The History of the Turbulent 1970s

President Nixon / source
The 1970s started out with continuing demonstrations as people became fed up with the prolonged Vietnam War. The war finally ended as did the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, with his resignation. By the middle of the decade, the economy had dropped to its worst levels since the Great Depression with high inflation and an oil embargo. 

By the end of the decade, the U.S. had seen three different presidents and four different vice presidents.

1970 – “Tin Soldiers and Nixon Coming”

The 1960s saw plenty of upheaval and worry, which turned to more anger and protest in the early 1970s. The Age of Aquarius and peace and love of the 1960s turned to more angry protests against the Vietnam War, a war that was still ongoing with no end in sight. Unlike the wars today in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war in Vietnam was on the news every single day with reporters like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Ed Bradley reporting directly from the battles.  Every night on the news you could watch the actual battles, the firefights and the wounded. 

On May 4, 1970, another huge protest broke out against the war on a university campus, this time it was at Kent State University in Ohio. Usually these protests were broken up with tear gas. This day, something worse happened. There were protests leading up to the planned May 4th protest and tensions were very high.

The National Guard was called out to make sure the protest didn’t get out of hand. At some point the National Guard fired into a crowd, except this time it wasn’t tear gas, it was with real bullets.  Four students were killed and nine wounded.

President Nixon on TV
President Nixon on TV discussing the Vietnam War

 1971 – The Economy Unravels

During the 1970s, inflation was starting to become a major problem in the US and on August 15, 1971, President Nixon went on television to announce a freeze on prices and wages. I remember watching that with my dad, I am certain he only heard the freeze on wages part and I think I learned a new cuss word that night. The freeze didn’t work; inflation went from about 4% to 13% three years later.


1972 – Terrorism Begins and Watergate

The turbulent 1970s saw the rise of terrorism. At the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, on the morning of September 5th, a militant faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) - Black September - burst into the building that housed the Israeli athletes, killing two athletes and taking nine hostages. The terrorist demanded a plane to leave Germany with the hostages. At the airport there was supposed to be a trap by German police, but it didn’t work. The terrorists killed all of the Israeli hostages.

1972 was an election year and President Nixon (Republican) was running for reelection. At the Democratic National Committee headquarters located in the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC, a group known as “the plumbers” broke into the Democratic headquarters.  This break in would later be traced back to President Nixon and would mark the end of the Nixon presidency.

In November, President Nixon won reelection by a landslide.

1973 – The War Ends and an Oil Embargo

The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, ending the US involvement in the Vietnam War. The US did use air power to help enforce the peace treaty until congress ended that in December 1974. 

October 6, 1973 another war starts as Egypt and Syria invade Israel in what is known as the Yom Kipper war. Israeli counterattacks put their troops within 63 miles of Cairo until a cease-fire is announced. The Soviet Union backs the Arab states and the US backs the Israelis, typical during the cold war.

After the war in October, Arab nations were mad at the US and Europe for supporting Israel during the war and cut off oil supplies. The oil embargo of 1973 caused oil and gas prices to surge, shortages and gas rationing with long lines for gas at stations when they even had gas. School days were shortened to half days because there wasn’t enough fuel to heat them. The oil embargo was lifted in March 1974. That was a cold winter.

With rising fuel prices and out of control inflation, the US went into a deep recession. The recession of the 1970s was the worst recession and bear market since the Great Depression.

1974 gas rationing
No gas at the gas stations in 1974

1973 – 1974 Political Musical Chairs

On October 10, 1973, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned the office after pleading no contest to tax evasion charges. President Nixon appoints Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford as Vice President. The Watergate scandal had now become a major problem for President Nixon.

On August 9, 1974, because of the Watergate scandal, President Richard M. Nixon resigns as president and Gerald Ford is sworn in as the next president with a worsening recession and inflation at 12.6%.

1975 – The Dominoes Fall

One of the main reasons given for the Vietnam War was that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, the rest of the region would fall to communism like dominos, possibly to Australia

On April 17, 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Phen and captured Cambodia, and on April 30, 1975, the communist North Vietnamese captured Saigon and South Vietnam. A lesser known war had also been going on in neighboring Laos with the communist group known as the Pathet Lao taking control of Laos in mid 1975.

President Ford didn’t have much time to think about this when on May 12, 1975, the US cargo ship, the SS Mayaguez was hijacked by the Khmer Rouge. President Ford sends in soldiers to get the hostages and ship back.

1975 was a tough year for President Ford when on September 5th, a member of Charles Manson’s cult, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pointed a gun at the president, but Secret Service stopped her. Just weeks later on September 22, another woman, Sara Jane Moore, tries to shoot the president. A bystander grabbed her arm and her shot missed.

1976 – Swine Flu

Soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey became sick with what was diagnosed as the swine flu. This caused a fear that there would be a swine flu epidemic, causing a nationwide campaign for everyone to be vaccinated. The swine flu never left the army base and the vaccination program was stopped when 500 people became ill from Guillain-Barre syndrome and approximately 30 died. This is why people today are nervous about the swine flu vaccine.

1976 – 1977 More Terrorism

In June 1976, terrorist from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) with cooperation from Ugandan president Idi Amin hijacked an Air France jet with 246 passengers. The plane was taken to Entebee, Uganda. On July 4th the Israeli military carried out a surprise attack and captured the hostages and killing the hijackers. One hostage was not rescued. She had been previously taken to a hospital; Idi Amin had her shot after the rescue. This is what a popular movie of the decade, “Raid on Entebee” is based on.

July 4, 1976, the United States celebrated its 200th birthday, one of the few bright spots of the decade. 

The 1976 presidential election had Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia beating President Ford. 

March 9, 1977 could be the first time terrorist struck in the United States. Twelve gunmen from the group, Hanafi Muslims, took more than 100 hostages, mainly at the B’nai B’rith International Center in Washington D.C. Other buildings attacked were the District Building and the Islamic Center. In the gunfire, a reporter for WHUR radio was shot and killed and D.C. Council member Marion Barry was shot in the chest, almost killing him.

1970s – Space Shuttle Program

One of the bright spots of the 1970s was the development of the Space Shuttle program. The 1970s was the decade of the last moon landing and the end of the Apollo Space Program and the start of the U.S. Space Shuttle Program. In 1972, President Nixon announced that NASA would proceed with the development of the space shuttle. 

The Enterprise was the very first space shuttle. It was built without engines and was used for tests in the atmosphere flying on top of a 747. It rolled out of the assembly facility in September 1976.
President Nixon looking at Space Shuttle model
President Nixon (right) looking at a model of the Space Shuttle

1979 - A Nuclear Meltdown and More Terrorist

President Carter’s first couple of years in office was mainly taken up by the poor economy, rising inflation and brokering peace between Israel and Egypt until 1979.

Alarm warnings rang out at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, when there was an accident at the nuclear power plant. Cooling water was released causing the core to be exposed, the reactor to overheat and release radiation. The biggest fear was that a complete nuclear meltdown would happen. There was a hydrogen explosion in the plant and it was thought a larger hydrogen explosion could occur, but the feared nuclear meltdown and explosion did not occur. Ironically, 12 days before the accident, the popular movie about just such a nuclear accident came out in theaters, “The China Syndrome”.

In February 1979, the Shah of Iran is overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The US allowed the exiled Shah to come to the US for cancer treatments. Because of this, the Ayatollah called for attacks on US interests. November 4, 1979, the US embassy was overtaken and 52 American hostages were held for 444 days. 

Iranian hostage protest in 1979

A month later on December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a war that would last 10 years. 

The turbulent 1970s are mainly remembered for political scandals, terrorism and high inflation. But will also be remembered for the end of the war, brightly colored suits, men’s leisure suits and disco music.

In a 1980 interview, John Lennon had this to say about the 1970s, “Wasn’t the 70s a drag”. Looking back, I would have to agree.


Copyright © 2010-2014 Sam Montana

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