The 1970s were, in some ways, a continuation of the 1960s. Women, gays and lesbians, African Americans, Native Americans and other marginalized people continued their fight for equality, and many Americans joined the protest against the ongoing war in Vietnam. In other ways, however, the decade was a repudiation of the 1960s. A “New Right” mobilized in defense of political conservatism and traditional family roles, though the behavior of President Richard Nixon—and the ensuing Watergate Scandal—undermined many people’s faith in the federal government. By the end of the decade, these divisions and disappointments had set a tone for public life that many would argue is still with us today.
Some Americans, particularly working class and middle class whites, responded to the turbulence of the 1960s—the urban riots, antiwar protests and the counterculture—by embracing a new kind of conservative populism.
Tired of what they interpreted as spoiled hippies and whining protestors, tired of an interfering government that, in their view, coddled poor people and minorities at taxpayer expense, these individuals formed what President Richard Nixon and political strategists called the “silent majority.”
This silent majority swept Republican candidate Nixon into the White House in the 1968 election, defeating the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey.
Almost immediately, Nixon began to dismantle the welfare state that had fostered such resentment. He abolished as many parts of former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs as he could, and he made a show of his resistance to mandatory school desegregation plans such as busing.
The New Right Rises
As the 1970s continued, a new political movement known as the “New Right” emerged. This movement, rooted in the rapidly growing suburban Sun Belt, celebrated the free market and lamented the decline of “traditional” social values and roles.
New Right conservatives resented and resisted what they saw as government meddling. For example, they fought against high taxes, environmental regulations, highway speed limits, land policies in the West (the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion”), affirmative action and school desegregation plans.
The repudiation of so-called alternative lifestyles and religions found renewed purpose after the Jonestown Massacre of 1978, when over 900 followers of preacher Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple—based in San Francisco—committed mass suicide.
In other ways, 1960s liberalism continued to flourish. For example, the crusade to protect the environment from all sorts of assaults—air and water pollution, toxic waste in places like Love Canal, New York; dangerous meltdowns at nuclear power plants such as the one at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania; highways built through city neighborhoods—really took off during the 1970s.
The OPEC oil embargo and subsequent energy crisis of the 1970s drew further attention to the issues of conservation and energy policy. By then, environmentalism was so mainstream that the U.S. Forest Service had a Woodsy Owl ad on Saturday morning cartoons to remind kids to “Give a Hoot; Don’t Pollute.”
Cars in the 1970s
The energy crisis of the 1970s also drove many Americans to reject the clunky, gas-guzzling autos that Detroit continued to produce.
Starting in 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required now-familiar Fuel Economy Labels on new cars, which gave consumers estimated mile-per-gallon ratings for city and highway driving.
Soon, car shoppers turned to the fuel-efficient, compact cars produced by European and, in particular, Japanese automakers. This gave carmakers like Toyota and Nissan an inroad into the vast U.S. car market—a market they would one day dominate.
Movies and TV Shows
Many movie critics consider the 1970s a golden era of socially conscious filmmaking, after the studio system in Hollywood completely broke down and restrictions on violence, obscenity and sexual content loosed.
In this "New Hollywood" environment, innovative directors such as Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Barbara Kopple, Francis Ford Coppola and others took advantage of their newfound freedom to create celebrated and important films including Harlan County, USA; Network; The French Connection; Mean Streets; The Godfather; Chinatown and All the President’s Men.
Though such films were acclaimed by critics, the popular appeal of some paled beside the blockbusters that also emerged in the 1970s. Mass marketing and computer-generated special effects created worldwide fan bases for feel-good movies like Star Wars, Jaws, Rocky, Saturday Night Fever and a genre known as “disaster films,” including The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.
In addition to popular fare like Happy Days, Eight Is Enough and prime-time soap operas such as Dallas, television also found an audience for topical shows that addressed the social and political issues of the decade—a trend that would continue as the emergence of cable television and VCRs threatened once-dominant broadcast networks.
All In the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Roots and M*A*S*H didn’t shy away from once-taboo subjects like homosexuality, slavery, women’s rights and racism. And in 1975, NBC launched one of the most popular and long-lasting comedies in television history, Saturday Night Live.
During the 1970s, many groups of Americans continued to fight for expanded social and political rights. In 1972, after years of campaigning by feminists, Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, which reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
It seemed that the Amendment would pass easily: 22 of the necessary 38 states ratified it right away, and the remaining states seemed close behind. However, the ERA alarmed conservative activists, fearing it would undermine traditional gender roles. These activists mobilized against the ERA and managed to defeat it. In 1977, Indiana became the 35th—and last—state to ratify the ERA.
Disappointments like these encouraged many women’s rights activists to turn away from politics. They began to build feminist communities and organizations of their own: art galleries, bookstores, consciousness-raising groups, daycare and women’s health collectives, rape crisis centers and abortion clinics.
Following the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the gay rights movement continued to build momentum and began to wield considerable political power. One year after Stonewall, New York City hosted America’s first gay pride parade.
In 1978, Harvey Milk was elected mayor of San Francisco, becoming the first openly gay man elected to office in California. And in 1979, more than 100,000 people took part in the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
Even though few people continued to support America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, President Nixon feared that a retreat would make the United States look weak. As a result, instead of ending the war, Nixon and his aides devised ways to make it more palatable, such as limiting the military draft and shifting the burden of combat onto South Vietnamese soldiers.
This policy seemed to work at the beginning of Nixon’s term in office, but after the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970, hundreds of thousands of protestors clogged city streets and shut down college campuses.
At an antiwar rally on May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen shot and killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio in what came to be known as the Kent State Shooting. Ten days later, police officers killed two Black student protestors at Mississippi’s Jackson State University.
Members of Congress tried to limit the president’s war power by revoking the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the use of military force in Southeast Asia, but Nixon simply ignored them. Even after The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which called the government’s justifications for war into question, the bloody and inconclusive conflict continued. American troops did not leave the region until 1973.
In 1972, Nixon took an unprecedented trip to the People’s Republic of China, which was heralded in the press as a dramatic turning point in Cold War relations with a communist nation. The visit was later seen as kicking off China’s transformation into a global manufacturing and military superpower.
But as his term in office wore on, President Nixon grew increasingly paranoid and defensive. Though he won reelection by a landslide in 1972, he resented any challenge to his authority and approved of attempts to discredit those who opposed him.
In June 1972, police found five burglars from Nixon’s own Committee to Re-Elect the President in the office of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. Soon, they found that Nixon himself was involved in the crime: He had demanded that the FBI stop investigating the break-in and told his aides to cover up the scandal.
In April 1974, a Congressional committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon: obstruction of justice, misuse of federal agencies and defying the authority of Congress. Before Congress could impeach him, however, President Nixon resigned in disgrace and left office in August 1974.
This and other events—including the resignation of Vice-President Spiro Agnew following a corruption and bribery scandal—left many voters thoroughly disenchanted with politics in general, and the Republican party in particular, opening the door for reform-minded politicians. And with the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18, setting the stage for youth-dominated elections.
In the 1976 election, former Georgia governor and peanut farmer Jimmy Carter ran as a dark-horse Democratic political outsider and defeated Ford. The same year saw a burst of patriotic pride as the United States celebrated its bicentennial, 200 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Carter’s presidency, which started with a vigorous reformer’s agenda, was eventually brought down by the energy crisis, inflation, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent Iran Hostage Crisis. Despite a number of successes—the Camp David Accords; creating the departments of Education and Energy—Carter would lose his bid for reelection to conservative Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980.
The popular video game Pong, for example, arrived in 1972, with controls and graphics that now seem laughably primitive. And the first ATM was introduced to Americans in September 1969. By 1971, ATMs were able to perform multiple functions, such as providing account balances and dispensing cash, and within the decade the machines would be common worldwide.
Digital memory storage was revolutionized during the 1970s when the floppy disc shrunk in size to a 5-1/4” format. Portable calculators and wristwatches were also radically redesigned in 1970, when the first light-emitting diode (LED) products were introduced to consumers.
Apple Computer Company came into existence in 1976, and the Apple II was released one year later. Through much of the 1970s, listening to music required an extensive (and expensive) home stereo system, but when Sony released the Walkman in 1979, it introduced the idea of portable personal music, a previously unheard-of concept.
And although the Space Race of the 1960s had lost its momentum by the 1970s, people worldwide continued to cast their gaze skyward for a deeper, long-term exploration of near space. Skylab, America’s first space station, was launched in 1973 and crash-landed in 1979, scattering debris across Australia and the Indian Ocean.
Fashion in the 1970s
Models like Jane Birkin and Jerry Hall (who famously dated Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger) epitomized ‘70s style. Bell bottom pants, flowing maxi dresses, ponchos, leisure suits, frayed jeans and earth tones dominated 1970s fashion.
Tie-dye inspired by the 1960s “hippie” style continued to be worn, while patchwork, flame stitch and plaid fabrics—usually made from synthetic materials like nylon and polyester—gained popularity. In 1974, Diane von Furstenberg debuted her famous wrap dress, embodying the modern working woman’s desire for both comfort and style.
Other fashion designers began mass-marketing clothing lines to moderately affluent shoppers, ushering in an era of designer clothes. Halston, Gucci, Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent and others soon became household names to middle-class consumers.
Music and Culture
By the time the iconic band the Beatles broke up in 1970, many people had turned to other aspects of pop culture—easy to do in such a trend-laden, mass-media decade. They listened to 8-track and cassette tapes of solo artists like Dolly Parton, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, David Bowie, Olivia Newton-John and Marvin Gaye.
The disco craze rose with the sounds of Abba, the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, until the disco era crashed unceremoniously in a “disco sucks” backlash. Radio stations increasingly turned away from predictable Top 40 music formats to more specialized programming, such as album-oriented rock, or AOR.
Soon, stadium-filling rock bands like the Rolling Stones, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd and Queen, with frontman Freddie Mercury, dominated the airwaves and ushered in an era of blockbuster concert tours.
But partly as a reaction to glossy, mass-marketed music, a punk-music culture emerged in Great Britain, the United States and elsewhere during the 1970s. Punk bands like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Stooges with Iggy Pop and others channeled rage into loud, energetic music, with outrageous clothes and hairstyles to match.
Sports in the 1970s
At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz dominated the games by bringing home seven gold medals. But the events were marred when Palestinian terrorists stormed the Olympic Village, killing two Israeli athletes and taking nine others hostage. In a shootout later at the Munich airport, all nine hostages, five terrorists and one policeman were killed.
Security was much tighter at the 1976 Olympics, where Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci of Romania became the first person to score a perfect 10 in her events.
Many sports stories of the 1970s reflected the social movements of the decade: Billie Jean King in 1973 defeated Bobby Riggs in a much-publicized “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. In 1975, Arthur Ashe won the Wimbledon men's singles championship, becoming the first Black man to do so, but transsexual Renee Richards was barred from competing in the U.S. Open tennis tournament in 1976.
Throughout the decade, heavyweight Muhammad Ali dominated boxing in much the same way that Jack Nicklaus dominated golf and the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated the NFL, winning the Super Bowl in 1975, 1976, 1979 (and 1980).
The Me Generation
The 1970s saw many people reading self-help books like “How to Be Your Own Best Friend,” “Passages” and “I’m OK, You’re OK,” experimenting with marijuana or other drugs and attending personal-transformation meetings sponsored by the Erhard Seminars Training, or est, organization.
The sexual revolution was already in full swing by the time the pornographic film Deep Throat and the bestseller “The Joy of Sex” were released in 1972. One year later, the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade legalized a woman’s right to an abortion nationwide.
By then, the use of oral contraception, aka “the Pill,” was commonplace, and young singles were meeting one another over piña coladas and tequila sunrises in the fern bars that sprouted up in cities and strip malls nationwide.
In general, by the end of the decade, many people were using their hard-fought freedom to simply do as they pleased: wear what they wanted, grow their hair long, have sex with whomever they wanted or do drugs to help them feel better. The liberation of the so-called Me Generation, in other words, was as intensely personal as it was mass-marketed.
1970s America. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
List of 1970's Major News Events in History. The People History.
The Oil Shocks of the 1970s. Yale University: Energy History.
Timeline: 1970s. Securities and Exchange Commission: Historical Society.