God I Heart “The Seventies”

The Seventies
Perhaps not a glorious decade to live in, the Seventies are a blast to teach. There is no widely held mythology about the seventies to debunk. When I have asked my students about it, they vaguely mention disco, and then someone remembers who John Travolta is (or was). They perhaps reference Jimmy Carter, but no one has brought up Watergate in years (Nixon would be so proud of these young, fine Americans). So there isn’t much unlearning that needs to happen. There may be many reasons for this, but one of them may be that U.S. history classes rarely get past Watergate. During my first semester as a TA (which was in 1999), that’s where we stopped. Now, I’m excited to say that it’s not even Thanksgiving and we’re zooming into the abyss that is the 1970s.
Hist and Major Problems provide some great approaches to the era. Both focus on the “limits” of liberalism and the “downfall” of presidents. Schultz emphasizes the “limits of liberalism” and takes us through Nixon’s presidency, and especially his triumphs in foreign affairs, and through Ford and Carter. Hist also has a nice section on the “politics of identity” (Alex Haley’s Roots) and struggles over women’s rights (ERA versus Phyllis Schlafly). Major Problems has a tremendous array of documents on the Vietnam War, from Ho Chi Minh pleading with Truman for support to County Joe and the Fish lampooning the war with lines like: “Well, come on all of you, big strong men, / Uncle Sam needs your help again. / He’s got himself in a terrible jam / Way down yonder in Vietnam.” And when Major Problems highlights the rise of the new right that resulted in Reagan’s presidential election in 1980, the documents are just terrific. There’s Archie Bunker singing “those were the days,” Phyllis Schlafly denouncing feminism, California’s hating their taxes (this is a history class, right?!?), and Jerry Falwell calling America back to its “Christian roots.”
Black Jesus on Good Times
One example of the limits of liberalism that won’t make it into a textbook, but that typifies the era to me, is what became of “liberation theologies” during the 1970s – those new waves of Christian theology that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s that put the church and Christ on the side of oppressed minority groups (remember Jeremiah Wright – as he was shouting “God damn America” also making the point that Jesus was black?). Liberation theology may seem like a parochial point that is better suited for a US religious history class, but what happened to it in the 1970s was emblematic. In the 1960s, minority groups from throughout North and South America created new brands of theology. It was an exciting time of religious invention. Some black theologians claimed Jesus was black (James Cone, for instance, and the second episode of Good Times featured a discussion about a black Christ). Some Catholic theologians in Latin America claimed that Jesus was with poor, rural, suffering Latin Americans (Gustavo Gutiérrez, for instance). Feminists pushed against Christ’s masculinity (Rosemary Ruether). In the 1970s, these various theologies started to interact with one another. At international conventions, they were hopeful they could create a comprehensive theology that linked all minority groups.

And it all fell apart. As the liberal and radical groups met, they could not agree upon whose suffering was most severe or how best to battle oppression. The result was frustration and splinter. A new group of thinkers called themselves womanists (Jacquelyn Grant, for instance) and saw Christ against white power, patriarchy, and capitalism … some formidable opponents, indeed. Liberation theology, like liberalism, still went on – the Jeremiah Wright’s of the world are examples of that – but they seemed “stuck in the sixties”, as even Barack Obama recognized when he put distance between himself and Reverend Wright.

I like the tale of liberation theologies, in part because I write about race and religion, but also because it brings up some international and multicultural dimensions from the civil rights era, but also because it shows how when the various groups came together, they had such trouble creating a center that could hold.
For discussion later this week, we’re going to discuss that one word Jimmy Carter spoke that nobody wanted to hear: malaise. If any one word could typify the era, that would be it. We’ll see through the Major Problems documents and a few movie trailers (The Graduate and Saturday Night Fever). And then for the 1980s, we’ll follow the mythic career of Rocky Balboa.

19 thoughts on “God I Heart “The Seventies”

  1. and there are lots of ways to connect liberation theologies to other points about the decades. There’s Shirley Chisholm as the first African American woman elected to the HOR (and then running for president); there’s the farm workers movement; there’s the ERA and Roe v. Wade (1973) as well.

  2. I grew up in NYC during the 70s and 80s. Here are a few of the things I remember of the 70’s.
    Some events are the Iran hostage crisis (preceded by the removal of the Shah by the Ayatollah), the gas crises, the Bicentennial, the NYC Blackout and Evel Knievel jumping the Snake River.
    On TV I remember Sesame Street, One Day At A TIme (about a single mom raising two daughters, one being the lovely Valerie Bertinelli), Happy Days, Six Million Dollar Man and Roots.
    Movies I remember included Jaws, Star Wars and the Exorcist though I wasn’t allowed to see the later. Plus alot of disaster movies like Towering Inferno and Poseidon’s Adventure.
    Some toys I remember are Big Wheel, GI Joe w/ kung-fu grip and pong.

  3. Why do you think most US survey courses end around 1970? I taught this course as a GTI for the first time last spring. I spent one lecture going through the decade before I ran out of time. Perhaps my emphasis on industrialization/labor issues bogged me down a bit too long. More than one professor in the department in which I’m studying have suggested that the two survey system is getting a bit too cumbersome. I would tend to agree. What are your thoughts?

  4. The document I chose was from chapter 14 document 9, “Senator J. Ervin Explains the Watergate Crimes, 1974.” The reason I chose this document, and why I found it interesting, is because I have never clearly understood what exactly were the crimes behind Watergate until I read this. Before, when I ever heard of Watergate, I would always think in my head “the secret Nixon recording tapes” and that was all I would know. It was not until Professor Blum explained it in class and going over this document that I now fully understand why Watergate was such a scandal for Nixon leading to his resignation.
    The main crime in this document was that Nixon used espionage by bugging the Democratic National Committee to steal information form the democratic opposition so he may have an advantage in winning the presidency again. He obviously did not go of this alone. Nixon and his reelection committee were all part of this. Some of them disguised their real identities so they may obtain information and falsify documents to discredit their opponents, such as E. Howard Hunt. Another thing that interested me was that Nixon and his committee’s took advantage of his executive power to commit acts of espionage. The committee also said that they threatened the news media if they disapproved any of the president’s policies for reelection by sending federal agencies after them such as the FBI and the IRS.
    I was really surprised that there was more than one crime related to Watergate. It is hard to believe that Nixon, even though he ended the Vietnam War and had good foreign policies, would be so paranoid about reelection that he thought he had to use unfair strategies to guarantee his reelection.

  5. Dear Chris, I’ve heard from a lot of Americanists this desire to break the survey into 3 parts, and I’m sure some places do that. I’ve also witnessed non-Americanists (world historians and those who teach western civ) cringe when U.S. historians bring this up as an idea. They’re forced to make choices, leave out huge chunks of time and geography, and pick particular narratives to tell. They often cover much longer periods and sometimes greater spatial range. My answer is it is ok to let go. It’s ok to let go of the Populists, or the intricacies of Great Depression culture, if it allows me to get to Reagan’s America, to the 1990s third way, political correctness, Bill Clinton, and 9/11. My students want to know the histories of the things they’re familiar with … or the phrases that they use … so I try to get us there.

  6. The document that I am going to discuss is from Chapter 14 of Major Problems, document 6 entitled “Draftee Sebastian A. Ilacqua Recalls Coming Back to ‘The World,’ 1967.”

    This document was interesting to me because the reader was able to see what a draftee was confronted with when he came back from fighting in the Vietnam War. Nowadays, for the most part, there is a general sense of gratitude for soldiers when they return home from either Iraq or Afghanistan. Amid the constant debate as to whether the war in Iraq was a war that should have been fought, soldiers still tend to come back to America and are treated in a positive light. Being that the Vietnam War was also a war that many felt that the United States should not have been involved in, it is interesting to me that a soldier back then was generally treated in a negative way whereas a soldier returning from war today is treated in a positive light. Being that both wars are critiqued as to whether we should be fighting in them, I wonder what the reason is for the difference in how soldiers are treated coming home from the Vietnam War and coming home from the War in Iraq and Afghanistan.


    Devin W

  7. I chose to write about document 9 in chapter14 titled “senator sam J ervin explains the water gate crimes” because it helped me understand the details of president nixon’s crimes. Other than knowing that nixon was paranoid and did some illegal spying, I had no other knowledge of the watergate scandal. upon reading i learned that it was Nixon’s white house aides who did the dirty work. a few accusations caught my attention such as “bugging and the burglary of the offices of the democratic national committee in watergate.” apparently the purpose for this was to obtain political intelligence. another accusation informed me of the presidents enemies “news media who opposed the presidents policies/reelection.” The document also discusses the objectives by nixon’s white house aides in committing these illegal and unethical acts. the first was to destroy the integrity of the process by which the president is nominated and elected. the second is to hide from law enforcement officers, prosecutors, grand jurors, courts, the news media, and the american people.

    Dominic V

  8. The document I chose to write about was document 6 in chapter 14 titled “Draftee Sebastian A. Ilacqua Recalls Coming Back to “The World,” 1967.”

    In my previous history classes, we have touched on the vietnam war, gone into some amounts of detail but it was mostly just the straight up facts of deaths, causalties, and the publics overall opinion on the war. I think that this particular document is extremely interesting because it is from a soldiers perspective on the world they once lived in before the war, and how they are treated after they have returned, after having experiencing the war. To me it is very clear that the overall public opinion was not in favor of our troops over seas fighting in Vietnam and it bothers me that the public treated these veterans so poorly. In this document Ilacqua and his fellow soldier were ignored in a restaurant in their own country! “We sat there patiently waiting for service. And waiting. It did not come. The waitress simply ignored us…We were being intentionally shunned. We had come face to face with the politics of the Vietnam War.” This really angers me because I feel that no matter what your opinion is on the war we need to show the respect our soldiers that they deserve because they are fighting for our country and risking their lives to defend our country everytime the go to war, whether they themselves agree with the war or not.

    Haley Palmer

  9. The article I will be discussing is Chapter 14, “Undersecretary of State George Ball Urges Withdrawal from Vietnam, 1965.”
    I find it interesting when Ball tries to warn the President, by saying, “The worse blow would be that the mightiest power on earth is unable to defeat a handful of guerillas” than losing credibility. Withdrawing from Vietnam seems to have a negative connotation, however as seen for Koreans, it’s a war that is a continuation of push and pull conflicts between the North and the South, where there is no end, in fact they concluded back to the original dividing boundary. Ball is trying to prevent any further casualties, since many of their soldiers are walking to a different country where they are blinded by the presence of what they should and shouldn’t expect. This relates back to how the Germans advanced into the Soviet Union during WWII, however the unexpected devastating winter caused the downfall to their advancement, which was an early indication of the German defeat later in the end. Ball is trying to show those signs for a retreat from Vietnam; however, the idea of communist advancing was unacceptable and including losing a victory. I wonder if the President have an idea to contribute, since he is turning down every comment made by Ball, as he authorize these meetings to reflect on this issue?

  10. Scott C. said….
    The document I chose is document 9 in chapter 14 “Senator Sam J. Ervin Explains the Watergate Crimes, 1974.”
    The reason I chose this article is because it is horrible to think about the United States president hurting the people of the United States for his own good to be reelected. It bothers me because today politics are still dirty and I only hope things like Watergate do not ever happen again. The main problem with what Nixon did was espionage operations to increase his chance of being reelected. I feel as if he was stealing away the people’s desires and implementing what he wanted. My question is do you think situations like this could still be happening with are presidents? I do not understand why Nixon was let free without any penalties for what he did. I feel this does not hold president’s responsible for their unethical decisions to personally help themselves not the people of the United States. One other question I have is would we now prosecute the president for doing unethical stuff with political elections?

  11. The document i am choosing to discuss from chapter 14 is document 6 titled ” Draftee Sebastian A. Illacqua Recalls Coming Back to “The World,” 1967″

    I really enjoyed reading this document because it was a personal story. Something about a personal recollection is more interesting to me than someones opinion on some topic. I found it really interesting when the soldiers recalled getting ignored in the restaurant as they were waiting for their train, as if they snapped back into reality and realized that “the world” is filled with various different opinions. They clearly were being reminded while fighting that they were doing an honorable thing for their country and they were saviours and heros, which of course is true, but at the same time some people obviously thought differently about war. I felt a sense of sympathy for him when he realized that his green suit didnt project optimism everywhere he went. It’s almost like a slap in the face, to be honest. I was glad at the end when the cab driver agreed to drive him home and didnt make him pay for the ride. He clearly saw the good in this soldier and acted with kindness which was in turn a great ending to this document.

    Ria R.

  12. The document I am going to discuss from chapter 14 is document 6 “Draftee Sebastian A. llacqua Recalls Coming Back to “The World,” 1967 (1995)” I really enjoyed this article because it was real. It did not feed the reader a glorified image of war, it was honest.

    I find it very shocking that soilders who fought it the Vietnam War were frowned upon. They were just doing their job and could not “just get a pass from the teacher and go home early.” These soilders were fighting for our nation and were just doing the same as past generations had done. Even though there were people who were resentful towards the soilders, there were others in the nation who showed respect and appreciated the soilders, this was portrayed through the cab driver at the end who did not make him pay for the cab ride.

    I enjoyed this article because usually in history classes we only get to learn statistics and perspectives from people who were not actually fighting in the war, so hearing about the soldiers experience was really interesting. One question I have about this is how long did resentful citizens frown upon the soldiers who were fighting over seas

    Sarah Halverson

  13. The document that I found the most interesting was “Rock Band Country Joe and the Fish Lampoons the Vietnam War, 1968” in Chapter 14 because it was a revolutionary song at the Woodstock festival in 1969. This song was popular especially at this festival because the people attending were all against the war. The song used lines such as “what are we fighting for?” to express their belief that the war was pointless. They believed that if everyone sang along they could stop the war. It was played in an upbeat tone even though the ideas behind it were angry and depressing. In the crowd everyone was dancing and singing along to lines such as, “be the first ones on your block to have your boy come home in a box,” because many of the people at this festival would have been forced to go to war if they hadn’t rebelled. In a way, this song was making fun of the war, even though in reality everyone was in fear of being drafted. This is what essentially formed the counterculture movement during this time, and this song expressed their beliefs in a nutshell.

  14. The document I am going to be discussing is “Senator Sam J. Ervin Explains the Watergate Crimes, 1974.”

    This document interest me because I have always heard of the Watergate scandal but this article really helped me to grasp the idea of what really happened. Nixon is a crook, and he believed that his re-election was what was best for the country. Nixon bugged the Democratic National Committee to get information that he could use to win the election. The Watergate scandal not only angered most of the United States but it changed the laws in campaigning financing. Nixon wrongly convinced the people and I think that he should have had a harsher punishment for what he did instead of being let off so easy. This isn’t the first scandal that has happened but it is the most serious, the question is will it happen it again?

  15. The document that interested me the most was “Rock Band Country Joe and the Fish Lampoons the Vietnam War, 1968” in Chapter 14.This song was played at the Woodstock Festival and was sung to show that everyone was against the war. Many lines in this song showed that people had lost a lot of their hope. Also they were questioning as to why there was a war and why even be in the war. If everyone joined in and sang together, they believed that the war would end. People sang this song to eventually try and end the war but really deep down inside they were terrified of being drafted to the military on short notice and have to leave their lovable family.

  16. The article I read was Draftee Sebastian A. Llacqua Recalls Coming Back to “The World,” 1967 (1995). I found this article particularly interesting because it was a personal story. In the passed when I first learned about the Vietnam War I vividly remember learning how grueling the war was. I remember that was what my teacher focused mostly on, was trying to explain just how bad the war was. Once I read this article, it made me realize the reality of this war and the mindset of the soldiers. He says in one part, The smell of Vietnamese mud was uniquely pungent; and there was plenty of mud-sometimes knee-deep. Living in the moisture-rich environment of South Vietnam had its drawbacks. Boots that never dry out, socks that rot and toenails that fall off, sleeping in water-that is, when you get a chance to sleep-and having to keep weapons and ammo clean and dry. Not to mention being the target of Vietnamese trying to kill you”.

    This whole article was so shocking to me. I can’t even imagine living in conditions like that, and it makes me feel thankful that we have people willing to fight for our country like that. My question about this article is, did most soldiers feel this way in Vietnam?

    Zoe Carroll

  17. The article I will be discussing is the ninth article in chapter 13 titled, ‘Carl Wittman Issues a Gay Manifesto, 1969-1970′”. Wittman starts off by saying how “San Francisco is a refugee camp for homosexuals”. I live in the bay area and visit San Francisco often and have been to what is known as The Castro District numerous times. Which is commonly known as the “Gay” district. I thought this was interesting because at the time Wittman probably never thought this “refugee camp” would actually be its own well known region in such a big city. He also states that “In the past year there has been an awakening of gay liberation ideas and energy”. This was over 40 years ago and somewhat makes me wonder that if gay marriage has yet to be fully accepted and legal within 40 years, who is to say that it ever will? Which also brings me to think about in class when you asked who believed gay marriage will eventually be passed and almost every hand but a select few was raised. This article reminded me of the “Don’t ask don’t tell” policy the military just passed, which I imagine is a huge feat for the gay community. As well as there is an entire parade known as “Pride” that takes place in numerous cities across the nation. This also makes me wonder what progress will be made for this community in the 40 years to come?

  18. The document I will be discussing from chapter 14 called “Senator Sam J. Ervin Explains the Watergate Crimes, 1974.” Before this class, I’ve always heard the whole Watergate event with Nixon, but never had a full understanding of it. I only knew that it was bad and it made Nixon look even worse. From what I’ve read so far, this was a very tragic event. If I were to think that our current President Obama have crimes like these, I would lose hope in noble presidents anymore. These are the people we are supposed to respect and have faith in, being politically active at this time would have made me so disappointed. It was also so bad that even White House aides were a part of all these crimes to, it just wasn’t just one person doing them. Nixon should not have went such great lengths to keep his presidency, and he also should not have been let off so easily. This makes me wonder if this kind of event could ever happen again, or if it could be secretly happening and we would never really know.

  19. I would like to discuss a document called “Rock Band Country Joe and the Fish Lampoons the Vietnam War, 1968.”
    This was a song of sarcasm. When I first read it, I thought it supported for the Vietnam War because it encouraged young men to pack up and fight against communism. However, when I carefully read it the second time, it was clearer to me that this song opposed the Vietnam War. The war happened so quickly that people did not know what they were fighting for. In the end, the last sentence left me with many thoughts, “To have your boy come home in a box…” I wonder if the Vietnam War was a guaranteed death sentence to many soldiers. The United States was technologically more advance in producing weapons, why would they have low confidence in this war? This song proved the mistrust in the war so I wonder if Vietnam War was a failure because of the Fall of Saigon or because of the withdrawal of American troops in Vietnam due to the intense protest in America?
    I really liked this song because it was a good blend of sarcasm and reflection of what people were experiencing during the Vietnam War.

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