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Unlike the 1960s, 1950s, 1930 or 1920s, the 1970s seem to lack a distinct identity. Indeed, among the very best histories of the United States during the Seventies is one entitled It Seemed Like Nothing Happened. Yet, far from the calm following the turbulent 1960s, that decade set the stage for much of what has happened since.

Today, the 1970s is best remembered for the Kent State shootings, Watergate, the Arab oil embargo and the resulting energy crisis, the U.S. opening to China, Roe v. Wade, the collapse of the South Vietnamese government, stagflation, the demise of the Equal Rights Amendment, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, the Iranian Hostage Crisis and ill-fated rescue attempt, Ms., “The Brady Bunch,” Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the Village People, and the birth of disco.

In fact, it was the 1970s, not the 1960s, that defined the last quarter of the 20th century. The “Me Decade”—that era of national self-doubt, exhaustion, disillusionment and “malaise”—saw the great shifts in American culture and politics that gave rise to the world we live in today.

It was the 1970s that witnessed the loss of faith in the nation’s political leadership, the breakdown of the party system and the end of the postwar era of rapid economic growth. It marked the onset of deindustrialization, the growing perception of the United States as a paper tiger in world affairs, and the conservative reaction against the New Deal and the civil rights revolution and the consensus politics of the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson years.

Far from uneventful, the 1970s witnessed a host of consequential developments that continue to color American society. These included the “breakdown” of the nuclear family, as the divorce rate hit its all-time high and single-parenthood and unmarried parenthood became much more common; the massive entry of mothers into the paid workforce; the rapid growth of the Sunbelt; and the rise of feminism and gay liberation.

Those years also saw the beginnings of the financialization of the American economy, when deregulation started, and banks, investment firms and hedge funds took on a commanding role in shaping corporate behavior and public policy decisions.

To this litany of crucial developments, I might add the politicization of evangelical religion, the surge in foreign immigration, and the reaction against the liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society that culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan.

The economics blogger Noah Smith has suggested that we have entered a new 1970s, much as the 2010s were in certain respects the new 1960s—an era of explosive social unrest, symbolized by the Occupy Wall Street protests, the race-related protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and those sparked by the murder of George Floyd, the anti-police movement, and, of course, the bitter culture war fights over wokeness, trans issues, safe spaces and trigger warnings.

I wish I shared Smith’s or sociologist Musa al-Gharbi’s (highly qualified) confidence that the country’s internal divisions and internecine conflicts are abating. The extreme divisions over Gaza and Donald Trump’s heated rhetoric don’t give me much hope.

Which is why I think it’s time for a history lesson, prompted by rereading of Bryan Burrough’s 2015 study of the early 1970s radical underground, the FBI, and the now largely forgotten age of radical violence, Days of Rage.

However shocking you might find the campus protests over Gaza, this moment is nothing like the early 1970s, when over 2,500 bombings took place, nearly five a day.

The names of Donald DeFreeze (alias General Field Marshal Cinque), Assata Shakur (born Joanne Chesimard), Bernardine Dohrn, and Bill Ayers may mean nothing to you, but to those my age, they are indelibly inscribed in our consciousness, as are militant groups such as the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army (BLA), the Symbionese Liberation Army, Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (commonly known as FALN), and the United Freedom Front (UFF) that sought to use revolutionary violence to overthrow the nation’s political, economic and social order.

The shrapnel-packed bomb that destroyed an East Village townhouse in 1970, leaving three dead; the researcher killed in the bombing of the University of Wisconsin’s Math Research Center; the botched robbery of a Brink’s armored truck that left two police officers and a Brink’s guard dead—as well as the police shootouts that killed Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Bobby Hutton, and other Black Panthers—these are the memories that I conjure up whenever I hear Archie and Edith Bunker sing “Those Were the Days, the theme song from “All in the Family.” Not phrases like “the way Glenn Miller played” or “fifty dollars paid the rent/freaks were in the circus tent.”

I also recall W. Mark Felt, the Number 2 FBI official who claimed to be Deep Throat, the anonymous source of Watergate fame, as the man who authorized the FBI black-bag jobs, burglarized apartments, tapped phones, and stolen mail in the supposed name of national security. Believe it or not, the FBI under Felt even considered “kidnapping Dohrn’s infant son … to force the surrender of the Weather Underground leader.”

We mustn’t forget that era’s legacies: metal detectors, bomb sniffing dogs, and three decades of conservative politics. Nor should we erase from our memory a crucial fact: In his review of Burrough’s Days of Rage, entitled “Fictionalizing Radical Activism,” most of the bombings were the work, not of leftwing radicals, but of “white racists, neo-Nazis, anti-Castro guerrillas, the Jewish Defense League and other paramilitary forces.”

The actual number of people killed in the bombings was incredibly small—nothing like the 168 killed by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City in 1995. The largest number of deaths, 11, was perpetrated by Croatian nationalists at LaGuardia Airport. While it’s not true that leftwing violence was only directed at symbolic targets—police and soldiers were indeed targeted—most of the violence left few casualties, including the attacks on New York City Police headquarters in 1970, the United States Capitol in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972.

Compare that to the figures reported in a 2001 U.S. Department of Justice report, “Policing and Homicide, 1976–98.” That document states that during those years, an average of 79 police officers were killed each year in the line of duty—along with an average of 373 accused felons, 35 percent of them Black, that the Justice Department said were “justifiably killed” each year by police.

Anger over police brutality and racism did not begin in Ferguson or Minneapolis. It played a crucial role in fueling early 1970s radicalism.

Burrough’s regards the post-1960s radicals in a rather bloodless terms: as “young people who fatally misjudged America’s political winds and found themselves trapped in an unwinnable struggle they were too proud or stubborn to give up.”

I’m not so forgiving. I can identify with their anger and frustration over the Vietnam War and the violence directed against Black Americans. But even more than the collapse of East European Communism or the demise of the Soviet Union, their revolutionary fantasies poisoned American politics for a generation, allowing gross inequalities and disparities to fester, the decline of the industrial working class to worsen and de-unionization to swell without the kind of resistance one would have expected.

What did the radicals accomplish? In Maurice Isserman’s acid and emphatically accurate words, they “left behind a trail of bodies, including both their victims and, sometimes, themselves. And they also left behind shattered movements, ideals and hopes.”

“[They] failed to end the war, failed to advance the cause of black liberation, failed to gain Puerto Rican independence and failed to mobilize or radicalize much of anyone (except, perhaps, right-wing opponents). Never have so few done so much to divide, confuse, discredit and demoralize so many in the much broader social movements from which they emerged.”

As he adds pointedly: “Building durable institutions and movements for social justice is hard. Unfortunately, acquiring dynamite and blowing things up is easy.”

Like the mythical Sankofa bird of the Akan people of Ghana, I, as a historian, look backward even as history moves forward. Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, suggested that the clarity of life's events, decisions and their implications becomes apparent only in retrospect. We comprehend the significance of past actions and their consequences only after they have occurred. This backward view allows us to interpret and derive meaning from history.

But life itself can only be lived forward. We face the future with each moment, making decisions without the full knowledge of their outcomes. We must make choices and act without the benefit of foresight, often under conditions of extreme uncertainty and anxiety. Yet, these choices are crucial as they shape our lives and ethical selves.

Reflecting on the early 1970s can provide today’s protesters with a host of present-day lessons.

  1. Protests that are highly disruptive only serve to drive a public backlash. While the motives behind the protests—such as opposition to the Vietnam War and demands for civil rights—were widely supported, the turn to violent tactics produced a loss of sympathy among the general public. History shows that peaceful protest is more likely to result in lasting social change and much less likely to provoke severe crackdowns and backlash.
  2. Present-day activists should be acutely aware of the possible consequences of their protests. Acts of disruptive violence in the early 1970s were ultimately met with surveillance, arrests and sometimes violent crackdowns, which wound up stifling legitimate dissent.
  3. Media coverage will inevitably focus on most sensational and extreme acts of protest and dissent. This coverage will inevitably distort the public’s perception of the protesters’ motives and actions.
  4. Coalition building is essential if a movement is to achieve its goals. Building broad coalitions across different social, racial and economic groups and setting clear, achievable goals can strengthen a movement’s impact and durability. In contrast, stand-alone strategies breed division, fragmentation and co-optation.
  5. Without responsible and accountable leadership, activism inevitably fails. Effective leadership is crucial in guiding protest movements toward successful outcomes. Effective leaders manage internal disagreements constructively, maintain a movement’s focus on realistic goals, build public support, create inclusive coalitions and are positioned to negotiate with power structures.

Here are my four takeaways:

  • The past doesn’t dictate the future, but it does provide lessons that we ignore at our peril.
  • History is not a script but a guidebook; ignore its lessons at your own risk.
  • The past is a teacher, not a tyrant; listen to its lessons to shape a better future.
  • History whispers its warnings; heed them or risk repeating its errors.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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