The 1970s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview

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The 1970s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview

During the Vietnam War the power of the American government to exert influence overseas was tested in the 1970s as it had not been since World War II (1939–45). And that influence was clearly limited. After the longest war in American history, the United States was unable to win in Vietnam. In 1973, the country settled for a peace treaty that was little more than a piece of paper indicating a failed foreign policy in Asia.

The end of the Vietnam War also closed the deep chasm between Americans who supported the war and those who opposed it. Perhaps at no time since the Civil War (1861–65) had the country been so divided over an issue. Antiwar protestors demonstrated on city streets and on college campuses, leaving some Americans dead at the hands of their fellow countrymen.

During the decade, the United States also suffered continuing trade imbalances and saw a sharp decline in its domination of world markets. There was little the nation could do to alter its trade deficits or its dependence on foreign oil. Its military power was shown to be less dominant, and its economic pressure was shown to be less effective.

In the 1970s, one encouraging development in American foreign policy was the thaw of the cold war (period of extreme political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II). President Richard M. Nixon recognized that the enormous military spending of the United States and the Soviet Union was bankrupting both countries. Sensing the growing hostilities between the Soviet Union and China, Nixon decided to play the interest of one superpower against the other. He hoped this would lessen the possibility of confronting the Soviets on the battlefield.

By 1972, Nixon had negotiated an arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union and had begun diplomatic talks with China. Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter tried to continue these initiatives, and for a while they worked. Ultimately, however, the cordial relations among the superpowers cooled yet again as they accused one another of trying to extend their influence around the world. By 1978, Carter was calling for massive increases in military spending, and the world settled in for another decade of the cold war.

The decade found Americans as troubled by domestic issues as by foreign affairs. Their faith in the federal government, already badly shaken by the Vietnam War, was almost completely lost over the events surrounding the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters in the Watergate office complex. The arrest of five men in the break-in led to the uncovering of a trail that went all the way to the White House, and right to the Oval Office. Try as he might, Nixon could not hide his involvement in the illegal activities surrounding the case. Faced with mounting evidence and certain impeachment, Nixon created history one last time by resigning from the presidency.

The U.S. Supreme Court played a decisive role in the downfall of the Nixon presidency, and it also was instrumental in resolving conflicts confronting American society in the 1970s. Rapidly growing prison populations and frequent riots raised questions about prison conditions and stricter sentencing to try to reduce rising crime rates. Debates about school busing and school desegregation were conducted in courtrooms and in the streets. And environmental groups and businesses fought legal battles to protect the environment.

The most far-reaching Supreme Court ruling in the decade came in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case. Many Americans believed that control over childbearing was an important element of women's privacy and equality. Some argued for a constitutional right to preserve a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. The Court's decision, which established a woman's legal right to choose an abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy, created an ongoing debate that changed the course of national politics.

The decade of the 1970s ended as it had begun for America, with involvement in a crisis abroad. The 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy and its diplomats by Iranian militants was a striking symbol of how much American power overseas had eroded. The volatile political situation in the Middle East made an American military response unlikely. Yet one occurred, and it ended in disaster. The 1970s came to a close with Americans held hostage in Iran and the country feeling it had become a second-rate power.

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The 1970s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview

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The 1970s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview