Where Were You in ‘73?

Where was I right now?

American Graffiti’s posters asked “Where were you in ‘62?” That date, only eleven years before, felt like something out of the distant past. The “fifties” didn’t really end until the assassination of JFK, and George Lucas’ film promised to bring the viewer back to that bygone age in its dusk, complete with sock hops and street races. It was a low-budget affair by a new director without a traditional plot or stars, yet it was a massive hit in large part because it connected straight to the Zeitgeist. In 1973 the future looked like Soylent Green; the past looked like the place to be. 

American Graffiti is the most enduring cultural artifact of the 1970s nostalgia wave, but that period’s infatuation with conjuring ideal pasts had political ramifications as well. At the end of the decade, Ronald Reagan promised restoration with his all-too familiar campaign slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again.” While some in the 70s used the past as a standpoint of critique, almost all the nostalgic roads led to the Reagan Dawn. 

Even American Graffiti tried to impart a more critical look at the past, but if there’s anyone who ought to be aware of the death of the author, it’s George Lucas. The film ends with little biographical sketches of the main characters that are a sharp contrast to the adolescent hijinks of the film. The stories are not always happy. Milner the hot rodder is killed by a drunk driver. Curt fulfills his dream of becoming a writer, but has to move to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft. Terry the Toad, the fun-loving nerdy guy, goes missing in action in battle in Vietnam. That’s the last image of the movie. For those in the audience who had fought or lost loved ones in the war, I imagine it hit like a sledgehammer. 

Lucas was very much against the Vietnam War, and ending the film this way meant to proclaim the waste and futility of that conflict. However, it would be just as easy for white, middle Americans in the audience to see themselves as the victims of the upheavals of the 1960s, and to long for an idealized time before that not so coincidentally pre-dated movements for racial, gender, and LGBT equality. That’s the message that Reagan delivered in 1980, and the one that propelled Trump to the White House in 2016. For that reason, it is almost impossible to disentangle nostalgia for the 1950s from political reaction. 

Plenty of nostalgic pop culture followed in the wake of American Graffiti. Happy Days, a pretty obvious cash-in that also included Ron Howard, hit the TV screens in 1974 and ran for eleven seasons. The title pretty much says it all. The show completely sheared away all of the ambiguities and hints of darkness in American Graffiti, giving post-Watergate America the escape it desired. 

On the charts Elvis and Chuck Berry both had big hits in 1973, the former with “Burning Love” and the latter with “My Ding-A-Ling.” That same year saw Let the Good Times Roll, a concert documentary featuring classic 50s artists like Bill Haley and Little Richard. 1973 also featured Elvis’ satellite-televised Aloha From Hawaii show, the King’s last shining moment before pills and fried sandwiches did him in. Even more contemporary artists like Elton John jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon with “Crocodile Rock,” one of the year’s biggest hits. 

All of this happened in a time of upheaval and dislocation, but at a moment when the social movements of the 1960s had run out of gas (metaphor intended.) As Andreas Killen argues in 1973 Nervous Breakdown, the crises of that year marked the real end of the 1960s. Watergate went from a back page item to bold type above the fold and the oil shock led to greater inflation and economic turmoil. The long economic climb after World War II and its attendant expansion of the middle class were now over, never to come back. The present was a mess, the future looked bleak, but the recent past was easy to cling to. 

That nostalgic impulse dominated the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations commemorating two hundred years since America’s founding. Bicentennial narratives had less to do specifically with the 1950s, and more with a lament for a lost consensus. The celebrations sought to revive and reshape American nationalism in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. In the words of John Warner, the government official who headed the celebration planning, “The country was being torn apart on the issue of war.  Our children were turning off and out.  I felt strongly that with the end of the Vietnam conflict in sight, the Bicentennial could and should bring us back together, heal the wounds, and provide the springboard for an even greater future.”      

The lack of consensus troubling Warner was reflected in the celebration itself. The Nixon administration, under fire and riven by scandals, punted on a national celebration. During a time of such upheaval and questioning of American identity, the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission (ARBC) gave up and was dissolved. Instead, the newly formed American Revolution Bicentennial Administration (ARBA) simply offered grants to local governments and organizations to put on their own celebrations. In popular imagination since 1976 the “tall ships” entering New York harbor were America’s national Bicentennial event, but they merely constituted New York City’s local celebration. Nixon (and later Ford’s) decentralization strategy also coincided with the conservative policies of devolution to the states and corporate deregulation. 

Corporations, in a preview of the neoliberal age, did much more to define the contours of the Bicentennial than anybody else. They inundated society with a tidal wave of what historian Jesse Lemisch deemed “Bicentennial schlock.” Everything from beer cans to coffins bore the American flag. They also underwrote the Bicentennial Freedom Train, a traveling exhibit that crossed the United States by rail stopping in big cities and small towns alike. Next to the televised images of the wooden ships in New York Harbor, it was likely the Bicentennial event with the biggest audience. 

A piece of Bicentennial schlock from the author’s collection

The exhibit itself consisted of Americana bric a brac from George Washington’s copy of the Constitution to a baseball bat used by Hank Aaron. Guests viewed it from a conveyor belt in order to process the large crowds. Although President Ford gave the endeavor his endorsement, its funding came entirely from private sources. Not surprisingly, exhibits stressed entrepreneurship as one of the values “that made America great” along with consumer technology. There were places for individual achievements in sports and the performing arts, but no space for labor or social justice movements. The overall message stressed the mythology of self-reliant individuality as the antidote to the nation’s ills. 

Official commemorations struck similar notes. John Warner, the head of the ARBA and future Senator, invoked a certain kind of nostalgia in praising the decentralized Bicentennial: “Untold millions were inspired to do “their own thing” for their community, for their country.  Once again, the “can do” spirit-the fiber and strength of this nation throughout its 200 years—molded the Bicentennial into the most massive volunteer movement in peacetime history.”  Two things stand out here. First is the notion that after potentially losing their way, Americans were able to utilize supposed national virtues of independence and self-reliance. Second, as Bruce Shulman illustrated in his stellar book on America in the 1970s, the counterculture had saturated broader society with the ideal of “doing your own thing.” This vaguely hippie-ish notion could easily be converted into a neoliberal bromide and a justification for consumerism and rejection of common fate. 

Warner’s words illustrate how the nostalgia wave of the 1970s could be converted so easily into political reaction. Laurel and James Ring Adams, writing in the conservative American Spectator, saw vindication in the Bicentennial’s nostalgia. It was not a day for the radicals of the sixties, but rather, “for the squares, in fact, the Bicentennial Fourth was a cultural coup d’etat.”  The Nixonian Silent Majority had emerged triumphant after years of yielding the media spotlight to long-haired radicals.  Noting that CBS’s massive coverage of the event appealed to “solid, bourgeois, middle America” rather than providing coverage of protests by “feminists,” “Puerto Ricans,” and “homosexuals,” the Adams’ claimed it had presented “a vastly appealing and entirely recognizable portrait of America… a country coming to peace with itself after a decade of torments… more self-confident than we have seen her for awhile.”

Some voices dissented against this narrative, but ended up sidelined. New Left organizers created a movement called The People’s Bicentennial Commission to use the event to advocate for “economic democracy.” It was an attempt to push for democratic socialism with a patriotic narrative intended to get the support of those skeptical of leftist politics. Despite some early successes, its rally in Washington DC on July 4th, 1976 drew five thousand people, well below the goal of 250,000. 

Many in the Black community called for African Americans to either reject the celebration of a nation that had failed them, or to intervene in order to craft a more critical understanding of the American past. Native Americans protested against some Bicentennial events, including the Bicentennial Wagon Train that involved people driving ox-pulled wagons from the West to Valley Forge in an unabashed celebration of Manifest Destiny. Despite these critical interventions, the Bicentennial story spun by Warner predominated.

The Bicentennial was part of and further catalyzed popular interest in the past in the 1970s. Alex Haley’s book Roots and the following television miniseries prompted millions of Americans to look in their family histories. Interest in local history blossomed as well. As Tammy S. Gordon shows in her book on the Bicentennial, the fact that Bicentennial events in cities like Boston and Philadelphia did not draw large numbers of tourists does not tell the whole story. Those who stayed at home still participated in local history initiatives and explored their families pasts in ways they had not done before. 

Greater value placed on the local past drove and coincided with a growing historical preservation movement. Whereas New York’s Penn Station was infamously demolished in the 1960s, Grand Central received a lavish renovation in the 1970s after being threatened with a similar fate. While the likes of Robert Moses had been callous and overzealous in their use of the wrecking ball, historical preservation of architecture fed into an au courant version of political reaction. Neighborhoods of old, “quaint” houses across the country soon prevented the building of new housing to preserve their “neighborhood character.” The nostalgia for what was cookie cutter architecture in the Victorian age also just happened to be something that blocked racial and socio-economic integration.

Ronald Reagan’s run for president in 1980 capitalized on the nostalgia fetish, to similar political ends. In his essence he was a man from another time, a symbol of Old Hollywood and all of its patriotic myth-making. He famously started his 1980 convention speech with a typically Reaganesque joke that “the first thrill tonight was to find myself for the first time in a long time in a movie on prime time.” This self-deprecation about his long dead movie career also served to remind his audience that he was a cultural figure out of the past, rather than the present. 

His campaign promised rebirth and a return to an idealized, bygone time. That same convention speech was full of references to the Mayflower, Abraham Lincoln, and FDR. In the aftermath of Vietnam and in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis, Reagan called for a reignition of the Cold War and the projection of American power abroad. This was consistent with Reagan’s message at the time, promising the return of a proud America after recent humiliations abroad. Back in 1976 his primary campaign received a major boost when he made the agreement to hand over the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government a major issue. In his words, “We bought it. We built it. We paid for it.” Reagan used it as a symbol of past American greatness being betrayed. After all, his campaign slogan was “Let’s Make America Great Again.” 

Nostalgia dominated the cultural scene in the 1970s as an escape from tumultuous and disorienting changes of the time that fed into a newer, more reactionary mode of politics. We are currently experiencing our own revolutionary moment right now, one that has exposed the failures of Reagan’s ideology like nothing else. The world of eleven years ago looks as distant and alien to the present as 1962 must have looked in 1973. However, in our own time we must resist what Svetlana Boym called the “disease” of nostalgia. No more clinging to comfortable pasts. Time to go onward and imagine a better future.