How did the 'Malaise' Period of Struggle in the 1970s Occur in the United States?
The 1970s saw a series of severe political and economic problems that convulsed much of the United States. Richard Nixon became the first president to resign in office, Gerald Ford became the first unelected president, and Jimmy Carter appeared unable to cope with increasing problems. Fallout from the Vietnam War and Watergate scandals disrupted public trust in government while two oil shocks and outsourcing caused tremendous shocks to the economy.
The 1960s were a tumultuous time for the United States and abroad. The U.S. saw the assassination of major figures, including President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. The country also became embroiled in the Vietnam War, with commitment peaking in 1968 with 600,000 combat troops-- many of whom were draftees. A burgeoning counterculture movement emerged as the Baby Boom generation came of age. Crime spiked across the country, even during a time of an improving economy. In this backdrop former Vice President Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968 on a platform of cracking down on crime and ending the war in Vietnam.
Nixon and the Public Trust
Nixon soon became a popular but polarizing figure. His commitment to law enforcement was matched by government spying on anti-war and fringe political groups. Nixon also implemented a series of major government reforms including the Environmental Protection Agency. The economy soon appeared to be stabilizing until a massive oil shock in Nixon's second term. The 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and its neighbors sent shockwaves through the rest of the world. Several major oil producers, led by Saudi Arabia, cut off oil to the West due to their support of Israel. By 1974 the price of crude quadrupled and global economies saw tremendous economic damage.
Nixon's commitment to end the Vietnam War was split, to say the least. Nixon had substantially reduced the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam and ended the draft in 1973. However, Nixon also escalated bombing of Cambodia and Laos without Congressional approval. The U.S., South Vietnam, and North Vietnam all agreed to end the war in the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. Many Americans felt lied to about the cause and course of the war and the over 50,000 Americans that died in the war.
Furthermore, the Nixon Administration became embroiled with the largest scandal in American political history. Questions swirled about how much President Nixon knew about the break in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel, in Washington. As it became apparent that the White House directed a massive cover-up public support for Nixon cratered. Nixon's second term was spent in scandal, resulting in Nixon's resignation in August 1974. Trust in public institutions were shattered. 
Carter's Presidency and Further Trouble
Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon to the Presidency and pardoned him in September 1974. Ford's Presidency had to handle the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, as well as economic struggles. Ford had not been elected Vice President in 1972, but entered that position when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973 in the midst of a bribery scandal. South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975. All of these factors combined to cast doubt on Ford's presidency.
In November 1976 Democratic Governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter defeated Ford in a surprisingly tight race. Carter came to the Presidency with the promise of never lying to the American people. Carter aimed to elevate human rights to the top of his agenda and sought a series of new agreements with the Soviet Union. However, Carter's vision was largely crushed by reality. The economy remained weak and deficit spending and the end of the peg of the U.S. dollar to gold led to massive inflation and slow growth, referred to as Stagflation.
Foreign policy realities began to weigh on American policy. American ally Shah Reza Pahlavi was overthrown and replaced by a hardline Islamic fundamentalist government in 1979. Oil shipments to the United States again slowed, leading to a second shortage and price hike. The Islamic Republic of Iran took Americans hostages from the U.S. embassy and held them for over a year. Later that same year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up a puppet communist regime. The Soviets benefited from the stark rise in oil prices, and in 1980 became the world's largest oil producer. As the Soviets were awash in cash and increasingly aggressive, President Carter appeared lost and without control.
Facing these various challenges, Carter held a summit with leaders to discuss the nation's problems. Out of this meeting, Carter made an important July 1979 speech to the country, describing these issues as a "crisis of confidence" facing the nation. This speech was criticized as the "malaise" speech, further deteriorating public trust in Carter. Carter appointed Paul Volcker as the new Federal Reserve Chairman and pursued a sharp hike in interest rates to quell inflation. This effort would work in the long run but also caused a sharp recession right as Carter sought re-election. 
End of the Malaise
President Carter faced a strong primary challenge from Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Carter eventually won but the wound between the two did not heal during the election season. Carter was faced in the general election by Republican former California Governor Ronald Reagan and independent John Anderson. Carter hoped that Reagan's hardline anti-Communist message and conservative governance would allow for a relatively easy campaign. In November 1980 Carter was stunned as Reagan won about 51% to Carter's 41%. Carter left the White House regarded as a well-meaning but ultimately ineffective executive.
As President Reagan took office, a series of events helped end the malaise period. Volcker's interest rate hikes began to kill inflation just as massive tax cuts began to spur the economy. Furthermore, Reagan's defense buildup restored American confidence against the Soviet Union. On inauguration day in January 1981 Iran released the hostages. Oil prices cratered during a large glut in the 1980s, causing a sharp decline in Soviet finances. Resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan became more resolute and led to the eventual Soviet withdrawal in 1989. For many Americans the dark period of the 1970s appeared to be over and as stated in the 1984 presidential campaign, "it's morning in America again."
Related DailyHistory.org Articles
- Bernstein, Carl and Woodward, Bob, All the President's Men. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974. Pages 67-71.
- Dumbrell, John, The Carter Presidency: A Re-Evaluation. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995. Page 188.
- Hargrove, Erwin, Jimmy Carter as President: Leadership and the Politics of the Public Good. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Pages 48, 66-68