The 1970s get a second look by historians

Historians in the News

[Christian Caryl is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy. His column, "Reality Check," appears weekly on ForeignPolicy.com.]

Those were the days: Economic upheavals wiped out long-established institutions and jolted self-satisfied elites. Terrorists declared war on the West in the name of eccentric utopias. New technologies collapsed geographical distance, bringing far-flung regions closer together and undermining the power of the traditional nation-state.

I could be talking, of course, about the early twenty-first century. But as a growing number of historians and commentators are realizing, all of the above applies equally well to the 1970s, a critical decade that deserves to be remembered for more than disco and bellbottoms. For those who lived through them -- at least in the United States -- the 1970s may have felt mostly like the moment when history ground to a halt: A dullsville interregnum between the highs of the 1960s and the Cold War climacteric of the 1980s. Author Tom Wolfe famously dubbed it the "Me Decade," a period of egotistical navel-gazing and frivolous hedonism. For Americans, it was the era of Watergate, long lines at gas stations, the last years of the inglorious Vietnam adventure, and President Ford. In short, not much worth celebrating.

So why, then, are we suddenly witnessing a flurry of books that aim to refocus our attention on this misbegotten decade? The answer is twofold: First, the Seventies are a lot more interesting than conventional opinion would have it; and, second, the stresses that defined that moment in history turn out to be eerily relevant to our own.

Above all else, the 1970s marked the moment when world leaders and ordinary citizens alike woke up with a jolt to their common status as inhabitants of an interconnected world -- and understood, in the process, that this didn't necessarily make the planet a more predictable place. "This is the decade when things start to unravel," says Harvard historian Charles Maier, one of the editors of the new book The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective. In his essay in the book, historian Daniel Sargent offers a citation from 1975: "Old international patterns are crumbling ... The world has become interdependent in economics, in communications, and in human aspirations." The writer was Henry Kissinger....

The Shock of the Global tilts unapologetically toward political economy -- the field in which many of the book's authors hold credentials. It's a filter that sometimes falls short when it comes to capturing the period's full complexity -- as in the case of the rise of political Islam, which would culminate, at the end of the decade, in Iran's Islamic Revolution and the beginnings of the global jihad unleashed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But this book still manages to bring some of the period's most important trends into sharp relief. Charles Maier, the Harvard history professor, says that the 1970s marked a crucial moment when global elites realized that "the policy solutions for economic dilemmas [were] no longer working. Suddenly there's a group of problems arriving for which there isn't a ready repertory of answers." He suspects that it's precisely that sense of "disequilibrium" that will resonate with present-day readers -- all of us who have just emerged from the great financial cataclysm of 2008. The lesson of the 1970s, says Maier with a laugh, is simple: "Stability is never assured. It always undermines itself ... You're never out of the woods." As if we needed reminding.
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