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That Slum of a Decade

David Frum's new book reminds us that the '70s were about a lot more than disco

By Ralph Seliger

WITH THE INEXORABLE graying of post-WWII baby boomers who came of age in the much-chronicled 1960s, the '70s are now emerging into focus: on television in a prime-time comedy on FOX and an NBC mini-series, and also in How We Got Here, the 70's: The Decade that Brought You Modern Life--for Better or Worse, a scholarly yet breezy overview of the era.

Although David Frum is a conservative think-tank intellectual, his book is not a mere ideological tract. No liberal has described more pithily the moral failure of Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson's secretary of defense, who kept silent and steadily escalated the Vietnam War against his better judgment: "a man of palpitating moral doubts entirely lacking in moral courage."

Instead of confronting the president with the evidence that had convinced him of the war's futility, McNamara gathered the Pentagon Papers, "the most damning possible antiwar dossier." Frum describes how McNamara's act led, via Daniel Ellsberg's leak to The New York Times, to the White House "plumbers," and from there to Watergate.

McNamara indirectly scored a two-fer: contributing to the failure of a Democratic administration and subsequently to the downfall of Richard Nixon.

Vietnam and Watergate undermined the trust that most Americans previously had in the efficacy of government and in the nobility of the U.S. role in the world. We still suffer from this breach today, which is illustrated in our diminished faith in government to accomplish anything positive domestically, as well as in a foreign policy that is pathologically risk-averse. (The latter was exemplified last year in the de facto insistence upon zero military casualties in NATO's exclusive pursuit of an air campaign in Yugoslavia, resulting in innocent Serbs being bombed and Kosovars being helplessly swept up in ethnic cleansing that was not resisted by NATO ground forces.)

Frum's anti-liberal bias is clear almost throughout the book, but he's not always wrong. He blames the Democratic-controlled Congress for the fall of Saigon in 1975 because it denied South Vietnam a few hundred million dollars annually in munitions and equipment needed to resist the onslaught of North Vietnamese tanks.

It is ironic that despite the fact that the Vietnam War was a colossal American blunder, U.S. intervention did basically defeat the Viet Cong guerrilla insurgency. South Vietnam was conquered by North Vietnam's regular army in a blatant violation of the Paris peace accords of 1973.

Frum similarly blames the Democrats for the fall of Cambodia to the bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge, ignoring the fact that it was Nixon's invasion and his support for the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk that upset Cambodia's neutrality. And in his discussion of the high inflation of the 1970s, Frum entirely misses the exorbitant costs of the war, which was largely financed by deficit spending, as an important contributing factor.

But Frum stumbles onto the truth in his critique of judicial activism, especially in the case of forced school busing and affirmative action. His recap of the racial crisis spawned by a single judge in Boston in 1973 is chilling. There and elsewhere, high-minded judges and politicians pitted poor and working-class white and black families against each other. Urban public schools crashed and burned while these limousine liberals sent their children to private schools or to unaffected suburban districts.

How We Got Here also makes one see a certain nutty edge to environmentalism, which when combined with an overbearing judiciary could block a dam for more than 10 years in the interest of a tiny fish--the snail darter--which has actually been found elsewhere since. Alarmists in the '70s contended that food and fuel resources were being outstripped by population growth; yet new technologies in agriculture and vast new discoveries of oil reserves have rendered these fears groundless. Frum, however, pooh-poohs all ecological concerns, dismissing out of hand the possibility that global warming, for example, is a real hazard.

AMERICA WAS VASTLY different at the end of this decade than it was before. Changes were especially significant regarding the emergence of women and gays. Frum gets in his zingers at both feminism and the gay rights movement, but seemingly more to deride their extremes than to deny people their basic rights.

Frum quotes novelist Milan Kundera to the effect that "because people in the West are not threatened by concentration camps and are free to say and write what they want, the more the fight for human rights gains in popularity, the more it loses in concrete content, becoming ... a kind of energy that turns all human desires into rights."

I would certainly concur with both writers that what Americans see as theirs by right has become excessive and that the legal profession encourages people to seek legal remedies for private disappointments.

"That slum of a decade," as journalist Michael Barone characterized the 1970s, ended with Jimmy Carter's hapless administration presiding over an unprecedented stagflation--high inflation and high unemployment--a new oil crisis and a humiliating hostage ordeal. Carter failed utterly as a leader and set the stage for a new era of conservative ascendance under the sunny, albeit vacuous, demeanor of Ronald Reagan.

The author is similarly upbeat on America's prospects given the defeat of "statism," the deregulation of the economy that he ascribes to the abysmal experiences of the 1970s. We can only hope that his optimism is warranted, but I have my doubts.

How We Got Here, the 70's: The Decade that Brought you Modern Life--for Better or Worse by David Frum; Basic Books; $25 cloth.

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From the May 4-10, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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