It Begins in 1970

As I continue to read Meg Jacob’s Panic At The Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s I am fascinated by the things I am learning. I was alive in 1973 — I turned six that year — and there’s not a lot I remember about the time. I was too fascinated by what remained of the space program (Skylab!) and Sesame Street, and spent a lot of time playing outside. That’s what remains in my consciousness of 1973.

But I see the beginning of our era in this. A conservative president who resorts to New Deal price controls and supply management to deal with a crisis that seems completely out of control. The makings of the oil crisis of early 1970s were already in place by 1970 — steeply increasing consumption coupled with stagnant or declining production and an increasing reliance on imported crude oil to make up the difference — when the Arab states of OPEC increased prices and then completely embargoed sales of crude oil to the United States (and the Netherlands) in October, 1973, following the US resupply of military equipment to Israel in the midst of the October War.

According to Jacobs, most Americans did not believe the crisis was real. Rather, the country was being cheated by oil companies withholding supplies in order to raise prices and reap windfall profits. Most Americans did not understand how the petroleum refining and distribution systems worked, and had no idea the US even imported any oil at all.

It didn’t help that the Nixon administration was in free fall over Watergate and the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew during the miserable and eventful October of 1973.

A worsening situation, one with no clear end in sight, stoked social antagonisms. When asked to sacrifice, many Americans responded by defending their right to maintain their lifestyle while questioning the right of others to do so. The political direction in which the energy crisis was moving the country was hard to pin down. Even as many Americans railed against the business world and expressed frustrations with the Nixon White House, liberal reforms that had generated controversy before the energy crisis now came under attack as luxuries the nation could no longer afford and should not have to. High on the list was federally backed school integration by busing, which in the early 1970s reached a peak of controversy. “Why must I avoid visiting a friend or running an errand when buses all over the country are driving children back and forth across cities?” one Tennessee housewife asked a sympathetic Nixon. Another Tennessee woman protested “this sinful practice of hauling defenseless children for miles upon miles through city streets,” a practice she blamed as a “major reason for this gaosline shortage.” (65)

A war a half-world away changed the willingness of Americans to be charitable toward each other.

But not just each other.

… For others, the energy crisis, along with the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions [inflation mostly], made the cost of American interests in Vietnam too high. “My job is in jeopardy. Why should my tax dollars be used to subsidize foreign economies when my work is being taken from me?” a North Carolina man who supported the ban [on oil shipments to Southeast Asia] wrote to the White House. Wasn’t it unfair to ask Americans to sacrifice while, as one California woman put it, “you are sending millions of barrels of oil to Cambodia and So. Vietnam? We should come first!”

As future prospects grew worse, the public became angry at government officials in Washington. If business contrived the shortage to make a profit, as many believed, the government failed to take effective action, either because of incompetence or because of some general notion of “politics.” A Harris poll revealed increasing blame for business and government, with 83 percent of the public attributing fault to oil companies and 75 percent also pointing the finger at politicians. As the shortages continued, it appeared that Washington was lacking solutions. As one young mother from Toledo put it, “Is there anyone who cares, will listen, and Do Something?” (68)

The embattled Nixon administration, peaching a gospel of the free market, acted instead by regulating oil and refined crude products even more heavily. And the burden of the restrictions imposed by both the administration and Congress, as Jacobs notes, “seemed to have consequences greater than what Americans felt they could live with.”

Which led to a series of wildcat strikes by independent, long-haul truckers, who would use the then relatively new technology of citizens band radio to coordinate massive stoppages of trucks on major interstate highways and bridges that would block traffic for hours and many tens of miles.

These truckers were some of the core members of Nixon’s — and the GOP’s — constituency. (Though Jacobs notes that Nixon wanted to build an electoral coalition independent of the GOP.) They were socially conservative, upwardly mobile in their aspirations, supported the war in Vietnam, were for law and order and against protestors, rioters, and hippies, and believed in tough government to protect their livelihoods and way of life.

In short — they were Trump voters.

These conservatives voted against welfare and busing, two programs that they felt doled out benefits from their hard-earned tax dollars to those who did not deserve them. Al Trafford, who was married, had four children, and owned a home in Westchester, New York, believed he could easily distinguish the difference between “niggers” and “colored.” The former were on welfare and did not have good jobs; the latter owned their own homes, earned a decent income, and educated their children. “When they live on my block, they’re colored,” he said. “The coloreds on my block are my friends. They’re so nice that after a while you don’t know they are colored.” (76)

Remember, while this thinking was likely never far from the surface, Trafford is quoted saying these things because of a war a half-a-world away and an embargo enacted by governments of tiny countries he had probably never heard of.

The energy crisis was more than they could take. They needed relief, and for that they turned to the government to hold down prices at the pump, give them more fuel, and get the oil companies to comply. As the journalist Harry Maurer explained, the crisis “dealt a stunning shock to the truckers’ philosophical and political framework. They believed passionately in free enterprise but they were going broke. They voted for Richard Nixon but he was ignoring them. They called themselves independent but their livelihoods clearly hinged on the Arabs, the government, the oil companies — and on each another. It was a time for a change in their thinking.” (76)

That change, however, did not mean more social solidarity. It would mean less. The political system was beginning to break, and no one in the country was up to fixing it.

As an aside, Jacobs focuses a lot on Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the hawkish liberal from Washington State who led the Democratic opposition to the Nixon administration’s handling of the energy crisis. A lot is focused today on Jackson’s hawkish proteges and their lasting influence on American foreign policy. But Jacobs notes that Jackson was angling for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 (and he used the energy issue to batter Nixon and the GOP), and in his advocacy of rationing and price controls, Jackson may have been the last serious and committed New Dealer in Congress. It’s interesting to consider what would have happened to the United States had Jackson, and not Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, become president in 1976.

One thought on “It Begins in 1970

  1. October 1973 was the month I finished my Ph.D. in physics and took a job with the Navy in Ventura County, CA. I hardly had time to pay attention to the Arab-Israeli war (very much unlike 1967). And I felt extremely fortunate in that economy to get any kind of high-tech work. My first day on the job was the last day of the Mideast war. There was ecstasy in the hallways, because it had just become known that the Israelis had captured a Syrian MiG fighter intact complete with up-to-date Russian missile hardware and avionics.

    People were already complaining about gas prices in the summer of 73 – increases which would soon seem small compared with what was to come. To be clear about the chronology – the Vietnam ceasefire was signed in January of that year and at the same time the military was declared to be all-volunteer henceforth. The POWs came home and everyone considered that the war was over. If oil shipments to SE Asia was a political issue then or in the next couple of years, I wasn’t aware of it.

    The Teamsters were the only union to support Nixon’s reelection. The auto workers were just as prosperous and secure in their jobs (Japanese cars had not yet made much of a dent in the market) but they were not about to abandon the Democrats yet. There was a huge difference in ideology and character between Jimmy Hoffa and Walter Reuther (who had died in 1970, but whose influence still defined the UAW). Ironically, I bought a Toyota as soon as I got to California. Their dealership was right next door to the motel where I stayed until I could get an apartment. I had never heard of the brand before; but they were cheap. I also bought some Nike basketball shoes. I had never heard of that brand before either, but the guy at the shoe store swore they were great. And they were.

    The uncertain availability of gasoline at any price was far more disturbing than the high prices themselves. At every gas station there were lines extending for a block or more. People would wait hours in line to top off their tanks (using up gas in the process). This attitude was particularly acute in California where 50-mile commutes to work were not considered a bit deal. Tempers were short. One frustrated driver drove his car right at a gas station worker. He was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon. In time, people got used to the new world order and the lines disappeared. But we had a new word – petrodollars. The lines reappeared in 1979 after the Iranian revolution. The Americans at the US Embassy were taken prisoner and held for the rest of Carter’s presidency. It was this crisis that created real animosity in the US toward countries and peoples of the Middle East, far more than 1973.

    I am very skeptical of the notion that gas prices had anything to do with opposition to “school busing”. It could have only been a pretext. Busing was already a hot issue before 73. The sensitive point was the concept of neighborhood schools. In Boston, neighborhoods were also ethnic enclaves and the neighborhood school was as much a part of local identity as the parish church. The court mandates for integration of schools by long-distance busing was the bridge too far. It soured many people on the civil rights movement who had supported it up to that point. It might have been only fair that white people in the North should share the pain of reform which had hit the South the previous couple of decades. But it was at this point that it became clear that progress in integration in the South had worked because a majority of voters in the nation were sympathetic to the cause. It was a practical reality that any policy which alienated that majority was bound to bring progress to a halt. The violence in Boston and other cities got ugly and stayed prominent in the news for a long time. The country was only one decade from the days when open racism was socially acceptable in most regions and classes of the country. A word commonly used on the left was “backlash”, as if it were some sort of anti-progressive conspiracy. But it was just human nature. People needed more time. Not that the time since has been very well spent.

    It was the tragic misfortune of the civil rights movement, that just when they had achieved their greatest successes in law, the culture of the country began to disintegrate. Cities started to look like war zones or post-apocalyptic nightmares. The exponentially increasing amount of money flowing through the drug trade incited criminal entrepreneurs to unprecedented levels of violence and ruthless depredation, bringing in new players from all over the world. Even the Mafia was intimidated. Any social structures or cultural inhibitions which might have ameliorated the problem had vanished. Looking back, I am amazed we came out of all that as well as we have. Or maybe I am deluded. The improved look of the surface of things since the 1970’s may be a cruel deception. Rural life has now suffered as great a fall into the abyss as the cities have. I am about to reach my three-score and ten, and am not greatly motivated to extend it very long. And I prefer not to dwell on what my children will have to face. And what some of them have faced already.

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