ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN 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 programme 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 already illegal).

 

*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 dangerous.

 

*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 failures.

 

*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 remained enemies.


*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.
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