The Fractured State: U.S. Responsibilities at Home and Abroad in the 1970s

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: International Relations; Social and Cultural; Urban and Suburban


In his 1981 inaugural address, Ronald Reagan infamously declared, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." But though Reagan is credited with ushering in an era of radical government contraction, it was the historical transformations of the 1970s that set the stage for the "Reagan Revolution." After decades of engineering state-building projects domestically and around the world, the US in the mid-1970s was facing multiple state crises at home--insolvent cities, runaway inflation, and widespread public mistrust of state authority--and the utter failure of its flagship nation-building project in Vietnam. Instead of tackling these problems, many mainstream thinkers and policymakers came to embrace the idea of state failure as policy solution. How do we explain this rapid shift? Why was the tradition of large-scale state intervention in social and economic life—a defining purpose of the US federal government since the New Deal—abandoned in favor of a strategy of disinvestment? How did a narrow concept of “fiscal responsibility” come to replace more capacious understandings of the state’s obligations to its citizenry? And what are the links between the defunding of foreign aid programs and the weakening of the social contract at home?

The three panelists together bring a wide range of perspectives to these questions. Sheyda Jahanbani's paper will explore changing notions of the proper role of the state in promoting “nation-building” abroad in the wake of the Vietnam War, and how this moment of crisis empowered non-state actors to take up nation building projects on behalf of the U.S. government. Sarah Miller-Davenport will investigate the ways in which letting New York fail came to be seen as an increasingly viable option for the Ford administration during the city's 1975 fiscal crisis, and how the city itself adopted a policy of strategic abandonment of poor neighborhoods in favor of a strengthened commitment to Wall Street. Shaul Mitelpunkt's paper will examine how in the late 1960s and early 1970s American scholars, entertainers, and policymakers invented ethical justifications to ending conscription, presenting the swift demolition of the citizen-soldier order as a measure that would usher in a more just society.

Papers Presented

The Citizen-Soldier Must Die: Inventing the Ethical Case for the All-Volunteer Force in the 1970s U.S.

This paper examines the ethical justifications Americans found to take apart the citizen-soldier order. From the 1940s to the late 1960s a broad cadre of elite U.S. commentators argued that the male citizen’s putative willingness to exact and suffer military violence on behalf of his country was a key tenet of a vital democracy in the Cold War context. Experts legitimized the citizen-soldier model and praised the United States as a society in which (theoretically) individual freedom and national mobilization mixed in just the right proportions. In practice, privileged men were usually removed from the prospect of actual fighting. But Americans propagated their citizen-soldier ethos in part to celebrate a sophisticated attitude to military duty, superior to that of the Soviets, which they assumed to be oppressive and regimented. As the demands of the Vietnam War broadened the pool of men under threat of conscription, Americans across the political spectrum increasingly recognized the draft as a serious threat. President Richard M. Nixon initiated the all-volunteer force in 1973 partially to alleviate these concerns. That reform required ethical grounding, especially because it exacerbated class biases by absolving middle-class Americans from the prospect of military service. Relying on a range of state and nonstate archives this paper argues that influential commentators in policy making, reportage, and academic circles, worked to alleviate such ethical reservations by promising that decoupling military service from citizenship would usher in a freer, more peaceful, and more innocent society.

Presented By
Shaul Mitelpunkt, University of York

“The Postwar Period Has Ended”: Nation Building and the Fractured State

In his 1970 foreign policy message to Congress, Richard M. Nixon declared that the “postwar period in international relations has ended.” This assertion was the prologue to his announcement of a major reform to U.S. nation-building programs, his so-called “new directions in foreign aid” program. Over the next few years, Nixon battled with Congress over exactly what “new directions” the United States should take in its project to fight poverty and promote democracy around the world. This was the closest that American policy makers ever came to an existential debate about the United States’ nation-building program. This paper reveals how the shape of this debate—and its ultimate conclusion by the mid-1970s—was formed by deep anxieties about the proper role of the state in providing social welfare that have bedeviled the United States’ nation-building program from its origins in the immediate post–World War II moment to the present. This paper argues that examining the tug-of-war between executive and legislative branches over the “new directions” of nation building in the 1970s helps us discern the long shadow of the Vietnam War on not just U.S. foreign policy but also on American democracy.

Presented By
Jahanbani Sheyda, University of Kansas

Embracing Failure: New York's Fiscal Crisis and the Reorientation of City Government

This paper explains how mass failure became an option for New York City in response to the city’s 1975 fiscal crisis and how that failure opened the way for a dramatic rethinking of the role of city government—and about the purpose of cities themselves. For decades after World War II, New York City government had been a model of urban welfare regime, providing a wide range of social services and investing heavily in public works projects, all of which was enabled by substantial funding from Washington. But when New York plunged into fiscal crisis and threatened to default on its loans, the Ford administration refused to provide federal support to help the city pay its creditors. The austerity regime that followed involved not only steep cuts to the city’s budget but also a new ideology of “planned shrinkage” that explicitly favored certain city residents and businesses over others. Private actors embraced strategic abandonment as well—exemplified by the arson epidemic in the South Bronx, where landlords destroyed their own property to reap insurance payouts. In the new global city that emerged out of the fiscal crisis, the health of the financial industry, despite its own conspicuous failures, became city hall’s top priority. Where municipal infrastructure had previously been oriented toward local residents, the city increasingly came to fashion itself as a broker for foreign capital and the global elite that accompanied it.

Presented By
Sarah Miller-Davenport, University of Sheffield

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Bruce J. Schulman, Boston University
Bruce J. Schulman is the William E. Huntington Professor of History at Boston University. He is the author of three books and editor of five others: From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1991); Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1994); and The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Politics, and Society (N.Y.: Free Press, 2001). The New York Times named The Seventies one of its Notable Books of the Year for 2001. An anthology of essays, co-edited with Julian Zelizer, entitled Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, was published by Harvard University Press in March 2008, and another, The Constitution and Public Policy, by Pennsylvania University Press in 2009. He has also edited Making the American Century, (Oxford University Press, 2014), Recapturing the Oval Office, (co-edited with Brian Balogh, Cornell University Press, 2015), and Faithful Republic (co-edited with Andrew Preston and Julian Zelizer, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

A contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the International Herald Tribune, as well as websites such as Politico and Reuters. Professor Schulman has appeared as an expert commentator on many television and radio programs and has consulted on productions by the History Channel, PBS, and ABC-News.

Schulman has held research fellowships from the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, and the Marjorie Kovler Fund of the Blum-Kovler Foundation.

Presenter: Sarah Miller-Davenport, University of Sheffield
Dr. Sarah Miller-Davenport is a lecturer (Assistant Professor) in 20th century U.S. history at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Gateway State: Hawai‘i and the Cultural Transformation of American Empire (Princeton, 2019). Her current project explores the reinvention of New York as a “global city” in the wake of its fiscal crisis.

Presenter: Shaul Mitelpunkt, University of York
Dr. Shaul Mitelpunkt is a lecturer (Assistant Professor) in American history at the University of York. His book Israel in the American Mind: The Cultural Politics of US-Israeli Relations, 1958-1988 was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018. Shaul is currently working on a cultural history of the rise and fall of the American citizen-soldier order from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Presenter: Jahanbani Sheyda, University of Kansas
Dr. Sheyda Jahanbani is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Kansas. Her book, The Poverty of the World: Rediscovering the Poor at Home and Abroad, 1935-1970 is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Sheyda is currently working on a project on global citizenship during the Cold War.