Thursday, March 26, 2009

USH22: The Rest of the Seventies

With Nixon's resignation in 1974 (see my last post for events leading up to it) and Gerald Ford at the helm of the country everything was supposed to be hunky-dory. But the echoes of inflation and the oil crisis lingered on. Ford's motto ('WIN:Whip Inflation Now') just didn't make it. It also didn't help that one of Ford's first acts in office was to pardon Nixon.

The defeat in Vietnam weighed heavy on the US as well. In 1975, the North Vietnamese took over the entire country (now that the US wasn't around to prop up the South). Henry Kissinger (who stayed on in the US as Secretary of State despite the departures of Nixon and Agnew) suggested: "The US must carry out some act somewhere in the world which shows its determination to continue to be a world power."

Three weeks after Vietnam fell, an American cargo ship, the *Mayaguez, was detained by the Cambodians. The US responded by strafing Cambodian ships and their mainland, and invading tiny Koh Tang Island, looking for the crew--who had been returned, safe. All this would have been funny if forty-one Americans (and who knows how many Cambodians) weren't killed.

And when David Popper, the US ambassador to Chile, complained in 1974 about the junta's (which we helped install--see my last post) brutal behavior, Kissinger's response was: "Tell Popper to cut out the political science lectures." In other words, it was business as usual for the US--we learned little from the Vietnam War.

In 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president. I think that he has been one of our most underrated presidents. It's true, as people have said, that he has been more effective as an ex-president than he was as president. And, unfortunately, as Howard Zinn reports, when Carter was asked why the US didn't give reconstruction aid to Vietnam, he claimed there was no reason to do so since "the destruction was mutual". (I can't even begin to make sense out of that.)

But Carter dealt with the 1979 energy crisis by really facing it. He saw becoming energy independent as 'the moral equivalent of war'. Under his administration Congress funded the development of solar and wind power, and Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House and put a wood burning stove in the living space. He wore sweaters and turned down the heat and he suggested citizens do the same--along with using car-pools and public transportation. They grumbled, but they did it. He pointed out that a good bit of the problem stemmed from worshipping "self-indulgence and consumption." All too true, but most Americans didn't want to hear it.

On his first day in office, Carter issued an unconditional amnesty for all Vietnam era draft dodgers. He talked about eliminating the "Imperial Presidency" and reduced the size of his staff, made his Cabinet members drive their own cars (instead of being chauffeured), and sold off the presidential yacht. He tried advocating for human rights (quite a change from his predecessors), and stopped US support for several governments that violated those rights, including the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. He negotiated a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (the Camp David Accords). And he began the process of turning the Panama Canal over to Panama.

But Carter's administration dealt with a lot of difficult issues. Besides the energy crisis, he was dealing with a period of 'stagflation', a situation where inflation is compounded by economic stagnation. While he pushed for price controls on energy and medicine, Congress wouldn't go along with it. And worst of all was the situation in Iran--the Shah who we supported was overthrown in 1979. When diplomats were taken hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran, Carter worked hard for their release--he applied diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran. The ending of oil imports from Iran was a cause of the energy crisis. The US tried a rescue mission to retrieve the hostages but everything went wrong on it. Carter did support a diplomatic mission to secure their release, and it was ultimately and ironically successful, but too late to help Carter.

Carter lost the 1980 election with 91% of the electoral vote going to Ronald Reagan. Literally minutes after Reagan was inaugurated, the hostages were released--due to the work of the Carter administration.

Quote of the Day: "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning." - James Earl Carter

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Wikipedia, various articles (especially the Presidency of Jimmy Carter)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

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