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History of the United States (1964-1980)

 This article is part of the
History of the United States series.
 Colonial America
 History of the United States (1776-1865)
 The coming of the Civil War
 The Civil War
 History of the United States (1865-1918)
 History of the United States (1918-1945)
 History of the United States (1945-1964)
 History of the United States (1964-1980)
 History of the United States (1980-present)
 Demographic history of the United States
 Military history of the United States

Table of contents
1 Civil rights
2 Election of 1964
3 The War on Poverty and the Great Society
4 The Vietnam quagmire
5 Stagflation, Détente, and the Nixon administration
6 Unemployment and Inflation
7 The Campaign of 1972 and Watergate
8 The Ford and Carter administrations
9 Related Topics

Civil rights

The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 changed the political mood of the country. The new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, capitalized on this situation, using a combination of the national mood and his own political savvy to push Kennedy's agenda; most notably, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Act had an immediate impact. Within months of its passage on August 6, 1965, one quarter of a million new black voters had been registered, one third by federal examiners. Within four years, voter registration in the South had more than doubled. In 1965, Mississippi had the highest black voter turnout—74%—and led the nation in the number of black leaders elected. In 1969, Tennessee had a 92.1% turnout; Arkansas, 77.9%; and Texas, 73.1%.

Election of 1964

In the election of 1964, Lyndon Johnson positioned himself as a moderate, contrasting himself to his GOP opponent, Barry Goldwater, who the campaign characterized as an extremist. Most famously, the Johnson campaign issued a commercial dubbed the "Daisy Girl" ad, which featured a little girl picking petals from a daisy in a field, counting the petals, which then segues into a launch countdown and a nuclear explosion. The ads were a response to Goldwater's advocacy of "tactical" nuclear weapons use in Vietnam.

Johnson crushed Goldwater in the general election, winning 64.9 percent of the popular vote, the largest percentage ever recorded (i.e. since the the 1824 election). However, Johnson's loss of most Deep Southern states signified an ominous electoral trends for Democrats, who have depended on the "solid South" as an electoral base for hundreds of years.

Before 1964, the political coalition of labor unions, minorities, liberals, and southern whites (the New Deal Coalition) allowed the Democrats to control the government for much of the next 30 years, until the issue of civil rights divided conservative southern whites from the rest of the party (see Dixiecrat).

The War on Poverty and the Great Society

Main articles: War on Poverty and Great Society

Many other assistance programs for individuals and families, including Medicare , which pays for many of the medical costs of the elderly, were begun in the 1960s during President Lyndon Johnson's (1963-1969) "War on Poverty." Although some of these programs encountered financial difficulties in the 1990s and various reforms were proposed, they continued to have strong support from both of the United States' major political parties. In addition, the Medicaid program finances medical care for low-income families. During the 1960s the federal government provided Food Stamps to help poor families obtain food, and the federal and state governments jointly provide welfare grants to support low-income parents with children.

The Vietnam quagmire

Main article: Vietnam War

Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Tet Offensive

In many ways the Vietnam War was a direct successor to the French Indochina War which was fought to maintain control of their colony Indochina. After the Vietnamese communist forces, or Viet Minh (led by Ho Chi Minh) defeated the French colonial army in 1954, the colony was granted independence and was later partitioned into a communist North and non-communist South.

In 1956 elections that may have reunified the country were cancelled because leaders in the South and their American ally feared that Ho Chi Minh would win. In response the Viet Cong were formed as a guerrilla movement to oppose the South Vietnamese government.

American involvement in the war was a gradualy increased and their never was a formal declaration of war. The American Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave broad support to President Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement in the war. American troop deployments and casualties steadily increased after this point.

At first the American public largely supported the war but the Viet Cong-led 1968 Tet Offensive in South Vietnam shattered much of this support.

There had been a movement of opposition to the war within certain quarters of the United States starting starting in 1964, especially on certain college campuses. Some Americans opposed the war on moral grounds while others opposed it because they felt it lacked clear objectives.

The antiwar movement

An antiwar demonstration

There had been a small movement of opposition to the war within certain quarters of the United States starting in 1964, especially on certain college campuses. This was happening during a time of unprecedented leftist student activism, and of the arrival at college age of the demographically significant "baby boomers." World War II ended in 1945, and the Korean conflict ended in 1953; thus most, if not all, baby boomers had never been exposed to war. In addition, the Vietnam War was unprecedented for the intensity of media coverage—it has been called the first television war—as well as for the stridency of opposition to the war by the so-called "New Left."

The crises of 1968 and the rise of Richard Nixon

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson began his reelection campaign. A member of his own party, Eugene McCarthy, ran against him for the nomination on an antiwar platform. McCarthy did not win the first primary election in New Hampshire, but he did surprisingly well against an incumbent. The resulting blow to the Johnson campaign, taken together with other factors, led the President to make a surprise announcement in a March 31 televised speech that he was pulling out of the race. He also announced the initiation of the Paris Peace Talks with Vietnam in that speech.

Seizing the opportunity caused by Johnson's departure from the race, Robert Kennedy then joined in and ran for the nomination on an antiwar platform. Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, also ran for the nomination, promising to continue to support the South Vietnamese government.

Kennedy was assassinated that summer, and McCarthy was unable to overcome Humphrey's support within the party elite. Humphrey won the nomination of his party, and ran against Richard Nixon in the general election. Nixon appealed to what he claimed was the "silent majority" of moderate Americans who disliked the "hippie" counterculture. Nixon also promised "peace with honor" by his "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War. He proposed the Nixon Doctrine to establish the strategy to turn over the fighting of the war to the Vietnamese.

Nixon and Vietnam

Vietnam finally achieves unity and independence as the last US helicopter leaves Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

Nixon was to discover that withdrawing from Vietnam, though popular, was much more easily promised than done. Attempting to balance concerns for South Vietnam's ability to defend itself alone, with the increasing pressure from the United States Congress to get the troops out, as well as the legislature's inclination to unilaterally reduce and finally cut off funding for the war, Nixon was forced to expend great amounts of effort and political capital. At the same time, he became a lightning rod for much public hostility regarding Vietnam and the U.S. Establishment in general, which a rising generation of Americans was increasingly challenging with civil and political disruption as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s. The morality of conflict continued to be an issue, and incidents such as the My Lai massacre further eroded support for the war and increased efforts of Vietnamization. In the end around 1.5 million Vietnamese were killed in the war and around 58,000 US solders also died.

Casualties inflicted by the Khmer Rouge in adjacent Cambodia were even higher. Many state that the destabilization of the Vietname War and distractive cover of the conflict allowed the Khmer Rouge to flourish.

The growing Watergate scandal was also a major distraction for Nixon and what little support for South Vietnam that was provided was siphoned off by corrupt South Vietnamese government officials. The United States then unilaterally withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1973 and two years later the North had complete control over the whole country.

Stagflation, Détente, and the Nixon administration

Unemployment and Inflation

At the same time that President Johnson persuaded Congress to accept a tax cut in 1964, he was rapidly increasing spending for both domestic programs and for the war in Vietnam. The result was a major expansion of the money supply, resting largely on government deficits, which pushed prices rapidly upward. However, inflation also rested on the nation's steadily declining supremacy in international trade, and moreover the decline in the global economic, geopolitical, commercial, technological, and cultural preponderance of the United States since the end of the Second World War. After 1945 the US enjoyed easy access to raw materials and substantial markets for its goods abroad; after the war the US was responsible for around a third of the world's industrial output due to the devastation of postwar Europe. Not only were the industrialized nations now competing for increasingly scarce raw commodities, but Third World supplies were increasingly demanding higher prices. The automobile and steel industries were also beginning to face stiff competition in the US domestic market.

Richard Nixon promised to tackle sluggish growth and inflation, known as "stagflation," through higher taxes and lower spending, which met stiff resistance in Congress. As a result, Nixon changed course and opted to control the currency; his appointees to the Federal Reserve sought a contraction of the money supply and higher interest rates. But to little avail, the tight money policy did little to curb inflation. The cost of living rose a cumulative 15 percent during Nixon's first two years in office.

By the summer of 1971, Nixon was under strong public pressure to act decisively to reverse the economic tide. First, he released the dollar from the fluctuating gold standard that had controlled its worth since the Bretton Woods Conference, allowing its value to fall in world markets. The devaluation helped stimulate American exports, but it also made the purchase of vital inputs, raw materials, and finished goods from abroad. On August 15, 1971, under the provisions of the Economic Stabilization Act of 1970, Nixon implemented "Phase I" of his economic plan: a ninety-day freeze on all wages and prices above their existing levels. In November, "Phase II" entailed mandatory guidelines for wage and price increases to be issued by a federal agency. Inflation subsided temporary, but the recession continued with rising unemployment. To combat the recession, Nixon reversed courses and adopted an expansionary monetary and fiscal policy. The third phase saw the end of strict wage and price controls. Resultantly, inflation resumed its upward spiral.

To make matters worse, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) began displaying its strength; oil, fueling automobiles and homes in a country increasingly dominated by suburbs (where large homes and automobile-ownership are more common, became an economic and political tool for Third World nations to begin fighting for their concerns. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Arab members of OPEC announced they would no longer ship petroleum to nations supporting Israel, that is, to the United States and Western Europe. At the same time, other OPEC nations agreed to raise their prices 400 percent. Motorists faced long lines at gas stations; public and private facilities closed down to save on heating oil; and factories cut production and laid off workers. No single factor did more to produce the soaring inflation of the 1970s.

Inflationary pressures led to key shifts in economic policies. Following the Great Depression of the 1930s, recessions—periods of slow economic growth and high unemployment—were viewed as the greatest of economic threats, which could be counteracted by heavy government spending or cutting taxes so that consumers would spend more and an expansionary monetary policy. In the 1970s, major price increases, particularly for energy, created a strong fear of inflation; as a result, government leaders came to concentrate more on controlling inflation than on combating recession by limiting spending, resisting tax cuts, and reining in growth in the money supply.

The erratic economic programs of the Nixon administration were indicative of a broader national confusion about the prospects for future American prosperity. With little understanding of the international forces creating the economic problems, Nixon and the public focused on immediate issues and short-term solutions. These underlying problems will set the stage for conservative reaction, a more aggressive foreign policy, and a disinterest in social justice for minorities and the poor that would characterize the subsequent decade.

SALT I and SALT II and Détente

Main articles: SALT I, SALT II and Détente

In 1972-1973 the superpowers sough each other's help. After making a surprise trip to China, President Richard Nixon signed the SALT I treaty with Brezhnev to limit the development of strategic weapons.

Détente had both strategic and economic benefits for both superpowers. Arms control enabled both superpowers to slow the spiraling increases in their bloated defense budgets. Before, the Johnson administration failed to defeat Communist forces, his deficit-spending to sustain the war effort weakened the US economy for decades to come, contributing to a decade of "stagflation." Meanwhile, Brezhnev could neither stop bloody clashes between Soviet and Chinese troops along their common border nor bolster a Soviet economy declining, in part because of heavy military expenditures. They also agreed to respect the newly emerging states in Africa and Asia.

But the détente suffered amid outbreaks in the Middle East and Africa, especially Southern and Eastern Africa. The two nations continued to compete with each other for influence in the resource-rich Third World, most notably in Chile.

While most US citizens believed the propaganda claims that the Cold War was a struggle of the free world against totalitarianism, the United States continued, as it did in the 1950s, to target and vilify governments elected through the ballot box, such as Chile's elected socialist president Salvador Allende, who was ousted by a CIA-engineered coup in 1973.

The Campaign of 1972 and Watergate

Main articles: U.S. presidential election, 1972, Richard Nixon, Watergate Scandal

Nixon to Haldeman, heard on tapes ordered released for the trial of Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Mitchell:"I don't give a shit what happens. I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up or anything else, if it'll save it, save this plan. That's the whole point. We're going to protect our people if we can."

In 1972 Nixon won the GOP nomination and faced Democratic nominee George McGovern, who ran on platform of ending the Vietnam War and instituting guaranteed minimum incomes for the nation's poor. Between difficulties with his running-mate, Thomas Eagleton (who he eventually dropped and replaced with Sargent Shriver), and the Republicans' successful campaign to paint him as unacceptably radical, he suffered a 61% - 38% defeat to sitting President Richard Nixon.

Nixon was eventually investigated for the instigation and cover-up of the burglary of the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate office complex. The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee opened formal and public impeachment hearings against Nixon on May 9, 1974. Rather than face impeachment by the House of Representatives and a conviction by the Senate, he resigned effective August 9, 1974. His successor, Gerald R. Ford, a moderate Republican, issued a pre-emptive pardon, ending the investigations.

The Ford and Carter administrations

Main articles: U.S. presidential election, 1976, Jimmy Carter, Gerald R. Ford

The Watergate scandal was still fresh in the voters' minds when former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, an outsider distant from Washington, DC known for his integrity, prevailed over nationally better-known politicians in the Democratic Party Presidential primaries in 1976. Carter became the first candidate from the Deep South to be elected president since the American Civil War.

His administration is perhaps best known for helping to establish a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt (see Camp David Accord), for an economic and energy crisis, and for a hostage situation in Tehran.

Carter also tried to place another cap on the arms race with a SALT II agreement in 1979, but his efforts were undercut by three surprising developments: the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Nicaraguan Revolution, and Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.

In 1979, Carter reluctantly allowed the former Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into the United States for political asylum and medical treatment. Although Carter had ostensibly promoted human rights as a hallmark of his foreign policy, he continued to support the Iranian strongman during his reign. In response to the Shah's entry into the US, Iranian militants seized the American embassy in Tehran taking 52 Americans hostage and demanded the Shah's return to Iran for trial and execution. Despites the Shah's death in Egypt, the hostage crisis continued, and dominated the last year of Carter's presidency. The subsequent responses to the crisis, from a "Rose Garden strategy" of staying inside the White House to the botched attempt to rescue the hostages.

In 1979, Carter gave a nationally televised address in which he identified what he believed to be a crisis of confidence among the American people. This has come to be known as his "malaise" speech, even though he never actually used the word "malaise" anywhere in the text. Rather than inspiring Americans to action as he had hoped, the speech was perceived by many to express a pessimistic outlook which may have damaged his reelection hopes.

Related Topics