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Chapter 15 Introductory Essay: 1968-1980

Written by: Kenneth J. Heineman, Angelo State University

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the context for societal change from 1968 to 1980
  • Explain the extent to which the events of the period from 1968 to 1980 reshaped national identity


The economic, political, and social disruptions America experienced in the 1960s continued into the 1970s. New movements arose that pushed for the civil rights of African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, gay people, and women. Environmentalists warned of the need to curb pollution, and federal regulations were passed that hampered economic growth. Meanwhile, a debate raged over whether the United States should continue the policy of containment of communism or reach an accommodation with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. To Americans who lived through this era, it appeared as if every conceivable issue was a cause for polarizing debate.

The Tet Offensive and the Turbulent 1968 Election

In 1968, America experienced its most politically disruptive year since World War II. The year began with the Tet Offensive, a military operation that communist North Vietnam had timed to coincide with the American presidential primaries. In military terms, this campaign proved disastrous for the Communist forces, with the United States killing 30,000 soldiers and nearly destroying the guerrilla insurgency in South Vietnam. Politically, however, North Vietnam secured its objectives. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson had given Americans the impression that the Vietnam War was being won and would soon end. When the U.S. news media depicted the Tet Offensive as a North Vietnamese victory, a “credibility gap” opened, and the public began to distrust the White House. Americans saw a North Vietnamese army not on the brink of defeat but on the verge of victory. (See the Did U.S. Media Provide Fair and Accurate Coverage of the Tet Offensive? Point-Counterpoint.)

Democratic politicians, whose support base included northern college campuses and affluent suburban districts, turned against Johnson and the Vietnam War. Many, such as Senators George McGovern of South Dakota, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, and Robert Kennedy of New York, questioned not just the war in Vietnam but also the larger policy of communist containment that President Harry Truman had adopted in 1947. A power struggle over containment intensified within the Democratic Party, leaving the Republican Party as Truman’s foreign-policy heir. Johnson, having lost the will to fight the anti-war Democrats, announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek another presidential term.

A few days after Johnson’s announcement, an assassin killed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and 100 cities, including Washington, DC, erupted in riots. Although many Americans mourned King’s death, few had sympathy for rioters, especially because dozens of cities had experienced riots a year before due to frustration at continuing poverty, unemployment, and racism, despite the promises of the Great Society. Americans were even more angered that violent crime—most of it in cities—had doubled in the 1960s. Many Democratic mayors and voters blamed Johnson for the mounting urban violence and disorder, convinced that the president was “soft” on crime.

Former Democratic Governor George Wallace of Alabama decided to run for president as an independent. A segregationist who had come to national attention for attempting to block the enrollment of African American students at the University of Alabama, candidate Wallace rebranded himself as a champion of law and order. Democratic liberals believed his calls for law and order were meant to be heard by working-class whites as coded attacks on poor, urban-dwelling African Americans.

Governor George Wallace stands in the doorway. Other officers stand next to him. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach stands in front of him. A crowd of reporters are in the background.

In 1963 Governor George Wallace (left) stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to block blacks from enrolling in the school.

Wallace denounced urban and campus rioters, as well as the Democratic liberals who defended social protest. Although pollsters anticipated he would receive significant support from disenchanted southern whites, they did not expect that many northern working-class Catholics would also respond to his rhetoric. Working-class southern whites and northern Catholics had been at the core of the Democratic electoral coalition since the Great Depression, and the party could not maintain its majority without them. However, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a civil rights champion and former U.S. senator from Minnesota, understood the electoral danger the Democrats faced in 1968 from the possibility that many people in the Democratic coalition would vote for Wallace. He believed he could reunite the party by running for president as Johnson’s designated successor. Although Humphrey had been among the champions of communist containment in 1947, he privately conceded that the Vietnam War had been a mistake.

Peace activists who had supported the recently assassinated Robert Kennedy denounced the war and Humphrey at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Outside the convention, radical anti-war protestors clashed with the Chicago police as network television cameras recorded the violence. Humphrey led a wounded party and faced a skeptical electorate that did not believe he could restore order.

Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon won a close election, thanks to Wallace’s carrying five normally Democratic southern states and siphoning working-class white votes from Humphrey in Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The 1968 election caused a political realignment, signaling the collapse of postwar liberal consensus and coalitions, and the rise of modern conservatism. To conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, Nixon was an opportunist. Others viewed him as a pragmatist who would let nothing stand in the way of advancing his domestic and foreign policy agendas. In truth, Nixon was both.

The Nixon Administration: Foreign Policy

On the foreign policy front, Nixon faced a dilemma. The Democratic Congress, which had supported Johnson’s Vietnam policy for years, would not do the same for Nixon. Most Democratic politicians expected Nixon to walk away from the war. North Vietnamese leaders had no incentive to negotiate peace, because they knew Congress was inclined to abandon South Vietnam. Nixon did not wish to give up on South Vietnam, but he also knew he could not escalate the war by sending more U.S. troops. Complicating matters, the American public had conflicting views: they wanted to end the war but disliked the idea of handing victory to North Vietnam. Yet, the majority of Americans despised both the war and the anti-war protestors. Nixon believed his best options were to find wiggle room among the public’s conflicting desires and to bypass Congress as much as possible. (See the Vietnam War DBQ Lesson.)

The troops and material support North Vietnam received from its allies, the Soviet Union and China, had been a critical factor in preventing an American military victory in South Vietnam. Thus, Nixon knew he had to drive a wedge between the two major communist powers and North Vietnam. He also had to exploit the growing divisions between the Soviet Union and China, both of which had imperial ambitions in Asia. Working largely out of sight of the news media and Congress, Nixon prepared the groundwork for trade and weapons negotiations with the Soviet Union and China. In 1972, he went to China and established diplomatic relations to play that nation off against the Soviet Union.

Chairman Mao and President Richard Nixon shake hands.

In February 1972 President Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit China. His meeting with Chairman Mao and other members of the Chinese government opened diplomatic relations with the communist nation.

Nixon continued to divide the communist powers by negotiating nuclear arms reductions (via Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty [SALT]) with the Russians and trying to decrease Cold War tensions. The SALT I treaty limited the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and antiballistic missile defense systems. As a result of détente, both the Soviet Union and China reduced their support for North Vietnam. Given its own increased concerns over China’s growing power, the Soviet Union saw détente with the United States as its best option. Détente was the policy of decreasing tensions between the two superpowers to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war and conflict around the globe. (See the Richard Nixon Opens Diplomatic Relations with China Narrative.)

While breaking apart the communist alliance in Asia, Nixon escalated the bombing of North Vietnamese targets, many of which Johnson had placed off limits because of his fear of killing civilians and Chinese troops. Nixon also bombed North Vietnam’s supply line, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through Laos and Cambodia. Johnson had done little about the Ho Chi Minh Trail because Laos and Cambodia were officially neutral, even though they actively assisted North Vietnam.

At the same time, Nixon withdrew American troops, counting on his bombing campaign and an expanded South Vietnamese Army to force North Vietnam to negotiate an end to the war. The American public approved of Nixon’s strategy. Congress, however, had largely been left in the dark about the bombing of Laos and Cambodia. This resulted in a struggle between the president and Congress, because the Democratic Congress had placed restrictions on the level of military action permitted in the Indochinese combat theater.

The Nixon Administration: Domestic Policy

On the domestic front, Nixon had several goals. First, he wanted to drastically reduce campus anti-war protest and unrest. Second, he sought to continue the process begun in 1968 of winning over elements of the Democratic electoral coalition. Third, he worked on building a Republican electoral majority by capturing the votes of working-class southern whites and northern Catholics. And fourth, he embraced some traditionally Democratic issues, such as federal welfare programs and environmental regulation, which would divide liberals and perhaps promote defections to the Republican Party. His domestic policies sought to replace Great Society programs with more conservative social policies.

Reducing campus protest proved easy. Nixon suspected most students were not really protesting the Vietnam War or even the larger policy of communist containment. They were protesting because of their fear of being drafted if they flunked out of college and lost their student draft deferments. All Nixon had to do in 1969 was substitute the student deferment with a draft lottery based on birthdays. The higher a man’s draft number, the less likely he would be called up, especially because Nixon was cutting back the number of U.S. troops in South Vietnam. Campus disruptions and violence virtually ceased, earning great applause from working-class law-and-order Democrats.

Nixon believed he could appeal to Wallace’s voters by cracking down on drug abusers and violent criminals. One of the ways to achieve that goal was to make narcotics possession and related criminal activities federal offenses. Nixon achieved this in 1973 with the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). To increase support from working-class voters, he then forced the Democratic Congress into a bidding war over which branch of government would claim credit for dramatically increasing Social Security payments during an election year. Nixon and Congress indexed increases in Social Security to inflation, which was rising rapidly at that time, and created Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) for the disabled, blind, and elderly.

In a shrewd move, Nixon co-opted one of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson’s pet projects, Earth Day 1970, and established the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that same year. Nixon knew air and water pollution affected everyone across all sectors of the electorate. Ecology-minded Democrats like Nelson had little choice but to support the EPA, which, in effect, meant supporting Nixon and giving him credit for environmental protection. Congress and Nixon passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, the Pesticides Control Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to address pressing environmental problems.

William Ruckelshaus raises his right hand resting his left hand on the Bible and looks at the judge in front of him. His wife Jill Ruckelshaus stands in between them holding the Bible. President Nixon stands next to William Ruckelshaus.

President Nixon (left) watching as William Ruckelshaus (center) is sworn in as the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Nixon was a conservative who expanded the welfare state even as he sought to present an alternative to Great Society liberalism. His most significant proposal was the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), which was to guarantee a basic minimum income to all American families and, particularly, to supplement the income of the working poor. Unlike Aid to Families with Dependent Children, FAP would encourage people to work and families to stay together. However, Congress did not pass this plan for welfare reform.

The Nixon administration also advanced the idea of “New Federalism” to restore the balance of power between the federal government and the states. According to this idea, the federal government dispensed money to states in block grants with fewer controls over how the money was spent. In August 1971, Nixon made dramatic changes to federal economic policy. He introduced wage and price controls to try to contain spiraling inflation and took the United States off the gold standard, allowing the value of the dollar to float relative to other currencies, though inflation continued to increase.

Social movements

Nixon also presided over the growing influence of the conservative movement. Meanwhile, the Democratic New Deal coalition of ethnic workers, unions, blacks, Jews, and southerners began to divide. Affluent liberals challenged party regulars for control of the party and moved it to the left with the rights revolutions.

The 1960s African American civil rights movement inspired Latinos and Native Americans to establish such protest organizations as La Raza and the American Indian Movement. La Raza (“The Race”) wanted to unify all Hispanics under its banner and advocated, among other things, bilingual education in the public schools. The American Indian Movement staged armed protests at reservations to draw attention to tribal poverty and historic grievances over the confiscation of native lands. (See the American Indian Activism and the Siege of Wounded Knee Narrative.)

César Chávez formed the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 to organize Mexican Americans as a union and a political force, staging a nationwide boycott of grapes to publicize the plight of itinerant farm workers who picked them (see the César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers Narrative, and the Art as Protest: Images from the United Farm Workers of America, 1973–1978 Primary Source). In 1966, feminists, including Betty Friedan, helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW championed an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, which Congress sent to the states for ratification in 1972. The ERA, its supporters insisted, would guarantee women higher salaries and gender equality. Feminists also won the legalization of abortion as a result of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. (See the The Birth Control Pill Narrative.) In 1969, gay rights became a national political issue as a result of a violent clash between police officers and gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City. (See the The Gay Liberation Movement Narrative.)

Cesar Chavez stands behind a podium and talks into a microphone.

César Chávez shown here in 1976 worked to unionize Mexican American farm workers in the United States.

View the BRI Homework Help video on Roe v. Wade to learn more about the case.

Whether feminist, gay, Latino, African American, or American Indian, such organizations and movements embraced a politics of identity (race, gender, or sexual orientation) and not necessarily of social class—with the exception of Chávez, who championed low-paid migrant workers. Each movement found its way into the Democratic Party and transformed liberal politics. Labor union members, southern whites, and northern working-class Catholics felt marginalized because the Democratic Party was shifting away from traditional New Deal liberalism. The Democratic New Deal political coalition fractured at the same time the conservative movement was ascendant.

The Fracturing of the Democratic New Deal Coalition

Senator George McGovern of South Dakota vowed to reform the Democratic presidential nominating process after the disastrous 1968 Chicago convention. His reforms placed the power of nomination into the hands of primary voters rather than labor union leaders and Democratic office holders. McGovern then announced he would run for president, taking advantage of the fact that in low-turnout primaries, motivated and organized liberal voters offered the margin of victory. He mobilized upper-income voters, college campuses, NOW, and other rights groups to secure the nomination. His supporters refused to make peace with hostile union and big-city politicians, however, or with culturally conservative southern whites.

In the 1972 election, McGovern became the first Democrat since the 1920s to lose the votes of several different groups in the party’s electoral base. Nixon had seemingly broken apart the New Deal coalition, although much harm was also done by the Democrats’ self-inflicted wounds. Still, the Democratic Party maintained its embrace of identity politics while trying to boost its class appeal and reorient its foreign policy away from communist containment. The incumbent Nixon contended with another “law and order” campaign by George Wallace, who ran again until he was injured by a would-be assassin’s bullet and dropped out of the race. Nixon won an overwhelming victory over McGovern with 520 electoral votes from 49 states.

A crowd of children stick their right hands out towards President Nixon who waves and holds one child's hand.

President Nixon greeting schoolchildren on a campaign stop for the 1972 election.

Watergate and the Fall of Richard Nixon

Nixon’s triumph proved short-lived. His downfall had begun in 1969, when he ordered U.S. forces to bomb Laos to destroy the sanctuaries of communist forces. Hostile government officials leaked the fact to the news media and congressional Democrats. Seeking to plug the leaks, Nixon’s operatives established what they called a “plumbers’ unit” to place critics under surveillance. Lacking responsible oversight, the “plumbers” were caught in 1972 after breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at Washington’s Watergate Hotel to plant listening devices.

When Nixon learned what had happened, rather than allow the courts to deal with his operatives, he chose the path of coverup and payoffs to the Watergate burglars. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein doggedly uncovered the links to the White House and kept the break-in on the public mind. Nixon forgot he was taping his Oval Office conversations, and when Congress learned of the existence of the tapes, they provided irrefutable evidence that the president was engaging in criminal activities that merited impeachment. Nixon claimed executive privilege to try to thwart Congress’s demand for the tapes, but the Supreme Court forced the administration to turn them over in U.S. v. Nixon (1974). Congressional and Special Counsel investigations culminated in Nixon’s decision to resign in 1974 rather than be impeached and removed from office, elevating Vice President Gerald Ford to the presidency.

Ford met with great popular opposition when, in the hope of sparing the country additional pain over the Watergate scandal, he pardoned Nixon a month after he resigned. The scandal also contributed greatly to the distrust in government that carried over from Johnson’s credibility gap. (See the Barbara Jordan and Watergate Decision Point, the Nixon Tapes: The “Smoking Gun” Tape, 1972 Primary Source, the Barbara Jordan, Speech on Impeachment, July 25, 1974 Primary Source, the Herblock, Watergate Cartoons, 1973–1974 Primary Source, and the Richard Nixon and Watergate Narrative.)

Economic Troubles in the 1970s

Nixon’s downfall represented just one of many shocks Americans experienced in the 1970s. In 1973, because the United States supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War, the mainly Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) retaliated by embargoing oil to the United States. As a result, American consumers paid 400 percent more for oil and gasoline, waiting in line for hours to buy gas while businesses raised prices to cover higher energy costs. The OPEC oil embargo commenced an era of simultaneously escalating inflation and economic stagnation known as “stagflation.” The popular postwar Keynesian theory of economics now seemed bereft of solutions, because cutting or raising spending or taxes would only make one of the twin problems worse. (See The 1973 Oil Crisis and Its Economic Consequences Narrative.)

A man holds a newspaper that reads

The 1973 OPEC oil embargo led to widespread gas shortages in the United States.

Meanwhile, increasing overseas competition from Japan, China, and European nations flooded U.S. markets with less expensive and often better-quality industrial goods. Domestic producers, especially of automobiles and steel, had a choice between laying off well-paid workers and embracing automation or going bankrupt. In Michigan, between 1979 and 1982, a quarter of a million unionized autoworkers’ jobs disappeared. As manufacturing jobs vanished from urban industrial centers in the North, violent crime continued on an upward trajectory.

The economic decline and flight from many American cities in the Northeast and Midwest were captured in popular culture in movies and television. Many popular characters were frustrated, working-class, urban ethnics who struggled to adapt to the new economy born of deindustrialization. In the film Rocky, Sylvester Stallone’s character rose from obscurity to gain a shot at the world heavyweight boxing championship. John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever used disco dancing to escape a dreary future in Brooklyn. On television, All in the Family’s protagonist, Archie Bunker, saw his cherished views on culture and race challenged by liberal family members and black neighbors. Movies such as Jaws and Star Wars introduced the idea of the summer blockbuster into the culture.

The deindustrialization of midwestern and northeastern states devastated a once economically dynamic region. At the same time, new postindustrial business enterprises, especially computing, expanded in the West and some areas of the South. The “Sun Belt” also prospered, in part due to the concentration of federal defense spending in the region. Sun Belt voters wanted an assertive, anti-communist foreign policy and fewer federal regulations imposed on their businesses. Many were motivated by their views on taxes and federal regulations, whereas others were Christian conservatives focused on culture and social issues.

In 1975, the last Americans pulled out of Vietnam, scrambling aboard helicopters from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. The communist takeover of South Vietnam signaled American defeat in the war, a loss that seemed to foreshadow the eclipse of American global strategic power and the end of the “American Century.”

The Carter Administration: Domestic Policy

Former Democratic Governor James “Jimmy” Earl Carter of Georgia ran for the presidency as a Washington outsider in 1976 and won on a pledge to fix the American economy and heal the cultural divisions of the 1960s. He rallied white southerners to his side, including Southern Baptist minister Jerry Falwell of Virginia, while assuring African Americans that he was a civil rights champion. Carter also told social conservatives he supported traditional family values while he embraced legalized abortion and ratification of the ERA.

Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford stand on a stage behind podiums. Gerald Ford gestures to Jimmy Carter as he speaks.

Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter (left) defeated the incumbent Gerald Ford (right) in the 1976 presidential election.

It did not take long before Carter’s inability to be all things to all people became apparent. Religious conservatives like Falwell turned against him over a host of social issues. In 1979, Falwell founded the Moral Majority, which, to avoid trouble with the Internal Revenue Service, was officially a nonpartisan “educational” organization. Unofficially, however, the Moral Majority sought to rally religious conservatives and defeat Carter in 1980.

Before Falwell repudiated Carter, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly had created an organization called STOP ERA. Convinced the Equal Rights Amendment would undermine the family, Schlafly successfully lobbied state legislatures to either reject ratification of the ERA or to rescind their earlier pro-ERA votes. By 1980, STOP ERA and the Moral Majority had moved the Republican Party in a more socially conservative direction—a development that former California governor and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan seemingly endorsed. As had happened with the Democratic Party, the “outsiders” became the “insiders.” (See the Phyllis Schlafly and the Debate over the Equal Rights Amendment Narrative.)

Reacting to a rising tide of conservative anger, Carter lashed out. In a 1979 nationally televised address, popularly known as the “Malaise Speech,” Carter chided Americans for losing confidence in the federal government. He did not understand that Americans were primarily losing faith in him. (See the Jimmy Carter and the “Malaise” Speech Narrative and the Jimmy Carter, “Malaise” Speech, July 15, 1979 Primary Source.)

Carter attempted several initiatives with Congress to reduce American dependence on foreign oil. Congress deregulated oil and gas prices and invested in private development of alternate energy sources. Environmentalists opposed strip mining for coal, however, and a crippling accident at the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, diminished enthusiasm for nuclear energy as an alternative to oil, gas, and coal. To conserve fuel, Congress passed regulations raising automobile mileage standards and lowering speed limits. Foreign-oil imports dropped from 48 percent of the nation’s consumption to 40 percent during the Carter presidency, but another oil shock and more gas lines occurred in 1979 because of OPEC’s response to the Iran hostage crisis. The energy issue endured for decades on the nation’s political and economic agenda.

The Carter Administration: Foreign Policy

Beyond cultural divisions and an economically crippling double-digit inflation rate, Carter faced enormous foreign policy challenges. In 1975, when North Vietnam invaded and conquered South Vietnam, many Americans had looked away, trying to forget the war. Two years later, President Carter gave an address at Notre Dame University in which he decried America’s “inordinate fear of communism.” Carter repudiated the Truman Doctrine and containment that guided American foreign policy during the Cold War for three decades and attempted to make human rights the center of his foreign policy. He achieved his greatest foreign policy success in negotiating a Middle East peace accord. Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat met at Camp David to discuss their lingering hostility after recent wars. The 1978 Camp David Accords led to Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s granting Israel access to the Suez Canal, and formal diplomatic relations between the two nations.

The Soviet Union perceived Carter’s foreign policy initiatives and détente generally as a sign of U.S. weakness and expanded its power around the globe. The Russians used profits from soaring oil prices to pay for a massive nuclear and conventional arms build-up to threaten the United States. The Soviet Union also financed and advised guerrilla insurgencies in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Angola, Somalia, and Yemen. The overthrow of the American ally and Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza by the Marxist and Soviet-funded Sandinistas created trouble for Carter’s human rights foreign policy. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev installed a communist puppet government in Afghanistan, which sparked an uprising in 1979. Brezhnev responded by invading Afghanistan. He had no idea the Soviet Union had inspired an Islamic awakening and resistance that would spread across the world. Carter’s response was to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, stop grain exports to the Soviet Union, and withdraw from the SALT II Treaty.

Soviet aggression caught Carter by surprise, but it was far from his only foreign-policy problem. A champion of international human rights, Carter had criticized American allies who repressed their citizens’ liberties. For example, he had expressed great impatience with the shah (ruler) of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1979, the terminally ill shah fled his chaotic country, leaving Iran to fundamentalist revolutionaries who established an Islamic Republic. The young student revolutionaries subsequently seized 52 American personnel at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, holding them hostage for 444 days. During each additional day of the “hostage crisis,” the international news media depicted Carter as weak and incompetent. A failed rescue attempt in which dozens of U.S. special forces were killed only worsened the situation. (See the Jimmy Carter and the Iran Hostage Crisis Narrative.)

American hostages sit at a table in front of a wall filled with photographs and writing such as

Pictured are hostages celebrating on Christmas Eve 1979 during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Note the “imperialism and Carter” and images on the wall. (credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division LC-DIG-ppmsca-04926)

The Rise of Conservatism

Although Carter tried to move to the right on U.S. foreign policy, requiring young men to register for a nonexistent draft and boycotting the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, he pleased no one. Conservatives, including Sun Belt libertarians, southern evangelicals, and the Democrats who had voted for Nixon in 1972, wanted tougher measures against the Soviet Union and Iran. Democratic liberals, on the other hand, believed Carter had overreacted in his responses to both countries. Liberals not only rejected his more conservative foreign policy, they believed he knew nothing about domestic policy. They were convinced that regulations and more federal spending programs, including taxpayer-subsidized national health insurance, could cure what was ailing the nation’s economy.

During the 1980 Democratic primaries, Carter barely beat back a challenge on the left from Massachusetts senator and dynastic heir Edward “Teddy” Kennedy, a brother of the late president. Democratic liberals showed little enthusiasm for Carter, expecting that even if Reagan won the 1980 election, he would prove a failure, paving the way for Kennedy in 1984. The American people, liberals argued, did not want what Reagan offered—namely a rollback of welfare programs, a federal crackdown on crime, and increased defense spending. However, the conservative movement was ready to bring a new vision to the federal government after the decline of the New Deal liberal order.

A timeline shows important events of the era. In 1968 the Tet Offensive is launched Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis and Richard Nixon is elected president; a Saigon street filled with billowing smoke is shown. Also in 1968 Vietnamese are massacred at My Lai and Richard Nixon is elected president; a photograph of My Lai victims is shown. In 1969 Stonewall riots occur and Apollo 11 lands the first humans on the moon; a photograph of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon is shown. Also in 1969 the Woodstock festival is held; a photograph of Swami Satchidananda and his followers on stage before a massive crowd at the Woodstock opening ceremony is shown. In 1970 the National Guard fires on students at Kent State University. In 1972 Nixon goes to China; a photograph of Richard and Pat Nixon standing before the Great Wall with Chinese officials is shown. In 1973 Roe v. Wade legalizes abortion nationally the Paris Peace Accords end the U.S. role in Vietnam OPEC proclaims an oil embargo and AIM Siege occurs at Wounded Knee. In 1974 Nixon resigns because of the Watergate scandal; a photograph of Nixon's departure from the White House is shown. In 1976 Jimmy Carter is elected president; a photograph of Jimmy Carter is shown. In 1978 the Camp David Accords are signed; a photograph of Menachem Begin Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat is shown. In 1979 Iranian protestors storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran and take hostages.

The late 1960s and 1970s saw political economic and social turmoil in the United States. As the 1980s began a newly ascendant conservative movement rose to political power.

Additional Chapter Resources

Review Questions

1. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago

  1. unified a divided Democratic Party
  2. offered voters a model of law and order
  3. weakened the Democratic Party
  4. rejected the legacy of President Lyndon Johnson

2. In the late 1960s a “credibility gap” between what the federal government was telling the public and what was actually happening developed over which issue?

  1. The environment
  2. Civil rights
  3. Women’s rights
  4. The Vietnam War

3. President Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for re-election for all the following reasons except

  1. the controversy over the Tet Offensive
  2. the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
  3. Democrats’ abandonment of President Truman’s policy of containment
  4. the growing number of anti-war members within Johnson’s party

4. The reaction of Democratic mayors toward President Johnson during the post-King assassination riots is best described as

  1. grateful for the support of the federal government in calming the riots
  2. mournful as a result of the many deaths that occurred in major cities
  3. unsupportive because they considered Johnson “soft” on crime
  4. thankful for the use of the National Guard

5. After President Johnson announced he would not run for re-election in 1968 who became the favorite to gain the party’s nomination?

  1. Robert F. Kennedy
  2. George Wallace
  3. Hubert Humphrey
  4. Eugene McCarthy

6. The Democrats lost the presidential election of 1968 for all the following reasons except

  1. the overwhelming popularity of the Republican candidate
  2. the violent anti-war protests that disrupted the Democratic Convention
  3. a southern Democrat who drew traditional Democratic votes from the party’s nominee
  4. the perception that the Democratic party was soft on crime

7. Richard Nixon’s policy for the Vietnam War when he took office is best described as

  1. working with the Democratic Congress on ending the war
  2. not wanting to abandon the South Vietnam government
  3. hoping to send more troops to Asia
  4. hoping to sway public opinion to support the war

8. All the following were significant strategies President Nixon used to affect the war in Vietnam except

  1. driving a wedge between North Vietnam and China
  2. creating a strong relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union
  3. opening diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China
  4. strengthening the relationship between China and the U.S.S.R.

9. A significant strategy President Nixon used to quell anti-war protests on college campuses was

  1. ending educational deferments
  2. requiring more technology than troops for the war
  3. changing the military to an all-volunteer organization
  4. allowing the National Guard to occupy major college campuses

10. To attract Democrats to support the Republican Party Richard Nixon supported all the following ideas except

  1. the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency
  2. the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities
  3. a dramatic increase in Social Security payments
  4. the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency

11. All the following were inspired by the civil rights movement except

  1. the Stonewall Riot participants
  2. members of NOW
  3. anti-Vietnam War protestors
  4. members of La Raza

12. After the 1968 election Senator George McGovern led a reform movement in the Democratic Party that transferred power to nominate the party’s next presidential candidate to

  1. the party bosses
  2. labor unions
  3. the primary voters
  4. loyal party members

13. In the election of 1972 Republican Richard Nixon won the votes of all the traditionally Democratic groups except

  1. southern whites
  2. African Americans
  3. northern labor union members
  4. northern Catholics

14. After his landslide re-election President Nixon began to suffer legal and political trouble for all the following except

  1. the Arab oil embargo
  2. the beginning of U.S. bombing in Laos
  3. the cover-up of wrongdoing by members of his re-election committee
  4. the invasion of Cambodia

15. Which of the following best describes major issues facing the Carter administration?

  1. Increasingly cultural divisions and stagflation
  2. Inflation and interest rates remained consistently low
  3. The policy of containment remained successful
  4. The public regained trust in the federal government

16. The most significant foreign policy problem Jimmy Carter faced was

  1. the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan
  2. the takeover of Nicaragua and El Salvador by communist-sympathetic governments
  3. the Iran Hostage Crisis
  4. North Vietnam’s takeover of South Vietnam

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how and why the supporters of the Democratic Party shifted after 1968.
  2. Discuss the most significant foreign policy challenges the United States faced in the 1970s and the way Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter responded to those challenges.
  3. Discuss the most significant domestic policy challenges the United States faced in the 1970s and the way Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter responded to those challenges.

AP Practice Questions

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

The proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. The intentions expressed in the amendment are similar to those expressed in which amendment in the U.S. Constitution?

  1. Fourteenth Amendment
  2. Seventeenth Amendment
  3. Nineteenth Amendment
  4. Twenty-Third Amendment

2. The amendment was originally proposed after which of the following?

  1. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment
  2. The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment
  3. The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment
  4. The creation of the Women’s Army Corps

3. Which of the following opposed the ideas expressed in the amendment?

  1. The National Organization for Women
  2. National Women’s Party
  4. Betty Friedan and other feminists

The 1972 map shows electoral and popular vote results for the 1972 presidential election. Every state except Massachusetts Washington D.C. and part of Virginia supported the Republican candidate Nixon. Massachusetts and D.C. supported the Democratic candidate McGovern. Part of Virginia supported the Libertarian candidate Hospers. Nixon won 96.6% of the electoral vote (520 out of 538 votes) and 60.7% of the popular vote (47 169 911 out of 77 718 554 votes). McGovern won 3.2% of the electoral vote (17 out of 538 votes) and 37.5% of the popular vote (29 170 383 out of 77 718 554 votes). The minor candidate Hospers won 0.2% of the electoral vote (1 out of 538 votes) and 1.8% of the popular vote (1 378 260 out of 77 718 554 votes). Electoral votes by state for Nixon are as follows: Hawaii 4 Alaska 3 Washington 9 Oregon 6 California 45 Nevada 3 Idaho 4 Montana 4 Wyoming 3 Utah 4 Colorado 7 Arizona 6 New Mexico 4 North Dakota 3 South Dakota 4 Nebraska 5 Kansas 7 Oklahoma 8 Texas 26 Minnesota 10 Iowa 8 Missouri 12 Arkansas 6 Louisiana 10 Mississippi 7 Alabama 9 Georgia 12 Florida 17 South Carolina 8 North Carolina 13 Tennessee 11 Kentucky 9 Wisconsin 11 Michigan 21 Illinois 26 Indiana 13 Ohio 25 West Virginia 6 Virginia 11 Maryland 10 Delaware 3 New Jersey 17 Pennsylvania 27 Connecticut 8 New York 41 Rhode Island 4 Vermont 3 New Hampshire 4 Maine 4. Electoral votes by state of McGovern are as follows: Massachusetts 14 D.C. 3. Electoral votes by state for Hospers are Virginia 1.

This map shows the electoral votes won by each candidate in the 1972 presidential election. (credit: “Presidential Electoral Votes Results 1972” by Bill of Rights Institute/Flickr CC BY 4.0)

The 1976 map shows the electoral and popular vote results for the 1976 election. States supporting the Democratic candidate Carter include Minnesota Wisconsin Hawaii Missouri Arkansas Texas Louisiana Mississippi Alabama Georgia South Carolina North Carolina Tennessee Kentucky Ohio West Virginia Pennsylvania Maryland Washington DC Delaware New York Massachusetts and Rhode Island. States supporting the Republican candidate Ford include Maine New Hampshire Vermont Connecticut New Jersey Virginia Michigan Indiana Illinois Iowa Oklahoma Kansas Nebraska South Dakota North Dakota Montana Wyoming Colorado New Mexico Arizona Utah Idaho Nevada California Alaska Oregon and most of Washington. The eastern part of Washington supported the Republican Candidate Reagan. Carter won 55.2% of the electoral vote (297 out of 538 votes) and 50% of the popular vote (40 830 763 out of 81 555 889 votes). Ford won 44.6% of the electoral vote (240 out of 538 votes) and 48% of the popular vote (39 147 793 out of 81 555 889 votes). Reagan won 0.2% of the electoral vote (1 out of 538 votes) and 2% of the popular vote (1 577 333 out of 81 555 889 votes). Electoral votes by state for Carter are as follows: Hawaii 4 Texas 26 Minnesota 10 Wisconsin 11 Missouri 12 Arkansas 6 Louisiana 10 Mississippi 7 Alabama 9 Georgia 12 Florida 17 South Carolina 8 North Carolina 13 Tennessee 10 Kentucky 9 Ohio 25 West Virginia 6 Washington D.C. 3 Maryland 10 Delaware 3 Pennsylvania 27 New York 41 Massachusetts 14 Rhode Island 4. Electoral votes by state for Ford are as follows: Main 4 New Hampshire 4 Vermont 3 Connecticut 8 New Jersey 17 Virginia 12 Indiana 13 Michigan 21 Illinois 26 Iowa 8 North Dakota 3 South Dakota 4 Nebraska 5 Kansas 7 Oklahoma 8 New Mexico 4 Arizona 6 Utah 4 Colorado 7 Wyoming 3 Montana 4 Idaho 4 Oregon 6 Washington 8 Nevada 3 California 45 Alaska 3. Electoral votes by state for Reagan are as follows: Washington 1.

This map shows the electoral votes won by each candidate in the 1976 presidential election. Though he did not receive the Republican nomination Ronald Reagan did receive one vote in the electoral college. (credit: “Presidential Electoral Votes Results 1976” by Bill of Rights Institute/Flickr CC BY 4.0)

Refer to the maps provided.

4. Which of the following best explains the most significant change between Map 1 and Map 2?

  1. A realignment of the New Deal coalition
  2. The Watergate scandal
  3. Votes lost to a charismatic third-party candidate
  4. The economic problems associated with the Republican candidate

5. The most significant issue in the election of 1976 was

  1. a growing economic crisis
  2. the ongoing conflict in Vietnam
  3. public distrust of the government and Washington insiders
  4. the “do-nothing” attitude of the Ford administration

“In this outward and physical ceremony we attest once again to the inner and spiritual strength of our Nation. As my high school teacher Miss Julia Coleman used to say: “We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles”. . .

This inauguration ceremony marks a new beginning a new dedication within our Government and a new spirit among us all. A President may sense and proclaim that new spirit but only a people can provide it.

Two centuries ago our Nation’s birth was a milestone in the long quest for freedom but the bold and brilliant dream which excited the founders of this Nation still awaits its consummation. I have no new dream to set forth today but rather urge a fresh faith in the old dream.”

Jimmy Carter First Inaugural Address January 20 1977

Refer to the excerpt provided.

5. Which of the following best describes the context surrounding the excerpted speech?

  1. An economic crisis was over but the nation was still looking for new leadership.
  2. People had lost trust in their government and elected a president who was an outsider.
  3. The nation had recently won a controversial war and was on the path toward healing.
  4. The strengthening Civil Rights movement was uniting the United States.

6. Based on the sentiments expressed in the excerpt which of the following issues would President Jimmy Carter support?

  1. Laissez-faire economics
  2. Increased federal spending
  3. Human rights at home and abroad
  4. Increased military spending

Primary Sources

Carter James Earl. “Address at Commencement Exercises at the University of Notre Dame.” May 22, 1977.

Carter James Earl. “July 15, 1979: ‘Crisis of Confidence’ Speech.”

Nixon Richard. “Toasts of the President and Premier Chou En-lai of China at a Banquet Honoring the Premier in Peking.” February 21, 1972.

“Republican Party Platform of 1980.”

Schlafly Phyllis. “What’s Wrong with ‘Equal Rights’ for Women?” 1972.

Suggested Resources

Critchlow Donald T. Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press 2008.

Frumm David. How We Got Here: The 70’s: The Decade that Brought You Modern Life. New York: Basic Books 2000.

Heineman Kenneth J. God Is a Conservative: Religion Politics and Morality in Contemporary America. New York: New York University Press 2005.

Heineman Kenneth J. The Rise of Contemporary Conservatism in the United States. New York: Routledge 2018.

Hunter James Davison. Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family Art Education Law And Politics In America. New York: Basic Books 1992.

Jenkins Phillip. Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. New York: Oxford University Press 2008.

Kazin Michael. The Populist Persuasion: An American History. New York: Basic Books 1995.

Klatch Rebecca E. A Generation Divided: The New Left the New Right and the 1960s. Berkeley: University of California Press 1999.

Lewis Penny W. Hardhats Hippies and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press 2013.

Schneider Gregory L. The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2008.

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