A Time of Malaise

58. A Time of Malaise

The passing of an icon: Elvis Presley died in 1977.

Something was terribly wrong in America in the 1970s.

The United States was supposed to be a superpower, yet American forces proved powerless to stop a tiny guerrilla force in Vietnam. Support for Israel in the Middle East led to a rash of terrorism against American citizens traveling abroad, as well a punitive oil embargo that stifled the economy and forced American motorists to wait hours for their next tank of gasoline.

A hostile new government in Iran held fifty-two American citizens hostage before the eyes of the incredulous world. The détente with the Soviet Union of the Nixon years dissolved into bitter animosity when a second arms control agreement failed in the Senate and a Soviet army of invasion marched into Afghanistan. The United States military juggernaut seemed to have reached its limits.

Three Mile Island
In March 1979, when word of a small radiation leak in the nuclear facility at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, the Governor ordered the evacuation of all pregnant women and pre-school children within a 5-mile radius of the site. A hydrogen bubble growing inside the reactor caused many people to speculate a nuclear meltdown was at hand.

At home, the news was no better. The worst political scandal in United States history forced a president to resign before facing certain impeachment. Months of investigation turned into years of untangling a web of government deceit. Details of illegal, unethical, and immoral acts by members of the White House staff covered the nation's newspapers. Upon resignation, the president was granted a full and complete pardon. Many Americans wondered what happened to justice and accountability.

The booming economy sputtered to a halt. Inflation approached 20% and unemployment neared 10% — a combination previously thought to be impossible. Crime rates rose as tales of the decaying inner cities fell on deaf ears. A nuclear disaster of unspeakable proportions was barely averted at the Three Mile Island fission plant in Pennsylvania.

Burning flag
During the hostage crisis in Iran in late 1979, U.S. television broadcast videos of angry mobs in Iran burning the American flag and shouting, "Death to America." This galvanized some Americans into protesting for the release of the hostages and burning Iranian flags in turn.

Many Americans coped with the current ailments by turning inward. Outlandish fashion and outrageous fads such as streaking, mood rings, and pet rocks became common. Younger Americans finished their workweeks and sought escape in discotheques. Controversy surrounding "decaying morality" surfaced with regard to increased drug use, sexual promiscuity, and a rising divorce rate. As a result, a powerful religious movement turned political in the hopes of changing directions toward a more innocent time.

The United States celebrated its bicentennial anniversary in 1976 without the expected accompanying optimism. Instead, while many reflected on the past laurels of American success, an overarching question was on the minds of the American people: what had gone wrong?

On the Web
Star Wars
Woody Allen's Annie Hall beat George Lucas's Star Wars in the 1977 Academy Awards. Annie Hall got Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.
Crisis of Confidence
The speech that Carter delivered on July 15, 1979 is widely referred to as Carter's "Malaise Speech" despite the fact that he did not once use the word "malaise."

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