’t help and probably only made things worst.
Civil rights for African-Americans was the focus on the post-war years. According to Berkowitz (and others like Thomas Wolfe, whom he likes to quote), the 70s was the decade that everyone began to demand rights. Women’s rights were at the forefront. 1970 saw the release of a new brand of cigarettes that focused on women. Virginia Slims were advertised with the logo, “You’ve come a long ways, baby.” Much of the decade was spent arguing over the ERA amendment. I hadn’t realized that the ERA passed Congress with the support not only of the left, but with right-winged senators like Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater. Berkowitz goes into detail on reasons why it failed. One reason was the economic downturn, which made people afraid of change. The other two major reasons was the political savvy of those against it and the ERA debate being framed around the abortion issue. In addition to women’s right, the 70s saw the rise of the gay movement, disability rights and rights of immigrants. In many ways, all the new groups demanding their rights paralleled a shift from the Civil Rights era views of doing what was good for all America, to a focus on more individual concerns. The 70s is seen as the “ME” decade, which helps explain the rise of Reagan in the 80s.
Growing up in the South in the 70s, I was shocked that Berkowitz discussed the integration of Boston’s public schools and spent little time talking about the integration of the schools in the South or other areas of the country. Interestingly, the ruling that got busing started wasn’t in Boston was from North Carolina (Swan vs Charlotte Mecklenburg, 1971). Three years later, this ruling was used in Boston. As a Southerner who’s lived much of his adult life up north, I am still shocked at how segregated schools remain up here and find it strange that in upscale neighborhoods around northern cities, one can still find school districts that are mostly white.
Berkowitz does a better job on describing the political changes in the s70s than the culture changes. Culturally, he explores only movies and TV in depth. Although he acknowledges significant authors like John Updike, he does not explore the role they played in defining an era. In movies, he focuses mostly on “blockbusters,” a new way of marketing movies in an era that was seeing declines at the theater. As for TV, the 70s were the golden years as they didn’t have competition from cable and other forms of media. He discusses not only sitcoms, but also news programs and sports. Outside of a few brief mentions, he does not discuss the role of music. Maybe it was because I spent most of the decade as a teenager, that I think that music defined the era. It was the day when “album stations” bucking the top-40 trend were exiled to FM, the era of Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and southern rock. It was also, sad to say, the era of disco.
I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it; I just wished Berkowitz had gone further. He does a wonderful job discussing American politics. One final criticism, he overlooks lots of major world changes that were occurring, especially in Africa. Maybe the book should have been called a political history of the 70s in America.