The Vietnam War

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Between 1973 and 1980, which challenge was the most severe in the US and why? How was it addressed and what were the outcomes?

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I would say the most severe crisis of the 1970s were the oil shocks that resulted from US intervening on the side of Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. OPEC nations stopped supplying the United and its allies with oil. Since oil, gasoline especially, was the lifeblood of the US economy this was a huge shock. Oil prices rose sharply (the US could still get oil from other sources but the supply was strained), leading to an inflationary spiral.

This was a painful spiral as it struck at commodities almost every American needed all the time: gasoline for the car to get to work and sharp rises in utility prices to heat or air-condition a home as well as rises in food prices as the price of gas to transport food was factored into pricing. Many Americans suffered, as they didn't have the economic margins to weather inflation. This inflation seeped rapidly into the housing markets too, and house prices began to rise sharply. As the Federal Reserve also increased interest rates in order to try to wring out inflation, home ownership—the core component of the post-war American dream—became out of reach for many Americans.

Other changes impacted people's everyday lives directly, such as gas rationing. People could only buy gas on alternative days, the kind of restraint that does not mesh well with the individualism inherent in American society. To compound the situation, both the Ford and Carter administration came across as weak and ineffectual in dealing with the crises. Ford, for example, put out WIN pins—whip inflation now—that were supposed to inspire Americans to unite against inflation. This PR stunt fell flat and backfired, making the US government look ridiculous. Carter came across as weak during the 1979 Iranian crisis—which also led to gasoline price shocks—when he decided not to leave the White House until the crisis was resolved.

The combination of inflation, growing fears of the Middle East, oil price shocks and two successive ineffective administrations led to loss of faith in the government to solve problems, paving the way for the Reagan administration and a turn toward reducing the size of the federal government. Whether this was a good or bad outcome is a matter of one's personal politics.

It is worth noting that we may be in a similar situation now—Covid is another disruptive shock to the entire system that people are feeling on a day-to-day level.

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