The 1970s and the divided state of America

5th Jan, 2023

The seventies divided America more than any other decade in living memory – perhaps until now

It’s often said that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there. And it might be tempting to add that if you can remember the seventies, tough – because this was the decade taste forgot. Jacket lapels the size and shape of elephant ears were worn with flared pants with thirty-inch cuffs that bore more than a passing resemblance to the Ganges Delta. As if this wasn’t bad enough, burnt orange, lime green and earth-tones were popular choices for everything from carpets to cars.

Andy Warhol regarded the decade as a dreary and empty hangover from the sixties.  Others, though, saw the seventies as enormously significant. And perhaps they have a point. Because sadly, the issues that took centre stage back then remain frighteningly familiar: polarized beliefs, paranoia, terrorism, foreign policy catastrophes, women’s liberation, gay rights and racial injustice.

This was the United States to which thousands of Vietnam veterans returned in the early seventies and my protagonist Wat Tyler would have been among them. What really piqued my interest in this period of history was how much America changed while these people had been gone – and continued to change after they came home. And, of course, this was a two-way process. The vets also experienced deep and enduring changes in their own outlook, world-view and psychology.

In 1973 the Vietnam War ended in what many regarded as America’s first military defeat, although this wasn’t necessarily correct. The USA certainly did not win the War of 1812, having seen Washington DC fall to the enemy and failing to achieve its main strategic aim of ending British rule in Canada. But that old war inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner and saw Andrew Jackson’s victory over the redcoats in the final battle at New Orleans – even though the fighting happened after the peace treaty had been signed. But it was all about perception. The War of 1812 was perceived as a second war of independence; in contrast, Vietnam – or Nam – smacked of a superpower bullying the little guy. While the War of 1812 strengthened America’s self-belief; Vietnam eroded it.

The anti-war movement was often seen as intrinsic to the hippie culture

This was also a time when the hand of conspiracy was seen on the right, the left and everywhere in between. The FBI infiltrated the anti-war movement and the CIA used similar dirty tricks at home as it had in Chile. The Moonies, big money financiers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, even UFOs, all cut a slice of paranoid pie. Nevertheless, as the Watergate investigation unfolded on national television, some theories were shown not only to be true, but understated.

In 1973 Richard Nixon went on TV – perhaps appropriately from Disneyland – and told the nation, ‘I’m not a crook.’ If those words had come from the mouth of any other president since –­ including Donald Trump – they’d have sounded downright surreal. Imagine how they came across to an audience of millions in an age when alternative facts and fake news were unheard of. As with the War of 1812, perception was the key. Before Watergate, American presidents were largely respected; after Watergate, they came to be suspected.

As for the Vietnam War, politicians had as much difficulty as the military in understanding how to fight it. The tactics of the North were not what American troops were expecting or had been trained for. Unlike the Second World War, this was a conflict without front lines or conventional battlefields. Viet Cong guerrillas were everywhere and nowhere. Technically US forces controlled South Vietnam, but the Viet Cong were living in rural communities, towns and cities. They would often engage the Americans on their own terms and withdraw before superior US forces could enter the fight. Even Saigon, the southern capital, was the scene of bombings and shootings. Paranoia was justifiably endemic.         

Many soldiers were also against the war and this helmet is an apt dichotomy of the period with its 7.62mm ammunition next to a peace symbol button

Determined to find a way of measuring progress against this nebulous foe, American generals devised the notorious ‘body count’ system. Their logic was that if US troops killed communist combatants faster than they could be replaced, the North would give up the fight. However, as a metric, body count was ineffective and misleading. Firstly, numbers of enemy dead were grossly exaggerated to enhance a unit’s fighting prowess; and secondly, since the Viet Cong operated within the general population, innocent civilians were frequently counted as enemy fighters.

Anti-war sentiment was widespread and deep-rooted among military draftees in Vietnam as well as folks back home. Acts of defiance from soldiers included wearing peace symbols, drug abuse, going AWOL, disobeying orders and even killing officers – a practice known as ‘fragging’. This opposition was mirrored in the USA, where four students were shot dead by National Guard soldiers at Kent State University, Ohio on May 4, 1970. Meanwhile in New York City, pitched battles were fought by pro and anti-war demonstrators.

There may have been much to complain about in the seventies, but the music scene was not among them. Punk rock exploded in the middle and end of the decade, while older artists such as Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop and David Bowie also prospered

Of course not everything in the seventies was as depressing – the music scene in particular reached fresh zeniths of innovation and inspiration. The early years of the decade saw the Rolling Stones record Sticky Fingers and  Exile on Main Street, while Led Zeppelin released Led Zeppelin III, IV and Houses of the Holy. Carole King’s Tapestry album saw her become the first solo female artist to win the Grammy award for Record of the Year; and Marvin Gaye produced the hugely acclaimed What’s Going On?

In 1973 David Bowie arrived in New York City, where Lou Reed, the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop were playing gigs. Three years later punk energized the music scene with its garage-rock roots and anarchic irreverence. Bands like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash were headline acts. And, by the end of the decade New Wave music had reached a new creative apogee through the likes of Talking Heads, Blondie and Elvis Costello.

What, then, did the seventies mean? Was this the decade that never got going? Or the one that never stopped? Look at its legacies – a polarized society, terrorism, regime-change tragedies, diversity, equality – and decide for yourself.