The 1970s by Thomas Borstelmann

Sometimes called the “Me Decade,” the 1970s saw the final withdrawal of American combat troops from Vietnam in 1973 and the communist victory there in 1975. In The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality (Princeton University Press, 401 pp., $29.95) University of Nebraska History Professor Thomas Borstelmann offers a book-length essay in which he examines and analyzes what he calls “a decade of ill repute.”

We often think of the seventies as a decade in which progressive issues such as environmental awareness and women’s, gay, disabled, and Native American rights took big strides. Borstelmann covers those social issues, but also argues that this decade was a time when many aspects of society tilted toward conservative ideas. The “citizens’ faith,” he says, was “transferred from the public sector to the private sector, from government to business.”

As for the Vietnam War, Borstelmann calls it “the foremost issue that had loomed over American life since 1965.” During the early seventies, under the Nixon administration and its war architect Henry Kissinger, the U.S. steadily wound down the effort in Vietnam. In doing so, Borstelmann points out, more than 21,000 American troops died, along with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese military personnel and civilians. This also was a time when military morale plummeted, with increasing incidences of fragging and an epidemic of drug use in Vietnam.Morale in Vietnam and support at home for the war further eroded when The Pentagon Papers were published in 1971, Borstelmann notes.

By the inglorious end in 1975, he says, “most Americans wanted nothing more to do with Vietnam. Gallup polls showed public opinion running 54-36 against even granting refuge to America’s allies, the anticommunist South Vietnamese…. Close the door and put Indochina behind us, was the prevailing sentiment.”

More importantly, Borstelmann writes, the realization that the U.S. “perhaps was not the unique, special, ever-victorious nation its citizens had tended to assume marked a watershed in modern American history, a crisis of identity. Rather than being the  exceptional nation, the United States now appeared to be much like other great nations across time, with some of the same strengths and some of the same challenges.”

—Marc Leepson