The 1970s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News

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The 1970s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News



The Vietnam War (1954–75) was the single greatest political controversy of the early 1970s. The war, supported by very few U.S. international allies, eroded confidence in American power at home and abroad. The enormous financial and human cost of the war jeopardized the readiness of American military forces. The huge and escalating expense of the war fueled inflation (the continuing rise in the general price of goods and services because of an overabundance of available money) and threatened to send the nation into a recession (a period of extended economic decline). In the country, opposition to the war increased steadily each month, dividing the American public and straining the relationship between President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) and the U.S. Congress.

President Nixon had been elected in 1968 in part because he hinted that he had a plan to end the war and withdraw American troops from Vietnam "with honor." In fact, Nixon had no such plan. Nixon considered immediate withdrawal from Vietnam impossible. Such a drastic move might trigger a political backlash from American supporters of the war, impairing Nixon's ability to draft domestic legislation and to negotiate with foreign powers, especially the Soviet Union. He also feared that the credibility of the United States as a world power would be undermined. in the absence of a face-saving peace treaty, troop withdrawal would appear to be surrender. Like President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973), Nixon did not want to appear to lose the war in Vietnam. He therefore ruled out immediate withdrawal.

Nixon considered the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam impossible. He knew their use would only further divide Americans over the war and lead to disastrous political consequences overseas. Nixon also knew that a conventional military victory in Vietnam was unlikely. Immediately following his inauguration in 1969, he had commissioned an independent study to determine how long it might take America to defeat the North Vietnamese using conventional weapons. When completed, the study indicated that the war could last another eight to thirteen years. Knowing the American public would not stand for another decade of war, Nixon realized victory in Vietnam was nearly impossible.

Unable to withdraw American troops from Vietnam and equally unable to win the war, Nixon turned to an idea that had been proposed under Johnson. He decided to replace U.S. forces with South Vietnamese troops, gradually withdrawing the United States from Vietnam while continuing to support the non-Communist South Vietnamese government of Nguyen Van Thieu. Nixon called this program "Vietnamization." He hoped it would accomplish two objectives: reduce the level of domestic opposition to the war in Vietnam by returning American soldiers and maintain foreign credibility by upholding U.S. support for an ally.

Unfortunately, the program faltered badly. The key to the failure of Vietnamization was the weakness of the American-backed Thieu regime. Corrupt and unpopular, Thieu's government was never able to rally the

South Vietnamese against the Communist North. Furthermore, the South Vietnamese army, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), fought poorly, if it fought at all, despite receiving nearly $900 million in aid and a generous supply of military hardware from America each year.

Officials from the United States and North Vietnam had begun peace negotiations in Paris in May 1968. The two sides repeatedly deadlocked over issues as the negotiations went on and on. To force the North Vietnamese to accept a peace proposal, in February 1969, Nixon authorized Operation Menu, the bombing of North Vietnamese bases within Cambodia (a neutral country immediately west of South Vietnam). Nixon believed that bombing Cambodia would effectively limit the ability of the North Vietnamese to launch offensive operations against American soldiers as they withdrew from the country. Over the next four years, U.S. forces dropped more than five hundred thousand tons of bombs on Cambodia. Despite this, the North Vietnamese intensified their ground assaults against South Vietnam. Operation Menu, like Vietnamization, was a failure.

By 1972, only 133,000 U.S. soldiers remained in South Vietnam. The ground war was now almost exclusively the responsibility of South Vietnam. But peace negotiations were stalled, and North Vietnam was massing its soldiers to invade the South. With few American combat troops left in the area, Nixon and his administration believed North Vietnam might have a chance to win the war. To counter the North Vietnamese offensive, Nixon used the only military tool left to him: an intensive bombing campaign against the North.

The renewed bombing did not force the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table. Instead, it was the warming relations between the United States and the Communist superpowers China and the Soviet Union that made North Vietnam reconsider its position. Concerned that they might be losing their allies to the United States, North Vietnamese officials became more willing to negotiate. In October 1972, the United States and North Vietnam agreed to a tentative peace proposal that would have left Thieu's government in place in South Vietnam, but would also have allowed Communists to participate in it. Believing the proposal amounted to a surrender, Thieu rejected it, and negotiations broke down again on December 17.

For the next eleven days, the United States embarked on one of the most intensive bombing campaigns in military history. Forty thousand tons of explosives were dropped in the vicinity of Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam. Over sixteen hundred North Vietnamese were killed. Europeans and many Americans were outraged by the campaign, soon dubbed the "Christmas bombings." When the U.S. Congress reassembled after the holidays, Democrats in both houses voted to end funding for the war effort. Thieu then gave in, and on January 27, 1973, the United States, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam signed a peace treaty. For the United States, the war was officially over.

Kent State Killings

President Richard M. Nixon believed his slow withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam would limit any criticism his administration might receive over the decision to invade the neutral country of Cambodia. He was wrong. College students had demonstrated against the Vietnam War for years, but when Nixon announced the Cambodia invasion on April 30, 1970, protests exploded on American campuses from Yale to Stanford. More than four hundred universities and colleges shut down as a result of the protests. Many schools canceled their commencement exercises. Even the American press was highly critical of the invasion.

The day after Nixon's announcement, students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, began a weekend of antiwar protests that spilled into the city's downtown area. After rocks were thrown and windows were broken, the governor of Ohio sent in the National Guard to restore order. On Monday, May 4, between two thousand and three thousand students gathered on campus to continue the protest. Guardsmen tried in vain to disperse the students, who threw rocks and yelled obscenities. The guardsmen turned, marched up a hill, then suddenly wheeled around and began firing into the crowd. In the barrage, almost seventy bullets were fired. Thirteen students were hit; four of them were killed. Some of those students who had been shot, including two who had been killed, had not been part of the protest crowd, but were merely walking across campus.

No one is sure why the National Guard fired into the crowd that day. No guardsman was ever tried in court or even reprimanded for any wrongdoing. Federal investigations into the matter went unresolved. Nine years after the incident, the state of Ohio issued a statement of regret, but it never apologized for the shootings.

In March 1973, the last American combat soldiers left South Vietnam. Some American military advisers and Marines remained behind to protect U.S. installations. Of the more than 3 million Americans who served in the war, almost 58,000 died and 150,000 were seriously wounded. More than 1,000 were listed as missing in action.

The peace accord signed in Paris did not bring immediate peace to Vietnam. Tensions between the North and the South remained, and military actions continued. On April 29, 1975, the U.S. embassy in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was evacuated. Four U.S. Marines died during the evacuation; they were the last U.S. soldiers killed in the conflict. The next day, the South Vietnamese government surrendered, and the country was united under a Communist government. The Vietnam War had finally come to an end.


When Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) became president, he was convinced he had an historic opportunity to restructure the international political order. By 1968, the Soviet Union had amassed a nuclear weapon arsenal equal to that of the United States; the days of American military superiority were over. At the same time, diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and China had deteriorated; the two nations constantly fought along their shared border. Since both the Soviets and the Chinese sought American support, Nixon and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believed that the United States could broker conflicts between the Communist giants. They hoped this "triangular diplomacy" among the three nations would balance international power and secure world peace.

Before triangular diplomacy could work, military competition and political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union had to be reduced. Nixon and Kissinger developed a policy of détente (pronounced day-TONT; a lessening of hostility or tension between nations) toward the Soviet Union. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) negotiations were the key to the policy of détente. The SALT talks, designed to limit the nuclear-arms race, formally began between the two countries in November 1969 and continued throughout most of the 1970s. The SALT discussions acknowledged two simple facts: Both sides possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other many times over, and the costs of continued nuclear production strained on both economies.

After numerous rounds of talks debating the types of weapons to be reduced, as well as the means of verifying arms reductions, the United States and the Soviet Union concluded two treaties: The Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty limited the defensive nuclear weapons available to each nation and the SALT I accord limited the number of offensive missiles. The United States also negotiated trade and financial agreements with the Soviets. Together with the SALT accords, these agreements advanced détente and enhanced Nixon's image as a peacemaker. Nixon used that image to his political advantage. He signed SALT in a highly publicized visit to Moscow in May 1972, the presidential election year.

Presidential Election Results: 1970s

Presidential Election Results: 1972

Presidential/Vice Presidential CandidatePolitical PartyPopular VoteElectoral Vote
Richard Nixon/Spiro AgnewRepublican47,169,911 (60.69%)520 (96.6%)
George McGovern/R. Sargent ShriverDemocrat29,170,383 (37.53%)17 (3.2%)
John Hospers/Theodora NathanLibertarian3,673 (0.00%)1 (0.2%)
John Schmitz/Thomas AndersonIndependent1,099,482 (1.41%)0 (0.0%)
Other275,105 (0.35%)0 (0.0%)

Presidential Election Results: 1976

Presidential/Vice Presidential CandidatePolitical PartyPopular VoteElectoral Vote
Jimmy Carter/Walter MondaleDemocrat40,830,763 (50.06%)297 (55.2%)
Gerald Ford/Robert DoleRepublican39,147,793 (48.00%)240 (44.6%)
Ronald Reagan/Robert DoleRepublican1 (0.2%)
Eugene McCarthy/VariousIndependent756,691 (0.93%)0 (0.0%)
Other820,642 (1.01%)0 (0.0%)

For more than two decades, Nixon had crafted his political reputation as a formidable opponent of Communist China. Now, in order to make triangular diplomacy work, Nixon had to become the president who restored diplomatic relations with that country (those relations had been cut off in 1949 when the Communists came to power in China). Nixon's initial overtures to Chinese officials were secret, but the Chinese responded positively, and on June 10, 1971 Nixon announced he would drop the twenty-one-year-old embargo on American trade with China. Kissinger, in the meantime, was secretly negotiating the terms of a state visit to Beijing (formerly Peking), the Chinese capital.

Richard M. Nixon

Richard M. Nixon suffered the greatest humiliation in U.S. political history; he was the first president to resign the office. The defeat was doubly crushing for Nixon because he destroyed himself. His own paranoid need to protect himself with secret tapes gave his enemies the tools to undermine him. Had Nixon been slightly less ruthless with his opponents, they might have been less ruthless with him. Despite a career in politics championing the common man, Nixon's own distrust of the American people prevented him from being frank with them. This need for secrecy, more than any other characteristic, brought about his political downfall.

Nixon was born on January 9, 1913, in Yorba Linda, California, to Quaker parents. Armed from a young age with a strong drive to succeed, Nixon earned good grades at school while working long hours in his family's grocery and gas station. His drive and ambition distinguished him at Duke University Law School, but he failed to obtain a job with any of the prestigious East Coast law firms he approached after graduation. He returned to California, married Pat Ryan, a schoolteacher, then enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II (1939–45).

After the war, in 1946, Nixon was elected to his first political office as a Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives. During his time in the House, Nixon portrayed himself as the champion of the common man, hardworking and patriotic. Although he knew little about communism, Nixon took advantage of the anticommunist wave sweeping America at the time. He accused many of his political opponents of being communists. In 1950, after his election to the U.S. Senate, he became a national political star for his incessant hounding of Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, accusing Hiss of being a communist and a Soviet spy.

In 1952, Nixon was tapped to be Dwight D. Eisenhower's running mate for the presidency. With the national visibility he gained as vice president, Nixon was easily the Republican front-runner in the 1960 presidential campaign. Compared to his Democratic opponent John F. Kennedy, however, Nixon was a less effective speaker and a less appealing figure. In response, American voters gave Kennedy an extremely narrow margin of victory, and Nixon returned to California. When he lost the run for the California governorship just two years later, it seemed Nixon's political career was over.

Yet, in 1968, Nixon staged a remarkable comeback, winning the presidential election over Democrat Hubert Humphrey on a strong law-and-order campaign platform. Once in office, Nixon faced many difficult issues: the Vietnam War, a declining economy, and tense relations with the Soviet Union and China. Instead of highlighting his solutions to these problems, Nixon focused on silencing dissent, crushing his political opponents, and settling old scores. When he was forced to resign the presidency on August 9, 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, he was, without a doubt, one of the most reviled political figures in the United States.

Nixon died of a stroke in New York City on April 22, 1994.

When Nixon informed the American public that he would journey to China, the news came as a surprise, but the majority of the public responded favorably. Public opinion was overwhelmingly positive toward Nixon's journey to China in February 1972. Images of the trip, broadcast live via the latest satellite technology, awed the American people. Beyond the images, however, the trip accomplished little. Formal recognition by the United States of the People's Republic of China (the formal name of Communist China) did not occur until 1979. The images of Nixon in China, however, did advance the cause of triangular diplomacy and increased Soviet willingness to negotiate with the Americans. In the end, the most important audience for the trip was the millions of American voters waiting to cast their ballots in the fall election; Nixon was reelected by a landslide.


At 2:00 a.m. on Saturday, June 17, 1972, four Cubans and a member of the Committee to Reelect the President, James W. McCord, were arrested for burglarizing the offices of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. The burglary would lead to the first resignation of a president in American history and expose to the public a dark underside of politics they scarcely knew existed. Public cynicism about politics after Watergate would affect not only Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) but also his successors, Gerald R. Ford (1913–) and Jimmy Carter (1924–).

George C. Wallace

George C. Wallace was a towering and highly controversial figure in politics in the South for decades. In the 1970s, he made a bid for the presidency, hoping to court those Americans who were opposed to increased governmental power and sick of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. But a nearly fatal assassination attempt during his campaign ended his dreams of wielding power in the White House.

Born in Clio, Alabama, on August 25, 1919, Wallace received a law degree from the University of Alabama, then joined the U.S. military. After World War II (1939–45) he began a political career, serving as assistant attorney general of Alabama (1946–47), a member of the state assembly of Alabama (1947–53), and governor of Alabama (1963–67, 1971–79, 1983–87).

In 1963, Wallace achieved national prominence when he stood in the entrance to the University of Alabama and defied President John F. Kennedy's order to integrate the school. He quickly became known as an opponent of federal power. He also became known as a champion of segregation, a man who opposed the advancement of rights for African Americans. In 1968, Wallace ran as an independent candidate for president on his own American Independent Party ticket. Speaking out against African Americans, students, and protestors of the Vietnam War, he was able to win five southern states and forty-six electoral votes during his campaign. Four years later, he ran again. He made a strong start, mobilizing fundamentalist Christians and earning support in the North and South for his opposition to school busing. On May 15, 1972, during a campaign stop in Laurel, Maryland, his candidacy ended abruptly when he was shot by Arthur Bremer. Wallace was left paralyzed in both legs, and was lucky to be alive.

Confined to a wheelchair, Wallace made another bid for the presidency in 1976, but his fragile health and his ultra-conservative views brought a quick end to his campaign. In 1982, he ran for governor of Alabama for a fourth, and final, time. Admitting that his past racial views had been wrong, Wallace won with the support of many of the state's African American voters. He retired in 1987.

Wallace died in Montgomery, Alabama, on September 13, 1998.

In early 1972, President Nixon was unsure of his prospects for reelection that fall. Members of his Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) therefore hatched plots to wiretap the offices of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern and Democratic National Committee chairman Lawrence O'Brien. Both attempts failed. The arrest for the second CREEP break-in, at O'Brien's office in the Watergate, resulted from a bungled attempt to replace a defective hidden listening device. Six days later, Nixon directed his staff to block an FBI investigation of the case and cover up the connections between the burglars and CREEP. This order was the first of many attempts to obstruct justice by the most powerful law enforcement official in the United States.

Nixon ordered a cover-up because he feared that an investigation into the Watergate break-in would expose the numerous illegal activities of his administration. During the campaign, Democrats charged that Watergate represented wider lawbreaking. Their allegations were ignored, and the break-in had no adverse effect on Nixon's election victory. The story would have died were it not for the criminal trial of the Watergate burglars and for two reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who dug deeper into the case. Together with the federal judge, John J. Sirica, who presided over the criminal trial, they kept the pressure on the White House for an explanation of the break-in and of McCord's connections to CREEP.

Nixon's administration tried to suggest to the public that McCord or his superiors in CREEP ordered the break-in without the president's knowledge. CREEP immediately renounced McCord (even as it secretly paid his legal fees). Yet Woodward and Bernstein kept discovering evidence that indicated top-level administration officials knew about and authorized the Watergate break-in. One by one, connections between the burglars and their superiors in CREEP were disclosed. As the incriminating evidence mounted, members of Nixon's staff then moved to protect themselves from criminal prosecution. Resignations became commonplace. CREEP chairman John Mitchell and CREEP treasurer Hugh Sloan quit their positions in the fall of 1972. White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, domestic-policy assistant John Ehrlichman, presidential counsel John Dean, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resigned on April 30, 1973.

McCord informed Judge Sirica that members of the Nixon administration had committed perjury (lied under oath) during his criminal trial. No one in the conspiracy was willing to take the blame for the crime, and eventually Woodward and Bernstein raised the following questions: What did the president know, and when did he know it? The Democrats and the U.S. Congress also wanted to know the answer to these questions. On February 7, 1973, the U.S. Senate voted seventy to zero to establish a seven-man investigative committee, headed by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, to probe the Watergate case. Immediately following his second inauguration, after one of the greatest electoral victories in American history, Nixon was fighting for his political life.

In May 1973, the U.S. Department of Justice authorized a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, to study Watergate without interference from the White House. Startling revelations about the Nixon administration began to mount. The Ervin committee's televised hearings climaxed in the stunning testimony of White House counsel Dean, which connected the president to the Watergate cover-up. Even more damaging was the public testimony of White House aide Alexander Butterfield on July 16. He revealed the existence of a secret recording system installed in the White House. Unbelievably, presidential decisions regarding Watergate had been recorded on tape.

Ervin, Cox, and Sirica immediately pressed the White House to release the Watergate tapes to them. Nixon rejected their requests, claiming the tapes were private property. He also asserted that the tapes contained material that might compromise national security. Furthermore, he argued that he had a right to withhold them under the supposed constitutional claim of executive privilege (an idea that the president could decide for himself how much he might cooperate with other branches of the government). The press charged the president with stonewalling (stalling and refusing to answer questions), preventing access to the truth. Nixon's popularity with the American public plummeted to below 40 percent.

On October 12, the U.S. District Court of Appeals ordered Nixon to turn over the Watergate tapes to Cox and Sirica. Instead, Nixon proposed releasing prepared transcripts of the tapes. The decision infuriated Cox, who attacked the administration for not complying. Nixon responded by ordering Cox to be fired, but Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused. Nixon then fired Richardson and ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refused, and Nixon fired Ruckelshaus. Nixon finally persuaded Solicitor General Robert Bork to dismiss Cox. The public was outraged, and the press termed the firings the "Saturday Night Massacre."

In an effort to turn the tide of public opinion, Nixon released a 1,308-page edited transcript of the Watergate tapes on April 29, 1974. He maintained that the transcripts proved that he did not know about the Watergate cover-up until March 21, 1973. Nixon hoped the publication of the transcripts would restore public confidence in his honesty; instead, the highly edited transcripts embarrassed the president and made him the object of ridicule.

The new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, pursued the Watergate investigation as intensely as Cox had. But he doubted that a sitting president could be subject to criminal indictment (formal accusation) by a grand jury. Under the U.S. Constitution, only the U.S. Congress could indict a president for criminal wrongdoing, a process known as impeachment. During the impeachment process, the U.S. House of Representatives determines whether an indictment is justified, and then the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presides over a trial, with the U.S. Senate acting as jury. If the president is found guilty of high crimes or misdemeanors, he can be removed from office.

On July 24, 1974, in United States v. Richard M. Nixon, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of executive privilege, but denied that it applied to the Watergate tapes. They ordered Nixon to turn over all the tapes to special prosecutor Jaworski. Then on July 30, the House Judiciary Committee recommended to the full House that it vote to impeach the president for three offenses: obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress (behavior that threatens Congress's legislative power). With the Supreme Court ruling against him and the House about to vote on his impeachment, Nixon was trapped and he knew it.

On August 5, the transcripts became available to the public, and they showed that the president had ordered a cover-up. Nixon's defenders were stunned, and leading Republicans went to the White House to report that he had lost all remaining congressional support. On August 8, in a televised address, Nixon resigned the presidency, effective at noon the following day. Vice President Gerald R. Ford then became the thirty-eighth president of the United States (Ford had assumed the office when former Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973 after he had pleaded guilty to income-tax evasion). One month later, on September 8, to spare Nixon from criminal prosecution for obstruction of justice, Ford granted Nixon a "full, free, and absolute pardon."


In late 1969, Norma McCorvey, twenty-one and single, found herself facing an unwanted pregnancy. She already had a five-year-old daughter whom she could not support financially. McCorvey's mother had taken custody of the child. Working as a waitress in a bar, she had little money and nowhere to go. Believing she was not in any condition to care for another child, McCorvey wanted to end her pregnancy through an abortion. However, in Texas, where she lived, an abortion was allowed only for a woman whose life was endangered by her pregnancy; McCorvey's was not.

Then McCorvey met Linda Coffee, a young attorney concerned about feminist issues. Among other things, Coffee believed that equality would not be possible for women until they had control over their reproductive status. Along with Sarah Weddington, a law-school classmate, Coffee wanted to challenge Texas's abortion statutes in court as unconstitutional. Once the pair met McCorvey, they knew they had found a case. Weddington and Coffee warned her that the decision would not come fast enough to allow her actually to have an abortion; McCorvey would almost certainly have to agree to give birth. She did. Concerned about publicity, McCorvey agreed to be a plaintiff (person who brings a lawsuit against another in a civil court) only if the lawsuit did not use her name. Norma McCorvey thus became Jane Roe, and her lawsuit became Roe v. Wade (Henry Wade was the Texas district attorney arguing in favor of the state's abortion laws).

At this time in the United States, abortion laws varied from state to state. Some states (such as Texas) prohibited all abortions except those to save a woman's life. Others permitted abortions if a doctor found that the pregnancy threatened a woman's life, if the fetus were likely to be born deformed, or if the pregnancy were the result of rape or incest.

The U.S. Supreme Court had previously decided cases that indicated it might be willing to rule against antiabortion statutes such as those in Texas. In 1968, the Court held in Griswold v. Connecticut that a state could not prohibit the sale of contraceptives to married people. This decision held that the U.S. Constitution implicitly recognized a right to privacy. In 1971, in Eisenstadt v. Baird, the Court went even further, extending that right to unmarried people. The stage seemed to be set for a more sweeping ruling regarding reproduction and the right to privacy.

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Roe v. Wade. In its historic ruling, the Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provided a fundamental right to privacy under which women could obtain abortions. The Court decreed that the decision to have an abortion during the first three months of pregnancy, known as the first trimester, was a choice to be made privately between a woman and her doctor.

Although the Court's decision legalized abortion throughout the country, it did not grant women unrestricted access to abortions. Since the fetus is viable, or able to survive outside the womb, during the last ten weeks, the Court allowed any state to prohibit abortion during this period, except where it might be necessary to preserve the life or health of the woman. States may apply other restrictions between the first trimester and the last ten weeks of pregnancy, such as licensing and regulating abortion providers.

Many supporters of abortion restrictions were shocked by the decision establishing a right to abortion. The antiabortion movement referred to itself as pro-life, attempting to implicate its opponents as advocates of death. Those who supported a woman's right to abortion insisted that they were not necessarily in favor of abortion but of the right of a woman to choose for herself whether she should bear a child. These advocates called themselves pro-choice. The struggle between the groups was intense.

In spite of general support in America for the right to an abortion, the antiabortion movement was able to organize in response to the Court's ruling. Challenging the exact terms of the ruling, the antiabortion movement convinced the legislatures in several states to enact laws requiring consent from the parents of minors, the spouse, or the prospective father before an abortion could be performed. However, in 1976, in Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, the Supreme Court struck down these consent provisions as too restrictive of a woman's right to an abortion.

Environmental Law

The debate over environmental protection in America intensified during the 1970s, and much of that debate took place in the courts. The U.S. Congress passed several statutes that gave the judicial branch a central role in environmental enforcement. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970 required the federal government to write an environmental impact statement for all "federal projects with a significant environmental impact." Supporters or opponents of a project could go to court to challenge the claims of the impact statement regarding that particular project. The Clean Air Act amendments of 1970 required the Environmental Protection Agency to set health-based standards for local air quality. The Water Pollution Control Act amendments of 1972 imposed similar requirements for water pollution. These standards could be challenged, either by environmental groups or by companies required to reduce their pollution. As a result, the courts became a principal battleground in the struggle over environmental regulation. During the 1970s, there were 855 federal lawsuits involving NEPA—233 involving clean air and 508 involving clean water.

While the Roe v. Wade decision prevented states from outlawing abortions, it did not require that states pay for them. In 1976, the antiabortion movement persuaded the U.S. Congress to pass the so-called Hyde amendment to the Medicaid funding bill, which forbade the use of federal funds to pay for an abortion except when a woman's life was in danger. Antiabortionists also pressured individual states to take similar steps to refuse to pay for abortions except for life-saving reasons. In 1980, the Supreme Court upheld the Hyde amendment.

The Roe v. Wade decision was one of the most important, and controversial, rulings in U.S. Supreme Court history. The political and legal struggles that arose from it continued to be a defining element of American politics in the rest of the twentieth century.


In 1941, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980) became shah, or monarch, of Iran. Unlike his father, whom he succeeded to the throne, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was open to Western ideas (he had been educated in Switzerland). He quickly became an ally of the United States and other Western powers who had a great stake in Iran's oil industry. In 1953, with American help, the shah foiled his prime minister's plans to nationalize (put under government control) the property of foreign oil companies in Iran. During the 1950s and 1960s, the shah purchased billions of dollars' worth of American

arms and tried to modernize his country's agricultural, industrial, and economic systems. However, social classes in Iran became further segregated as money from the oil industry was distributed unequally among the people, resulting in a small wealthy class. In addition, the fundamentalist Islamic clergy in Iran began to criticize the shah's pro-Western political policies.

The Attica Riot

During the summer of 1971, tension and unrest were building the Attica State Correctional Facility in Attica, New York. The prison was over-crowded, housing 2,250 men in a facility considered safe for only 1,600 inmates. Racial tensions were also high. The prison had no African American guards and only one Puerto Rican guard, yet the inmates were 54 percent black and 9 percent Puerto Rican. On September 9, minor disciplinary actions against two inmates for fighting erupted quickly into a full-scale riot involving more than one thousand inmates who took control of the prison, setting fire to several buildings. Fifty prison guards were taken as hostages, most of whom were beaten by angry inmates. Several seriously injured hostages were released, and one hostage died as a result of his injuries.

The inmates quickly organized a negotiating team and drew up demands. These included complete amnesty (general pardon) for participants in the riot, federal takeover of the prison, better living conditions in the prison, and removal of the prison's superintendent. State officials refused a complete amnesty from criminal prosecution for the riot and the removal of the prison superintendent. Negotiations stalled at this point. State officials then presented an ultimatum to the inmates: either accept the offer or have the prison retaken by force. The inmates refused to accept.

On the morning of September 13, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state police, sheriffs' deputies, and correctional officers to launch an attack on the area of the prison controlled by inmates. They first fired tear gas into the cell blocks. Officers then fired rifles and shotguns into the prison yard from roofs and other high points. The attack lasted ten minutes. Initial reports stated that nine hostages had their throats slashed by inmates. Later investigations made clear that inmates had not killed any hostages during the attack. Instead, ten hostages had been killed by gunshots from the police and prison guards retaking the prison yard. Twenty-nine inmates were killed in the attack.

New York State officials were heavily criticized for the attack and for the prison conditions that had led to the riot in the first place. Attica came to symbolize the dangerous conditions of many prisons in America and the restrictions on prisoners' religious and political freedoms. The Attica riot provoked several efforts to reform prison conditions across the United States. Those reform efforts often failed because of budget limitations and escalating prison populations, which increased prison overcrowding. Prison conditions and overcrowding were considered more of a problem at the end of the 1970s than they were at the time of the Attica riot.

By the 1970s, a political and cultural backlash led by Islamic religious fundamentalists began to grow. In an effort to contain this backlash, the shah resorted to increasingly oppressive measures. Often, he used SAVAK, his harsh secret police force, to put down any rebellion. This tactic only succeeded in alienating his fellow Iranians to the point of revolution. By 1978, riots were breaking out all over the country, and many Iranians called for the return of Shi'ite religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900–1989), who had been exiled (banished) to France in 1964.

On January 16, 1979, the shah fled Iran. Khomeini returned to the country and assumed control, declaring Iran an Islamic republic. In September, ill with cancer, the shah was admitted to a New York hospital. In response, on November 4, a mob of Islamic militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the capital of Iran. They ultimately detained fifty-two members of the American consulate as hostages, demanding the return of the shah to face trial in exchange for the release of the hostages. They also demanded the return of billions of dollars the shah alleged took with him when he fled Iran.

President Jimmy Carter (1924–) refused to be blackmailed into returning the shah, who eventually died in Egypt in 1980. Because the hostage-taking violated diplomatic convention and international law, Carter was able to rally world opinion against Iran, imposing an economic embargo and freezing Iranian funds in foreign banks. But he was unable to win release of the hostages through diplomatic means. On April 24, 1980, Carter authorized a military rescue mission, against the advice of U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. This mission was a disaster: Three of the eight helicopters sent in crashed during a sandstorm, killing eight U.S. soldiers.

As the crisis dragged on without resolution, many Americans concluded Carter was inept. The hostage-taking fatally undermined his presidency and became a major factor in his loss to Ronald Reagan (1911–) in the 1980 presidential election. The Iran hostage crisis came to an end on the day of President Reagan's inauguration, January 20, 1981, after the United States released almost eight billion dollars in frozen Iranian assets. The hostages had been held captive for 444 days.

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The 1970s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News

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The 1970s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News