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This Fourth of July finds the United States, for all its statistics of prosperity, poisoned by venom, distrust, and the most serious challenge to the democratic process since the end of Jim Crow. It is easy to blame Donald Trump, but the rage and fear and contempt behind him have been brewing for a while. I want to suggest that the descent began fifty years ago, in 1973.  

On a much happier note it was also the year that Tina and I got married. We didn’t know that we were stepping forward together into the “interesting times” invoked by an apocryphal Chinese curse, and we would not have paid a bit of heed had we known. 

Yet 1973 was the year that four central pillars of the American dream were rocked, and we’ve been struggling with the implications of that ever since. It’s not too much to say that the current American polarization—cultural, political, social—stems from the combined traumas of 1973: Vietnam, Watergate, OPEC, and Roe v. Wade


First of all, in 1973 the United States lost a war. I used to say, “for the first time the United States lost a war,” but that was before former student and now RJ blogger par excellence Laura de Jong pointed out—in class, no less—that British forces, Canadians to the fore, had handed the Yankee invaders their lunch in 1812 and 1813. Or had I forgotten, her arched-eyebrow query continued, the Canadian glories of Queenston Heights and Stoney Creek, and the abject American surrenders at Michilimackinac and Detroit? Yes I had, I confessed, but would no more.

Thus—to amend—in 1973, for the first time in over 150 years, and in jarring contrast to its successes in the Civil War, in World Wars I & II, and in assorted imperial conquests along the way, the United States lost a war. President Richard Nixon called it “peace with honor,” and the media made television hay over the return of American POWs, but the truth could not be denied. With the departure of its last troops from Vietnam on March 29, 1973, the United States left the field to the enemy. The final curtain fell two years later when North Vietnamese tanks rolled up to the headquarters of the U.S.’s client regime in Saigon.

In any case, American defeat in Vietnam profoundly shook national pride, confidence, and identity. What were “we,” after all, if we could be defeated—as the Pentagon so charitably put it—by a bunch of peasants in black pajamas? Looking back from 2023 it seems that America—especially American manhood—has never gotten over it. 

Nixon had earlier warned that such an outcome would leave the U.S. exposed as “a pitiful helpless giant.” Later, Presidents Bush I & II would both chortle that their respective assaults on Iraq had “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once for all.” The sorry outcomes of those ventures more likely reinforced it. 


The blow was compounded by the simultaneous slow-rolling drama called Watergate. It opened at the start of the year with the trial of six burglars who had broken into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the office complex that gave the scandal its name.

One by one, over the course of the year, the dominoes toppled: from the conviction of burglar #1, G. Gordon Liddy, on January 30; to burglar #2, James McCord, informing Judge John Sirica a few weeks later that the culprits were being paid to keep silent; to the resignation of FBI director L. Patrick Gray on April 4 for destroying evidence; to the resignation on April 30 of the “three Germans”—Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Kleindienst—who were Nixon’s right-hand men. 

That same day Archibald Cox was appointed Special Prosecutor for the case, and on May 17 Congressional hearings on the matter were opened. With that, the fat was in the fire. The hearings were televised so all the world could watch one-time White House Counsel John Dean implicate the president on May 25. Two months later a tape-recording system in the Oval Office came to light, precipitating a tussle over the release of said tapes. It all culminated in the “Saturday Night Massacre” of October 20, when Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than fire Cox upon Nixon’s command. 

Oh, and meanwhile, on October 10, Vice President Spiro Agnew, the sneering scold of student protesters and other “nattering nabobs of negativism,” resigned his office over charges of corruption. Congress elevated squeaky-clean Gerald Ford in his place.

The scandal rolled over into 1974, intensifying until Nixon felt compelled to resign on August 9. One month later Ford pardoned him from any crimes he might have committed as president. That created a precedent of presidential impunity which is being tested today in the many trials of Trump. 

Other connections from the time live on as well. One of Nixon’s fiercest supporters, Patrick Buchanan, modeled Trump’s “America First” ideology in his own presidential bids of 1992 and 1996. For his part Ford elevated Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to key posts in his administration, launching their lifelong campaigns to reassert White House power over Congress and strut like tough guys abroad. Their quest climaxed in the ruinous American invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

Whatever damage thus inflicted upon the U.S.’s reputation abroad, however, pales next to the damage wrought at home by Watergate’s long and sordid revelations of corruption and criminality at the highest levels of the American government. With Watergate, Pillar #2 of American pride and self-respect came tumbling down. 


The third began to totter the very day of the Saturday Night Massacre, October 20. By then the Yom Kippur War, pitting Israel against Egypt and Syria, was two weeks old and consuming armaments at a ferocious pace. Israel requested $850 million worth of resupply from the U.S. to counter USSR aid to the other side. When Nixon authorized a grandiose $2.2 billion package instead, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia exploded in anger and put an embargo on oil exports to pro-Israeli countries. The rest of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries followed suit. The results were dramatic. By January 1974, the price of oil had increased from $2.90 to $11.65 per barrel. Gasoline was next, leading first to long lines, then to rationing, at local pumps across the nation. 

If there was one thing Americans have ever prized, it is mobility—in this case, the untrammeled right to drive off where they wanted, when they wanted, at minimal cost and inconvenience. The magnificent sleds coming out of Detroit fed the demand; the interstate highway system, nearing completion after twenty years of construction, did the rest. To be American was to be as free as the wind, destination—and destiny—as one’s command. Reader, me too: for $2.50, I could put five gallons of gas in the tank and a pack of cigarettes in my pocket for a splendid Saturday at the beach.   

When this primal American assumption was put in jeopardy, lost to ominous Arabs halfway around the world, confidence took another hit and claustrophobia began to creep in. Hollywood villains soon started showing a new face, and a desire for vengeance unfurled in the wars the U.S. has been fighting in the Middle East ever since. 

Longer-term economic costs were no less momentous. In 1973 the inflation-adjusted income of the bottom half of the American pyramid started to flat-line while the upper echelon’s took off. Pushed by energy prices, U.S. inflation hit 6.2% in 1973. By the end of the decade it would stand at 11% and trigger draconian action on the part of the Fed to bring it under control. Policy makers have been phobic on the point ever since. 

Roe v. Wade

The legacy of 1973 that’s most vivid today might therefore need the least commentary. On January 22 the Supreme Court issued its 7-2 decision in Roe v. Wade, establishing the constitutional right to abortion up to the point of fetal viability. Support for the decision came from libertarian, feminist, and most Protestant circles, including evangelicals, while Catholics—not least their social-justice wing—stood in opposition. 

Since then, after some realignment abortion has become a leading issue in the nation’s culture wars, orbiting as they do around the control and public display of sexuality. A telling footnote: on December 15, 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its manual of psychiatric disorders. 

The patriarchal, heterosexual, monogamous nuclear family was the fourth pillar of the standard American dream in 1973. Tina and I instituted one such—minus the patriarchy, I think, but then I’m a guy—that year, though we’ve learned over time to be open to other models of covenanted fidelity. The church is still stewing over the matter.

As for the nation, on this Fourth of July, a rueful 50th America!

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Lori Witt says:

    James, I love how you bookended your piece with yours and Tina’s wedding! I recently attended a wedding where the pastor expressed gratefulness for the happy occasion of a wedding in such fraught times. It made me grateful, too! Congratulations on your 50th anniversary year!

  • David Hoekema says:

    May I call to mind also one of the most memorable bumper stickers of the era (pronounce it carefully, please): “Impeach the Cox Sacker.” Which the US Congress indeed did, with resignation rendering a conviction moot.

  • Jeff says:

    Thanks for this review of my sophomore and junior years of high school and your reminder that even in turmoil, good things happen.

  • PeterTig says:

    Thanks for another excellent article, Jim. (Pat and I celebrated our 10th that year!)

  • Laura de Jong says:

    So glad to see you’ve learned your lesson.

    And thanks for this lesson in return, a reminder of the interconnectedness and longstanding effects of moments in history.

    Community CRC in Kitchener celebrates 75 years this weekend. We’re putting together a museum of sorts for the occasion, documenting the life of the church in the context of what was happening at the same time in the denomination, Canada, and the world. It’s been a fascinating project…both humbling and gratifying. You wonder the ripple effects, the levels of anxiety brought into the council room or the sanctuary because of events entirely separate from that of the congregation, but no less formative in the life of the church.

  • Scott VanderStoep says:

    Thanks, Jim. I’m audio-reading (on my summer bike rides) Max Hastings’ “Vietnam, An Epic Tragedy: 1945 – 1975.” The tome is detailed and sometimes tedious. Of the many lessons was that, as early as 1966, most American leaders knew the war was unwinnable. Another was the constant lack of morale among South Vietnamese citizens due to enormous corruption and graft by SV elected officials and US military. So many tragedies described in this very well done work.

    • Jim says:

      Yes, Hastings’ book is compelling, all the more so given his conservative slant. Rank criminality in the Pentagon and White House, Johnson’s and Nixon’s….

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