UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Me Decade
*Gerald Ford is the only president never elected to the executive
office. Even other vice-presidents who became president had
been elected on a ticket with their running mate. Ford,
however, was appointed to the office of Vice-President by Nixon
under the rules of the XXV Amendment when Nixon’s old VP, Spiro
Agnew was charged with taking bribes when he was governor of
Maryland. Nixon chose Ford because he was a popular and
uncontroversial member of Congress, who he hoped would make the
administration more popular.
*When Ford came to power, the nation was deeply disillusioned by
Watergate, the war, and all the economic and social problems of
the early 1970s. Ford was seen as a good man who offered the
chance to fix these problems. However, when Ford pardoned
Nixon for any potential crimes he may have committed (although
Nixon never admitted to being guilty), many people lost faith in
him, concluding that he was as corrupt as any other
politician. Ford wanted to just get the long national
nightmare over with, but many citizens accused him of selling out.
*Ford also had the misfortune of making a couple stumbles on
television. Although he was, in fact, quite an athlete,
having been on the University of Michigan’s national championship
football teams of 1932 and 1933, as president, he twice fell down
the stairs of Air Force One. He became the butt of jokes,
and lost even more respect from the American people. Just as
Big Bill Taft is famous for being so fat he got stuck in the
bathtub, Ford is famous for falling down a lot.
*When Ford took office, the country was in a recession, but it
also had bad inflation and suffered from the energy crisis and gas
shortages. Ford had perhaps the most difficult economic
challenge since FDR. However, Ford, being conservative, did
not believe in the wide-ranging government spending FDR had tried
(and he also doubted the government could afford it). His
plan to fix the economy was a voluntary program called ‘Whip
Inflation Now,’ or WIN. People were asked to wear WIN
buttons to show support, to grow their own vegetables rather than
buy over-priced food at the grocery store, to save money rather
than spend it, to conserve fuel by not travelling or by carpooling
or taking the bus, and to turn off lights and faucets that were
not in use. Most people were not willing to make these
changes, and WIN had little impact.
*Ford and Congress did eventually pass a tax cut and an increase
in unemployment benefits, but he vetoed many bills to give more
government funding to education, public housing, health care, and
other forms of welfare. Congress over-rode his vetoes,
overturning a higher percentage than any Congress since that of
Franklin Pierce’s administration in the 1850s.
*Ford kept Kissinger as Secretary of State and followed his policy
of détente. Ford visited many of America's foreign allies,
and was the first US president to visit Japan, which was just
starting to become economically powerful, in part because it made
fuel efficient cars that competed well with inefficient American
models for the first time ever.
*Ford did not have much choice but to pursue détente, because in
1973 Congress had passed the War Powers Act, even over Nixon’s
veto. It essentially rescinded the Gulf of Tonkin
Resolution, so that the president now had very limited war powers
without a declaration of war from Congress. The President
now had to notify Congress within 48 hours of deploying troops and
tell why he had done it. The troops could not stay overseas
more than 60 days without Congressional approval, and Congress
could demand that the troops be brought home any time.
*In the spring of 1975, the NVA moved into South Viet-Nam,
capturing Saigon. Ford was not able to do anything, in large
part because of the War Powers Act, although also because public
opinion was now against the war.
*In May 1975, Communist Cambodia captured an American merchant
ship, the Mayaguez. The US did send forces to rescue
her. The operation was not run well, the US lost 41 men
killed, but it did prove that the United States would still defend
themselves if necessary (although it also showed how bad military
performance had gotten by and after the end of the Vietnam War).
*Many Americans were disillusioned with more than politics.
The 1970s are sometimes called the ‘Me Decade’ because pampered
Baby Boomers, now safe from the draft and influenced by the free
love and the drug use of the 1960s, seemed to ignore traditional
morality and also turned away from the political activism of the
1960s. The divorce rate doubled between 1965 and 1979 and so
did the number of babies born out of wedlock. Roe v.
Wade legalised abortion nationwide in 1973. The War on
Drugs began as many drugs were outlawed by the Controlled
Substances Act of 1970 (although marijuana, heroin, and LSD were
*Many religious fundamentalists (20% of Americans by 1980) reacted
against this decline in morality, particularly televangelists such
as Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, and Pat Robertson. They
wanted a return to prayer in schools, an end to abortion, and a
reduction in divorce and illegitimate birth rates.
*During the Me Decade, many people also turned to
self-improvement. Exercise, especially jogging, became
popular, as did body-building and the health-food movement.
*There was one bright spot in the decade: in 1976, the
nation celebrated its bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the
signing of the Declaration of Independence. There were
fireworks, parades, and hundreds of sailing ships sailing through
New York Harbour under the Statue of Liberty. It helped
restore people’s hope and faith and love for their country after
the great disappointment of Watergate.
*1976 was also an election year. Ford ran again, but
Americans were sick of the professional politicians in Washington
who they felt were too corrupt to run the country. Also,
since he had never been elected president, even his own party had
many members who thought they could do a better job than
him. However, he was beaten by a Democrat who had never had
any national political experience.
*Jimmy Carter had been an engineer in the navy, and later a peanut
farmer in his home state of Georgia. He had entered Georgia
politics in 1962 and been elected governor in 1970. He was a
born again Baptist and deeply religious. He was also only
the fourth southerner elected President since the Civil War (and
the first elected directly to the presidency from a Southern
State), and one of his actions would be to restore citizenship to
Jefferson Davis, who had lost it after leading the Confederate
States of America (Gerald Ford had recently restored citizenship
to Robert E. Lee).
*Carter was a down-home kind of guy. He walked in his own
inaugural parade rather than riding in a limousine, a brave thing
to do considering that two women had tried to kill Ford at
different times during his presidency. It showed that Carter
trusted the American people and, unlike Nixon, did not have
anything to hide.
*Carter appointed more women, blacks, and Hispanics to government
positions than any other president had ever done. However,
he also cut welfare programmes and other government spending in
order to save money, hoping to lower taxes and reduce the Federal
debt, because the US were still in bad economic shape. Some
people also accused him of not doing enough for civil rights
because he did not fight for affirmative action (created by LBJ)
when people began to attack it in the courts as reverse
discrimination. For the moment, the Supreme Court said in Regents
of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) that
colleges could consider race as an aspect of admissions, but could
not set racial quotas.
*He deregulated many industries, saving the government money
because it no longer had to supervise them, and supposedly making
them more competitive. In many cases this would make for
better businesses, but sometimes it allowed unsafe conditions and
corruption to go unstopped.
*One of the biggest problems for America was the Energy
Crisis. The price of a gallon of gas rose from 40¢ in 1973
to $1.20 in 1979. OPEC’s embargo had shown how dependent the
US was on foreign oil, and the danger to America if any important
energy sources ran out. Carter asked Americans to drive less
and to turn down their heat and air conditioning. He created
a new cabinet position, the Department of Energy, and taxed the
sale of inefficient cars, deregulated domestic oil and natural gas
prices, and spent money to developing solar and nuclear power.
*Many people thought nuclear power was the answer. It had
the potential to be a clean, cheap, and unlimited source of
energy. However, no-one had yet found a way to actually make
it cheaper than coal-burning power plants of TVA’s
hydroelectricity. Furthermore, some people feared it was
*In March 1979, there was an accident at the nuclear power plant
at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. There
was a partial meltdown and radiation leaked out of the plant,
frightening people nearby when they learnt of it. To deal with
such problems, Carter, who had favoured de-regulation, tried to
re-organise the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do a better job
of regulating nuclear power.
*Carter upset many conservatives but pleased many families in
America when he offered amnesty to all those who dodged the draft
in Viet-Nam. This let all those who had left the country in
the 1960s and early '70s come home. Many had feared they
would never be able to.
*In foreign affairs, Carter had some great successes but more
*In 1977, the Torrijos-Carter Treaties agreed to return the Panama
Canal and the Canal Zone to Panama in a process that would be
completed on 31 December, 1999, although with the provision that
the Canal would remain neutral and open to all nations' shipping,
and that the US military could enforce this neutrality. Many
Panamanians welcomed this transfer of power (although a few
resented the part known as the Neutrality Treaty), but some
Americans opposed it. Strom Thurmond said 'The canal is
ours, we bought and we paid for it and we should keep it.'
Others realised that America's largest naval vessels could not fit
through it, so it was no longer a military necessity that America
control it, and that returning it would improve relations with
Latin America. The Canal Zone ceased to exist as an American
territory in 1979 and on 31 December, 1999, the Canal was handed
over to Panama.
*Israel had fought many wars with her Arab neighbours, most
recently in 1967 and 1973, and most Arabs hated Israel.
However, in 1977, Anwar el-Sadat, president of Egypt, visited
Israel to negotiate terms of peace with Prime Minister Menachem
Begin. In 1978, Carter invited them to Camp David, where
they created the Camp David Accords, creating peace between the
two countries when Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai
peninsula which it had controlled since taking it from Egypt in
the Six-Day War. Egypt thus became the first Arab nation to
recognise Israel. Sadat was later murdered by Arab
extremists for taking this action, but it was a start towards some
peace in the Middle East.
*When Carter took office, détente was going well for the US and
the USSR. However, during his presidency, Carter publicly
spoke in support of dissidents within the Soviet Union who dared
criticise the Communist government. Because Soviet citizens
did not have the right to free speech, Carter thought it was noble
and brave for them to fight for that and other rights, but saying
so annoyed the Soviet government, and tensions slowly began to
rise. Things went beyond the point of repair when the USSR
invaded Afghanistan. Carter told Brezhnev that this was a
threat to world peace and asked him to withdraw. So did the
UN. The Soviets ignored the US and the UN and got into a
protracted war that ended in failure, so that the Afghan War is
often seen as the USSR’s Viet-Nam. In protest of this
invasion, the USA and about 60 other countries refused to go the
1980 Summer Olympic Games, which were held in Moscow that
year. In 1984 the Soviet Union and its satellites would
respond by boycotting the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los
Angeles. Détente had ended.
*Carter’s last foreign policy problem was in Iran. The
United States had supported the Shah of Iran for many years.
He had modernized Iran and created a secular government. He
was anti-Communist, which is the reason the US supported him, but
he also dissolved parliament, repressed his people, and spent tax
money on his own luxuries and a big military while many Iranians
remained poor, and his reforms did not go far enough, or at least
his enemies said so. Many Moslem religious leaders resented
that their power had been diminished under Mohammed Reza Shah
Pahlavi. They also did not like the fact that he was
pro-American at a time when many Moslems resented the fact that
the US supported Israel.
*In January 1979 revolution broke out in Iran, and the Shah went
on vacation to the US, and was replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini, who
created a fundamentalist Islamic state after eliminating his
erstwhile communist allies. Because the US supported the
Shah, Khomeini’s supporters seized the US embassy in Tehran,
holding the staff hostage. They were often mistreated,
sometimes beaten, left in solitary confinement, and even put
through fake executions to break their spirit. Carter tried
a military rescue, but it failed, embarrassing him and the
US. Khomeini demanded the Shah be sent back for trial.
That would have been his death sentence. Carter refused and
the Shah died of natural causes in 1980, but Iran and the US
*The Iranian Revolution also disrupted world oil markets, creating
a new oil crisis, making America's economic problems even worse.
*The hostage crisis was a major issue in the 1980 election.
The Republican, Ronald Reagan, a former actor and governor of
California, was popular, told good stories, and blamed Carter for
the nation’s loss of prestige and the imprisonment of 52 Americans
overseas. Carter lost in a landslide and, to spite him, the
Iranians released the hostages on the day Reagan took the oath of
office, replacing Carter in January 1981.
This page last updated 6 December, 2018.