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The 70's: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (for Better or Worse)
Copyright © 2000 David Frum
All right reserved.
FULL FAITH AND CREDIT
"Oil, steel, insurance, and the banks run this country. I'd go for public ownership of the oil companies if I didn't think the national politicians were a bunch of thieves."
—Nixon supporter, Brooklyn 1974.
AT THE CLIMAX OF THE 1947 FILM CLASSIC, "MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET," THE hero—a young lawyer determined to prove that a man who claims to be Santa Claus should not be institutionalized as a lunatic—opens the argument that will win his case by reading aloud a long description of the reliability of the U.S. Post Office. A weary district attorney urges him to get to the point: "The State of New York is second to none in its admiration for the Post Office Department." At which Santa's lawyer gives a signal, the doors to the courtroom are flung open, and postal workers march in with dozens of bags of mail addressed to "Santa Claus, North Pole" and deliver them to the man in the dock. Verdict for the accused. If the Post Office recognizes you as Santa, Santa you must be.
More than anything else in this ancient movie—morethan the gloves on the women or the hats on the men—that scene opens a window onto a completely vanished America. Trust the post office? That's a lot crazier than believing yourself to be Santa.
Back then, however, it wasn't just the Post Office that Americans believed in. They believed in the Army and the Navy. They believed in the scientists who had built the atomic bomb and discovered antibiotics. They believed in their judges, their shop stewards, their ministers and priests. They believed in Social Security and also in the free-enterprise system that had fed and armed the American serviceman and all his allies, while simultaneously pumping unheard-of riches into the bank accounts of the folks at home. If the Americans of 1947 could see their country now, what would they think? What would they think of a former presidential adviser and U.S. senator accusing the U.S. government of having blown a domestic civilian airliner out of the sky with a ground-to-air missile, as Pierre Salinger has done? Or a football star being acquitted of murder because a jury chose to believe, against all the evidence, that he had been framed by the Los Angeles Police Department? Or the polls showing that ever-rising numbers of Americans feel certain that their tax money is wasted, their politicians are crooks, their democracy is manipulated by powerful interests? Americans lived through depression and war without succumbing to despair. How could a vastly richer and far more secure America have sunk so deeply into sourness and pessimism?
Americans have never been especially trusting people—they laugh at suckers as brutally as the French laugh at cuckolds and the British laugh at foreigners. But in the middle years of this century, they somehow reconciled their lack of confidence in their fellow man with a quite astonishing faith in their political and social institutions. The University of Michigan found in 1958 that 57 percent of Americans trusted the government in Washington to do the "right thing" most of the time; another 14 percent trusted it to do the "right thing" almost all of the time. And the government in Washington was, even in those sunny days, one of America's least trusted institutions. Doctors and judges; generals and schoolteachers; clergymen and the presidents of corporations—in postwar America, all commanded a measure of trust from their fellow-citizens that today would strike most of us as downright gullible. Then, between 1967 and 1981, the United States sank into a miasma of self-doubt from which it has never fully emerged.
Some blame Watergate for this abrupt collapse of trust in institutions, but not very convincingly. For one thing, the decline in trust begins to appear in the polls as early as 1966, almost a decade before the Watergate was known as anything more than a big hole in the ground alongside the Potomac River. For another, the nation had managed unconcernedly to shrug off Watergate-style events before. Somebody bugged Barry Goldwater's apartment during the 1964 election without it triggering a national trauma. The Johnson administration tapped the phones of Nixon supporters in 1968, and again nothing happened. John F. Kennedy regaled reporters with intimate details from the tax returns of wealthy Republican donors, and none of the reporters saw anything amiss. FDR used the Federal Bureau of Investigation to spy on opponents of intervention into World War II—and his targets howled without result. If Watergate could so transform the nation's sense of itself, why did those previous abuses, which were equally well known to the press, not do so? Americans did not lose their faith in institutions because of the Watergate scandal; Watergate became a scandal because Americans were losing faith in their institutions.
The Vietnam war is a more plausible culprit for the loss of trust. The dates are right: 1965 to 1973. Certainly the war provoked in its critics a lacerating mood of fury against their government and their society. (In one of the great mad flights of oratory that characterized the antiwar movement, Norman Mailer charged: "It is self-evident that the Reader's Digest and Lawrence Welk and Hilton Hotels are organically connected with the Special Forces napalming villages.") Since those critics numbered some of the most influential members of the society—its most prominent and admired professors, writers, clergymen—their fury could make itself heard. But Vietnam is ultimately an unsatisfying explanation. The twenty-eight years that elapsed between the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Indochina and the end of the century is a long time by Americans' forgetful standards: longer than from V-J Day to the 1972 election. Moreover, the social groups that supported the war have since 1973 seemed no less alienated than the war's critics. Finally, if Vietnam is responsible, why does a very similar loss of faith in institutions settle upon nearly every other advanced industrial economy at about the same time? The political scientist Ronald Inglehart compared surveys of confidence in the local police in nineteen different countries between 1981 and 1990. (He chose the police because it was the institution for which data were available in the largest number of countries.) In only four of the nineteen countries did the percentage expressing "great confidence" rise, and of those four, two were Argentina and South Africa, countries where a democratically elected government had replaced a less democratic one. In fifteen of the nineteen countries Inglehart surveyed, including Canada, Britain, Japan, and South Korea, the percentage of the population expressing "great confidence" in the police fell, often dramatically.
Maybe the best way to explain the worldwide ebbing of trust in the 1970s is to re-examine the apogee of public confidence in the 1950s and early 1960s. Maybe what needs to be explained is not why latter-day Americans—and Canadians, Britons and Japanese—trust so little, but why an earlier generation trusted so much.
Think for a moment of how the world looked in 1900. For most people, life was almost unimaginably hard, but more frightening than the hardship of life was its chanciness. In the happy United States, some people born poor could—with effort and luck—rise to great wealth. Others, no less hardworking, ended their lives as maimed beggars because a bolt had sheared or a sprocket slipped. A tornado could wipe out ten years of work on the farm, a strike could bankrupt the merchants who supplied the workers' wives. We can look back on that world and see order, progress, and rising standards of living. Those in the middle of it certainly noticed the progress, but they saw no order. And order is something human beings crave.
One could tell the entire political, social, and cultural history of the United States and Western Europe from 1900 to 1960 as the story of an ever-more successful attempt to impose order on a recalcitrant world. That's what Britain's New Liberals tried to do after 1906 with their pioneering National Insurance programs; that's what Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress were seeking when they created the Federal Reserve in 1913. Orderliness was the underlying theme of the New Deal and of the similar attempts to guide and regulate the market that were tried in fascist and democratic Europe before and after World War II.
For a reasonable span of time, this enforced order held. A West German who saw a gleaming industrial democracy arising out of the rubble of Hamburg, a Briton who could for the first time visit the doctor without worrying about the bill, an American veteran who returned from war not to the slums of Brooklyn but to a neat house in Levittown, a car, and a refrigerator—these people had every reason to think that their societies were functioning brilliantly. Things worked. And when things work, it's natural to try more of the same. Have Keynesian economic policies driven the unemployment rate down to 4 percent? Then double-Keynesian policies should drive it down to 2 percent. Have frugal welfare payments mitigated the misery of the poor? Then generous welfare payments should abolish that misery altogether. Has a slight relaxation of discipline made schools more humane without diminishing standards? Then even laxer discipline should yield even better results. Unfortunately, every human idea, even the very best, is true only up to a point. Equally unfortunately, we usually only ascertain where that point is by bumping into it—hard. In the 1970s Americans did not merely bump into the limits of the ideas that had governed the midcentury world, they crashed. The distrust and despair that seized them were the wounds from that collision.
The 1950s are often described as conservative. In political terms, that is not quite right. The Fifties were the highwater mark of the New Deal coalition in the United States and social democracy in Western Europe. As conservative a politician as Senator Robert Taft sponsored bills calling for huge public-housing construction programs. Free-market economists like Britain's Lionel Robbins forcefully advocated massive government support for the universities and the arts. But if we use the word conservative to mean "cautious, averse to change, incremental," then the 1950s were a very conservative decade indeed. A war-battered world hungered for tranquility, stability, and the appearance of continuity. So, while public opinion in those years favored leftish policies, voters in the democratic countries consistently selected old men with right-of-center backgrounds to carry those policies out. Dwight Eisenhower—who at sixty-two was the oldest man to be elected president since James Buchanan in 1856—was actually the baby of the bunch. Alcide de Gasperi was sixty-four when he became the leader of post-Fascist Italy. Louis St. Laurent, the elegant corporate lawyer who governed Canada for most of the 1950s, was sixty-six when he ascended to the prime ministership in 1948. Shigeru Yoshida formed the first postwar Japanese government at age sixty-eight and stayed in office until age seventy-six. Charles de Gaulle was sixty-eight when he resumed power in France; he hung on past his seventy-ninth birthday. Konrad Adenauer was first elected chancellor of West Germany in 1949 at seventy-three, and won his last election at eighty-one. Winston Churchill returned to the British prime ministership in 1951 aged eighty-three and refused to quit until 1955.
The reality of change, the appearance of continuity—it was a formula that satisfied the peoples of the Western world for a decade and a half after the war. Not even the harsh recession of 1958-60 (the first severe downturn since the war) depressed public confidence. But no democracy remains grateful forever. As standards of living rose, as pensions and unemployment programs grew ever more plentiful, as the danger of renewed depression and a third world war seemed to abate, the self-confidence and ambition of the democracies surged and their patience with their own faults thinned. In 1957, Adenauer won his last election as West German chancellor on the slogan, "No Experiments." Five years later, at a convention in Port Huron, Michigan, the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society issued their famous statement denouncing this elderly caution. The United States, the Port Huron Statement complained, was pervaded by a "feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well." "For most Americans," the statement continued, "all crusades are suspect, threatening." It was time, they argued, for that hesitation to be cast aside.
"His was a generation of winners," Richard Goodwin would later write of his old boss and hero, John F. Kennedy. The old men who led the world in the 1950s had seen and suffered too much cruelty and stupidity to believe in Utopia. But to the rising men of the 1960s—the sergeants and lieutenants who had come of age during World War II and in the breathless years of reconstruction immediately afterward—the accomplishments of the 1950s seemed almost offensively paltry. The world leaders elected between 1960 and 1968 with rare exceptions shared two traits: They were relatively young and they believed in the limitless potential of their societies, their governments, and themselves. Kennedy was forty-three in November 1960, the youngest man ever to be elected president. Harold Wilson was forty-eight when he was elected prime minister of Great Britain in 1964, in a campaign in which his labor party promised to melt the British class system under the "white heat" of technology. Pierre Trudeau was an almost preternaturally youthful forty-nine when he assumed the prime ministership of Canada in 1968; Willy Brandt, a vigorous fifty-six when he became West Germany's first Social Democratic chancellor in 1966. Aldo Moro and Kakuei Tanaka were both striplings of forty-seven when they seized control of the dominant political parties in Italy and Japan, control they retained until their deaths no matter who sat in their countries' revolving prime ministerial chairs.
These young leaders would no longer abide the restraints that had bound the sad-eyed old men who had preceded them. No experiments? Without experimentation, how would social justice ever be attained? Nobody was quite sure how to define a just society, but however defined, the societies of the Western world, and especially of the United States, were generally agreed to have fallen well short. It was likewise generally agreed that the situation had to be rectified immediately. No less a moral authority than Martin Luther King Jr. explained in 1964 "Why We Can't Walt." And why should we wait? Money was piling up in government treasuries. The universities were crowded with self-confident experts offering solutions to the problems of poverty, urban overcrowding, racial animosity, air pollution, juvenile delinquency, anomie and alienation, and all the other social evils that had previously seemed inescapable elements of the human condition. Publishers poured forth books on pollution, on poverty, on racial prejudice, breaking their readers' hearts with the horror of the situation, pleading the urgency of immediate action. Everyone remembered the mighty battles triumphantly waged by the mass mobilization of the 1940s. If such victories could be won in time of war, why could not equal victories be won in time of peace? We had conquered Nazism. Why not poverty? The Marshall Plan for Europe had been a success. Why not a Marshall Plan for the cities? Robert Kennedy liked to quote (without credit) George Bernard Shaw during his campaign for the 1968 Democratic nomination, "Some see things as they are and say 'why?' I dream things that never were and say, 'why not?'" All the faith and trust heaped up in the years when everything went right were wagered in the 1960s on the gamble that a Great Society—a Just Society—a Caring Society could be built now, in our time. The mood was Promethean: "[T]he Great Society," declared Lyndon Johnson in the speech that introduced the term, "is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor."
In a story as old as the Greeks, overweening pride brought condign disaster. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had served all three of the decade's presidents, offered this piercing explanation of why the grand ambitions of those years so often left behind only regret and bitterness. "Wishing so many things so, we all too readily come to think them not only possible, which likely they are, but also near at hand, which is seldom the case. We constantly underestimate difficulties, overpromise results, and avoid any evidence of incompatibility and conflict, thus repeatedly creating the conditions of failure out of a desperate desire for success.... I believe that this danger has been compounded by the increasing introduction into politics and government of ideas originating in the social sciences which promise to bring about social change through the manipulation of what might be termed the hidden processes of society."
The great gamble of the sixties was lost—lost not only in the jungles of Vietnam and the serpentine schemes of the Nixon White House, but in the inflation, demoralization, and failure of the Great Society and its analogues throughout the developed world. Moynihan's point about the social sciences is a very profound one. Just as the authority of the traditional élites of Europe collapsed after they led Europe into the catastrophe of the First World War, so the prestige of the new élites that had emerged in the twentieth-century United States was indelibly tarnished by the disappointments of the soaring hopes of the 1960s. In 1918 the kings and bishops, squires and headmasters who sent the young to the trenches lost the confidence of their people. That same fate now befell the corporate managers and federal bureaucrats, the progressive clergymen and self-confident professors who had presided over the disappointments and defeats of the promises of the sixties. The story was the same in almost every advanced Western democracy: The old men of the 1950s earned trust; the young men of the sixties squandered it. Britain, Canada, West Germany, France, all went through fifties experiences very like America's. America's only distinction is to have gone through it all first and to have been marked by it most profoundly.
Excerpted from How We Got Here by David Frum Copyright © 2000 by David Frum. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 14, 2011
I read this book after reading Thomas Hines' The Great Funk Falling Apart and Coming Together (on a Shag Rug) in the Seventies. Hine's book approaches the decade more from the position of popular culture. He examined how social and political events influenced popular culture. His book is very visual, using many advertisements as examples. So it was lighter, more entertaining reading. Frum's book, on the other hand, was much more of an analysis. Both books looked at the influences that social and political movements had on American culture, but Forum's book was more academic. He examined history, politics, economics and sociology much more in depth. Also, Frum did take a more conservative position, but nothing extreme I would say, just a more reasoned explanation of the historical events, from a conservative perspective. Essentially, I would differentiate the books like this: Read Hine's book for pleasure and read Frum's book if you are taking a class on American popular culture, history or sociology.
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