Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Decade (1969-79)

Decades are arbitrary mileposts, and rarely does one era begin and end in a neat and tidy 10 year period, particularly one that starts and ends with a zero; however, I just finished reading three books that neatly tie together the time between (among other things) man landing on the moon and the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The 10 years between 1969 and 1979 began with the dying breaths of revolutionary fervor in one direction and ended with the elevation of an entirely different form of reactionary energy throughout the world. 

In 1969, The Year That Changed Everything, Rob Kirkpatrick surveys the American landscape in the wake of what most agree is one of the most consequential years in our history and finds a country continuing to push forward in protest, largely of Vietnam, but also of rights that would take additional decades (gay rights) or are still awaiting full vindication (Native Americans) to be vindicated. It is easy to forget in the wake of the King and Kennedy assassinations, the violence of the Chicago Democratic National Convention and the fury of anti-war protesters, that the revolutionary vibe that defined 1968 carried over into 1969. Nixon's claim of a secret plan to end our involvement in Vietnam turned out to be an escalation that included the bombing of Laos and Cambodia [1], and the nation came to learn about the instantly iconic (and tragic) stories of grisly murder (the My Lai Massacre) and futile battles for territory quickly ceded (Hamburger Hill). The toll in human life was massive, but Nixon's appeal to the "silent majority" [2] of Americans bought him breathing room to pursue even more extreme actions and tapped into a deeper vein of cultural conservatism that he would exploit throughout his presidency, belying the idea that the "1960s" were simply a blur of tie-dye and long hair. 

Indeed, it was these blue collar men and housewives who formed the backbone of Nixon's coalition, absorbed his law and order rhetoric and looked at the rapidly changing cultural landscape and blanched. The subversive humor of people like Woody Allen and the came-from-outer-space aura of Jimi Hendrix simply did not compute in the minds of many in the middle class who were not tuning in, turning on and dropping out. Meanwhile, the riots that cleaved cities across the nation between 1965 and 1968 exacerbated so-called "white flight" out of once heterogenous metropolises and deepened racial divides Nixon was more than happy to take advantage of. If this was not enough, the bizarre and bloody killings by the Manson family and the Zodiac killer (each of which took place in 1969) represented a depravity that reflected a society cracking at the seams. 

As Kirkpatrick notes, the left's reaction was to dig its heels in deeper and become more radical. The non-violence of people like Dr. King was usurped first by Malcolm X and then the Black Panthers, who unapologetically carried weapons in public until, ironically, a California Governor named Ronald Reagan signed legislation prohibiting such action. [3] Other groups, like the Weather Underground, an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, became actively involved in what we today would call domestic terrorism that began with rioting and looting in October 1969 and quickly spread to arson and bombings that resulted in the deaths of innocent victims. 

Of course, the counter-culture did play an enormous role in defining this era in our history and Kirkpatrick checks off all the obvious boxes - Namath's finger wagging index finger as he jogged off the field in Super Bowl III, the "Miracle Mets," the publication of Portnoy's Complaint, the revolution in movies that largely began in 1967 [4] and continued with such cutting edge works like Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice that cemented the image of the counter culture - drug soaked, sexually liberated and unapologetic - and the dizzying flurry of music, from Bitches Brew to Let it Bleed, Led Zeppelin I to Tommy

As in most histories of this time period, Woodstock and Altamont are elevated into a sort of alpha and omega for the counter culture even though they took place only 4 months apart. And while the former stands as the sine qua non of peace, love and understanding and the latter as the dark underside of of the hippie movement, I have always found that explanation a bit too facile and, although he chose to adopt the paradigm, much of Kirkpatrick's book serves to show that the cracks in the counter culture were many well before the Rolling Stones took the stage at that now infamous California speedway. 

It is left to our next stop, 1973 Nervous Breakdown by Andreas Killen, to explore the aftermath of all this social upheaval. Whereas Kirkpatrick's book flirted with darker themes, there was within it an air of lingering optimism, in our mission to the moon, the peaceful celebration of music at Woodstock and the activism on college campuses. Killen's work is permeated with claustrophobia and paranoia, its central character the rapidly declining Richard Nixon, whose sanity is slowly being eroded by the Watergate scandal, the use of pharmaceuticals and alcohol and his own well-known penchant for seeing conspiracies against him at every turn. 

Indeed, Killen portrays 1973 as an almost post-traumatic stress reaction to Vietnam, Nixon's criminality and the erosion of the New Deal coalition that dominated our country since the 1930s. To wit, for all the encomiums written about the peace movement, the political reality of the anti-war movement was much ado about nothing. While LBJ was shamed out of office, he was replaced by someone more extreme in his war making strategy. The bombing of Cambodia and Laos that began in 1969 was followed by an invasion of both countries and the endless bombing of North Vietnam even as American troops began to be removed at a rapid rate. Indeed, the peace agreement finally signed in 1973 was little different than the terms being offered in 1968 and Nixon's electoral victory over McGovern in 1972 was the largest in modern history. [5] The "silent majority" first identified in 1969 was very much alive and well and the dismissive view of McGovern as the candidate of "amnesty, acid and abortion" merely underscored the separation between the ever eroding left wing movement and the rest of the country. 

But the truth is, Nixon's peace agreement with the North Vietnamese was merely the final straw in breaking the anti-war movement. As Killen discusses, by 1973, the FBI and law enforcement had decimated the ranks of groups like the Black Panthers, SDS and others, sowing internal conflict by placing moles in those organizations and taking advantage of superior resources and assets to bring leaders to justice or, in tragic instances, shooting them in cold blood. [6] Arguably, it was the left's inability to make even a modest dent in the Nixon juggernaut that led many to foreswear continued protest and turn inward. Here, Killen captures the nascent expression of what Tom Wolfe would coin the "Me Decade." Having failed to see societal change in the way they wished, many opted for new age religions like EST and music from prog rock legends like Yes and Pink Floyd who released music that was exploratory and touched on themes of alienation, anomie and isolation.  

Meanwhile, Watergate bestrode our country like a colossus, its reporting predicated on a shadowy character named "Deep Throat" and its narrative of secret slush funds, wiretapping, break ins and "enemies lists" adding to the pervasive dread in the country.  While the scandal's denouement would not come until the following August, the Congressional hearings that led to the revelation that Nixon had secretly recorded conversations in the White House, the resignation of Nixon's two top aides, H.R. Haldeman and Bob Ehrlichman, and the "Saturday Night Massacre" that resulted in the unprecedented resignations of the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General of the United States all took place in 1973. If 1968 represented a nation on the brink of civil war, the avalanche of criminality disclosed 5 years late suggested a government being run by felons. 

If this were not enough, the Israelis and their Arab neighbors fought their fourth war in 25 years in October of 1973. The Yom Kippur War would become a pivot point for the rest of the decade, as brief oil embargoes by OPEC nations in protest of the U.S.'s sending of emergency aid to the Israelis left deep psychological and economic scars on our nation's economy. While Nixon requited himself well during this period, approving the transfer of weapons that helped stem the Arab tide and give the Israelis the upper hand, his triumph would be short lived. Less than a year later he would resign from office and head into a long political wilderness. 

The remainder of the 70s were a time of drift, both in America and abroad. The OPEC embargo highlighted the dependence all western democracies had on middle eastern oil, but as Christian Caryl discusses in Strange Rebels, 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, the seismic shifts in critical parts of the world like Britain, Afghanistan, China and Italy (specifically, the Vatican) were themselves a reaction against tired political dogmas but collectively ushered in an era of reactionary politics that continue to shape our world. While the U.S. is largely offstage in Caryl's narrative, its experience between 1973 and 1979 fits neatly into his broader narrative. Nixon's (alleged) crimes were quickly pardoned, the country went into a deep economic spiral of stagflation, high interest rates and nagging unemployment and the reformer elected to wash away the stain of Watergate ended up being a limp chief executive whose Presidency was destroyed by a hostage situation he handled clumsily. 

The economic maladies we experienced here in the States were also felt in Britain, where the weight of its social safety system, muscularity of its unions and rudderless leadership conspired to cause a similar malaise and desire for fresh ideas. Indeed, had Caryl chosen to, Thatcher's rise could have easily been tied to Reagan's here in the U.S. The similarities, not just in temperament and leadership are obvious, but while each picked very public fights with unions (Thatcher with coal miners, Reagan with air traffic controllers) each had a deeper and far more long lasting legacy, entrenching conservative economic orthodoxy, cowing opponents for a generation who sought greater social equality and renewing national pride through military fights with weaker enemies (Thatcher, with the Argentinians, Reagan, a laughable "invasion" of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada). 

Even as two of the pillars of the West were burying generations of liberalism and embracing a free market orthodoxy that would destabilize the global economy in the decades to come, other parts of the world were embracing a different form of puritanical orthodoxy. Caryl's chapters on Iran are the best in his otherwise outstanding book and he persuasively shows how the rise of "political Islam" occurred even as the Shah did all he could to destroy all opposition to his reign. The fallout is obvious in retrospect, but was far from pre-ordained in the moment. Further, Caryl tantalizes the reader with his description of the unruliness of the post-Shah era, when, in theory at least, more moderate voices within the Ayatollah's sphere could have stepped to the fore and tempered some of the extremist tendencies that began to emerge. 

Next door in Afghanistan, a whole different set of seeds were being sown that would culminate in that country being invaded twice in just over 20 years. Afghanistan flirted with the Soviets and the West in the bipolar Cold War, but Kabul was a largely metropolitan city and public works projects funded by the U.S. in the 1960s had at least begun to modernize some areas of the countryside. Unfortunately, without a history of democratic institutions or leaders, the nation was susceptible to foreign influence and the Soviets invaded in 1979, placing a puppet in control of the government before slowly sinking into a quagmire not unlike our own in Vietnam. As in Iran, the power of "political" Islam became highly influential, as people like Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Gulbuddin Hekmatyer and ultimately, Osama Bin-Laden all cut their teeth as mujahideen fighting the Soviets. 

At the other end of the spectrum, what passes for liberalization is Caryl's examination of the Catholic Church and the People's Republic of China. In the former, a quirk of history (the sudden death of Pope John Paul I after a less than 2 month papacy) elevates Karol Wojtyla, who becomes Pope John Paul II. The new Pope becomes a beacon for the Polish people who, Caryl discusses, maintain a deep religiosity even though Communism eschews it. John Paul II's visit to his homeland becomes a galvanizing moment for his people, and within a year, the Solidarity movement forms, which, over time, becomes the main opposition to Communist rule in the country. 

Meanwhile, Caryl dissects the internecine politics in China with a deft hand. In the wake of Mao's death in 1976 and the failure of his various "leaps" forward, it is left to Deng Xiaoping, easily the most intriguing character in the book, to make an actual leap forward. In Caryl's telling, Deng is a survivor, returning from political exile on no less than three occasions to ascend to the top of the Communist leadership through a combination of highly developed organizational skills, a deep understanding of economic shifts, sharp political elbows and the ability to overturn Maoist orthodoxy without kicking dirt on the Chairman's grave. While Deng did not open the way for democracy, his influence is clear and profound. China's economy grew exponentially under his leadership, tens of millions were lifted out of poverty and he put in place the policies that have led to China's GDP being second only to the United States. 

Of course, none of this could have been foreseen in 1979, but to look backward from that perch to a time 10 years before is to see a world that looked radically different.  Each of these three books reads well as a stand alone snapshot of a year in our history, but taken together, they provide a fascinating look at how quickly things change. 





4. An outstanding book on this subject is Pictures From A Revolution by Mark Harris.

5. Nixon carried 49 of 50 states, McGovern carried 1 plus the District of Columbia. In 1936, FDR won 46 of the then-48 states, an arguably "smaller" victory. 

6. Perhaps the most egregious example being the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969.


  1. I read 1969, and will now read the next two books. Your synopsis is most interesting in that it shows the progression - how we got to where we are. Thank you.

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