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Beyond Vietnam and Watergate: Rethinking the 1970s (October 2015): Home

By Derek Charles Catsam


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Choice (volume 53 | number 2).

Abstract and Introduction

In popular memory, the 1970s are seen as a lost decade, an era of shag rugs and bell-bottoms, bad taste and worse luck.  This image is in no small part attributable to the double whammy of the mire of the Vietnam War and the humiliation of the Watergate scandal, both of which seriously undermined Americans’ faith in government at a time when other institutions, including the US economy, seemed more vulnerable than at any time since the Great Depression.

Almost as a consequence of the assumptions about the 1970s as a lost decade in US history, scholarship on the era has generally failed to keep pace with that of the 1960s, an evergreen among scholars, students, and the general public, and the 1980s, which seemed to surpass the 1970s as a field of inquiry almost as soon as the decade ended.

Yet in recent years there has been a virtual explosion of writing on the 1970s from both scholars and other writers who have come to realize that far from being a wasteland, those years can help explain how the United States (and at least some of the world in general) got where it is today.  Looking beyond Vietnam and Watergate (areas that have their own literatures, but that also have managed to cast perhaps too large a shadow over the period), this essay will focus especially on the period from 1974 until the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to provide a perspective on the writing about a too-often misunderstood and overlooked era.

The essay will also focus on domestic affairs, with politics and political culture, broadly defined, at the center.  Among the most prominent themes will be the rise of conservatism, the ongoing dilemma of race in the United States, a (slight) reassessment of President Jimmy Carter, gender and sexuality, film, and sports.  The essay also includes a section looking at a wave of writing placing American trends in the 1970s in global context.  But with a topic as vast and in some ways arbitrarily defined as a single decade, some topics will get short shrift, which explains the decision to look beyond Watergate and Vietnam and to focus on domestic (as opposed to foreign) affairs.  The purpose here is to provide a broad overview of some of the most important and exciting trends in writing about the 1970s.

Derek Charles Catsam is an associate professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan chair in the humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin.