When the Sh*t Hit the Fan: Recalling the 1970s

Photograph Source: Ollie Atkins – Public Domain

The U.S. has spent the last half-century holding its breath.  The post-WW-recovery flattened out in the early 1970s and, since then, the country has witness the end of the “American Dream” with ever-increasing inequality, and the collapse of the “great powers” imperialist gambit with military defeats from Vietnam to now Afghanistan.

In a 2014 piece in The New Yorker, George Packer made the following observation:

The seventies turned out to be the decade when the country began its transformation from steady economic growth to spasms of contraction, from industry to information and finance, from institutional authorities to individual freedoms, from center-left to right.

The 1970s was a social and political reaction to the tumultuous 1960s, a decade that threatened the powers that be.  The threat was expressed in the combined insurgency of the civil-right movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, the counterculture of sex, drugs & rock-&-roll, and the emerging feminist and gay-rights movements.  It was a unique moment in the nation’s history that seems to be finding a fresh voice in today’s “progressive” movement.


Every historical era begins with a series of first or opening “shots,” and

the opening shot of the 1970s counter-revolution was fired by Lewis Powell in August 1971.  He was a Virginia tobacco industry lawyer who wrote a secret memo for the Chamber of Commerce, “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.”  His advice to the business community was simple:

Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.

He called for business leaders and conservatives to aggressively fight for political power.

The great postwar recovery was plateauing out.  Wages were flattening; “stagflation” was setting in.  During Nixon’s first term, in 1971, he decoupled the dollar from the gold standard and imposed wage-and-price controls. Compounding the domestic crisis, an international oil crisis fostered global instability.  All made American life more uncertain.

Powell articulated a deeply shared belief among growing sectors of American society.  For Powell, as the historian Benjamin Waterhouse points out, “anti-capitalist forces — from the universities to the pulpits to public-interest law firms — were waging a cultural assault on business, and that groups such as the Chamber of Commerce had no choice but to become politically active.”  As Waterhouse adds, “Business-people had to become more involved in national politics.” And they did.

On January 20, 1973, Richard Nixon was inaugurated to his second term as president.  His landslide victory over Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) — who had been labeled the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion” — was driven by a “Southern strategy” that reconfigured national politics.  Six months later, on June 25th, John Dean, acknowledged before Congress – and the nation on live TV coverage — the president’s role in the break into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate complex, setting in motion Nixon’s likely impeachment and, on August 9, 1974, his resignation.

Two days after Nixon’s inauguration, on the January 22nd, the Supreme Court issued its momentous Roe v. Wade decision legalizing a woman’s right to the privacy of an abortion. Justice Harry Blackmun noted, “… throughout the 19th Century prevailing legal abortion practices were far freer than they are today, persuades us that the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn ….” The Roe decision forced 46 states to liberalize their abortion laws and remains the defining issue of the culture wars.

Influential conservative Americans took Powell’s warning to heart.  In February ‘73, three of the nation’s richest conservatives – Joseph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife and H. L. Hunt — backed Paul Weyrich and the creation of the Heritage Foundation.  In May, the National Council of Catholic Bishops spun off its National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) into a separate, activist anti-abortion organization.  In September, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was founded as the Conservative Caucus of State Legislators. Independent of the memo, on January 7, 1972, Powel began serving as a Justice on the nation’s highest court.

In ‘73, Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative lawyer and writer, launched what became the culture wars when she began a campaign to block the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Schlafly, a devoutly Catholic and rightwing activist, was a militant anticommunist long affiliated with the John Birch Society.  Often unappreciated, her “STOP-ERA” campaign became more than a single-issue “war,” more than an effort to block a proposed constitutional amendment.  It set the agenda for an awakened conservativism, the remaking of the Republican Party and social struggle for decades to come.

During this moment of national stress, the violent crime rate escalated, increasing by 260 percent from 1960 to ’75, from 288,460 to 1,039,710 reported incidents. Making matters worse, during the 18-month period between 1971-’72, 2,500 bombings took place throughout the country.  In ’71, Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” dramatically increasing the size and presence of federal drug control agencies as well as securing mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.  And Charles Keating’s campaign against pornography reached its zenith with the blocking of Abe Fortas from the being appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the derailing of Pres. Johnson’s pornography commission.

Often forgotten, during the early-70s, a 20-something Donald Trump became the man who would be, five decades later, president.  This was a period in which the son of a successful real-estate con-man and one-time Klan supporter moved from Queens to Manhattan’s upmarket East Side.  He was chauffeured around the Big Apple in a silver Cadillac limo with “DJT” emblazoned on the license plates.  This was the time when the young Trump started his lustful life at Le Club, a Manhattan nightspot for the rich, famous and those on the make – and where he met Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s aid-de-camp and a notorious fixer, who became his consigliere.


A half-century later, Trump was elected president.  His election, tenure and now “Big Lie” campaign is the culmination of the 1970s counter-revolution, part of the conservative reaction to the turbulent ‘60s.  It represents the ceaseless effort to hold onto power, wealth, racial dominance and “traditional” moralistic values.

The Covid-19 pandemic and recession made obvious what people know — and politicians and the media deny: the U.S. is an ever-increasing unequal nation. The Biden presidency, following in the well-worn footsteps of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, seeks to contain the deepening socio-economic crisis but not honestly address it.  He offers a patchwork quilt of compromised programs to band-aid over the systemic issues that plaque the nation – be it inequality, racism, voter suppression, the environmental crisis or collapsing imperialism, to name but five.

The Republicans are attempted to reenact their anti-Obama campaign in their effort to undermine Biden and the Democrats.  It worked once, but it might not work this time due to two critical differences.  First, Biden has contained the Covid pandemic and begun to redress the recession; second, Trump’s ultra-reactionary polities might be too much for mainstream white Republicans, especially women voters.

So, in 2022, the Democrats might well hold on the House and gain some critical seats in the Senate.   And 2024?  The game is on.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.