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The 1970s saw the end of the Vietnam War, the beginning of a war in the Middle East, and the first president to be removed from office. For residents of Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, a third-rate burglary to wiretap the phones of an opposing political party hardly seemed like crimes compared to the Nixon administration’s efforts to topple governments and prolong wars in their countries. But Watergate was different because it used the power of the federal government against a political rival in a way that clearly threatened democracy at home. While the foreign policies of Nixon and his predecessors were often driven by political self-interest, they were also aimed at a goal most Americans identified with—halting the spread of Communism. There was no way to spin the Watergate break-in as anything but an abuse of power driven by personal self-advancement rather than an honest if misguided attempt to fight Communism.
American popular culture mirrored its political culture, shifting away from both the idealism and the excesses of the late 1960s. Cultural icons such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both died of drug overdoses in 1970. Vietnam, Watergate, economic stagflation, and the Iranian hostage situation led many to question the assumption that American history was intrinsically tied to progress. The once idealistic youths of the 1960s seemed to disappear, replaced by radicals such as the Weather Underground Organization that advocated violence and other groups that rejected the liberal idealism of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. These martyred leaders had hoped to use the power of the government to combat poverty and injustice. In many ways, their supporters succeeded in getting the federal government to address both of these issues.
Eager to secure a broad political base, civil rights leaders connected lofty ideals of freedom and equality to measures that simply outlawed discrimination. Desiring to win funding, liberals such as Sargent Shriver predicted that Johnson’s War on Poverty would bring economic security to all Americans within a decade. The war in Vietnam limited the funding that might have otherwise been available for these programs. At the same time, the optimistic pronouncements of the New Left also raised expectations beyond what should have been anticipated by the limited actions taken by the federal government. Promised a great society where federal programs eliminated poverty and discrimination, most Americans grew frustrated and blamed some combination of the federal government, minorities, and the underprivileged for the persistence of poverty and racial injustice.
Most of the student activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s graduated from college and found good-paying jobs. If some of these students felt conflicted by working for the same corporate system they had once derided, they soon discovered that mortgages and student loans have a way of changing one’s worldview. In short, the “Yippies” that disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention with their antiestablishment rhetoric had become the “Yuppies”—a loosely constructed acronym for young urban professionals. As the idealism of the 1960s faded into the crushing realities of the 1970s, the New Left began to fade away as a political force. Perhaps the poor had been given their fair chance, some began to believe, and now it was time to address the sudden avalanche of problems ranging from energy to the economy. Perhaps America suddenly realized that simple justice would not be so simple after all, and the recent converts to liberal causes simply bolted from the movement. Even if the causes of the shifting climate were not clear, it was apparent that the New Left had receded throughout the 1970s and a New Right had emerged by 1980.