Oh, That Seventies Feeling

Historians are finally starting to show that there was a lot more to the “Me Decade” than we might have thought.

Those were the days: Economic upheavals wiped out long-established institutions and jolted self-satisfied elites. Terrorists declared war on the West in the name of eccentric utopias. New technologies collapsed geographical distance, bringing far-flung regions closer together and undermining the power of the traditional nation-state.

I could be talking, of course, about the early twenty-first century. But as a growing number of historians and commentators are realizing, all of the above applies equally well to the 1970s, a critical decade that deserves to be remembered for more than disco and bellbottoms. For those who lived through them -- at least in the United States -- the 1970s may have felt mostly like the moment when history ground to a halt: A dullsville interregnum between the highs of the 1960s and the Cold War climacteric of the 1980s. Author Tom Wolfe famously dubbed it the "Me Decade," a period of egotistical navel-gazing and frivolous hedonism. For Americans, it was the era of Watergate, long lines at gas stations, the last years of the inglorious Vietnam adventure, and President Ford. In short, not much worth celebrating.

So why, then, are we suddenly witnessing a flurry of books that aim to refocus our attention on this misbegotten decade? The answer is twofold: First, the Seventies are a lot more interesting than conventional opinion would have it; and, second, the stresses that defined that moment in history turn out to be eerily relevant to our own.

Above all else, the 1970s marked the moment when world leaders and ordinary citizens alike woke up with a jolt to their common status as inhabitants of an interconnected world -- and understood, in the process, that this didn't necessarily make the planet a more predictable place. "This is the decade when things start to unravel," says Harvard historian Charles Maier, one of the editors of the new book The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective. In his essay in the book, historian Daniel Sargent offers a citation from 1975: "Old international patterns are crumbling ... The world has become interdependent in economics, in communications, and in human aspirations." The writer was Henry Kissinger.

Two other works focus on the American Seventies as a moment of wrenching economic transition, one with a more than passing resemblance to our own. Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s, by Judith Stein, mourns the moment when, she contends, U.S. manufacturing set off on its long march to points overseas. Jefferson R. Cowie's Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (due this August) offers its own swan song to America's blue collars. (According to the publisher's note, the book charts "the tortuous path from Nixon to Reagan -- think Archie Bunker, Dog Day Afternoon, and Merle Haggard ...") Needless to say, these dark diagnoses resonate at a moment when the near-collapse of the U.S. financial sector makes some onlookers long for the certainties of a time when real men made stuff. (Trivia question: When was the first time Chrysler got a U.S. government bailout? That would be 1979, under CEO Lee Iacocca.)

It's much easier to navigate the cultural and economic upheavals of the 1970s, however, when you take a planet-sized view. That's the approach chosen by the editors of the aforementioned The Shock of the Global, a grab-bag of lively academic essays that covers everything from the proliferation of global non-government organizations to the worldwide women's rights movement to smallpox eradication. In his introduction, the ubiquitous Harvard financial historian Niall Ferguson points out that the 1970s gave us bar codes, the microprocessor, email, the personal computer, the videocassette recorder, the pocket calculator, ultrasound, and the MRI -- not to mention Microsoft and Apple.

The book's range of topics seems a bit scattershot at first, but a theme emerges soon enough: The rise of global "interdependence," as the jargon of the period had it. (The word "globalization," as The Shock of the Global notes, first appeared in 1974, in a New York Times op-ed by economist Ronald Miller.) For the industrialized West, the wake-up call was the 1973-74 oil crisis, when a handful of recalcitrant Third World Arabs gleefully plunged the global economy into a tailspin. Other economic transformations, however, had more long-term effects. For example, as Sargent notes, the size of the international banking market (as a percentage of global GDP) "grew from just 1.2 percent of global output in 1964 to 16.2 percent in 1980." Louis Hyman points out, in his essay on global financial markets, that the first mortgage-backed securities were sold to global investors in 1970.

And it wasn't just the realm of finance that vastly expanded its reach; so, too, did multinational corporations and aspiring export champions in the developing world. It was in the 1970s that the East Asian "tigers" began their steep ascent to the top ranks of the global economy. Global trade, supported by the containerization of shipping and the expansion of satellite communications, exploded. By the end of the decade, as Odd Arne Westad explains in his excellent contribution, Deng Xiaoping's China was making the first fateful steps in its own "market revolution."

The decade also marked a decisive shift from the Keynesian economic philosophy that had held sway since the end of World War II to the tumultuous brand of classical liberal economics embodied by Friedrich von Hayek (a 1974 Nobel Laureate) and Milton Friedman (who won the Nobel in 1976). Sweden's Social Democrats lost power for the first time since the end of World War II in a 1976 poll -- a harbinger, perhaps, of Margaret Thatcher's general election victory in Britain three years later, which ushered in the conservative backlash of the 1980s. We are still living with the consequences.

The Shock of the Global tilts unapologetically toward political economy -- the field in which many of the book's authors hold credentials. It's a filter that sometimes falls short when it comes to capturing the period's full complexity -- as in the case of the rise of political Islam, which would culminate, at the end of the decade, in Iran's Islamic Revolution and the beginnings of the global jihad unleashed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But this book still manages to bring some of the period's most important trends into sharp relief. Charles Maier, the Harvard history professor, says that the 1970s marked a crucial moment when global elites realized that "the policy solutions for economic dilemmas [were] no longer working. Suddenly there's a group of problems arriving for which there isn't a ready repertory of answers." He suspects that it's precisely that sense of "disequilibrium" that will resonate with present-day readers -- all of us who have just emerged from the great financial cataclysm of 2008. The lesson of the 1970s, says Maier with a laugh, is simple: "Stability is never assured. It always undermines itself ... You're never out of the woods." As if we needed reminding.

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How caged animals became a tool of statecraft.

Earlier this month, the government of Zimbabwe announced that it was planning to give North Korea an ark's worth of animals -- two of every creature found in the southern African country's Hwange National Park -- for its longstanding Asian ally's zoo. Conservationists in Africa and elsewhere, not unreasonably, fear the worst.

As with most things in the Hermit Kingdom, only a few sketchy facts are known about the Korea Central Zoo in Pyongyang; its elephants purportedly are descended from a "hero" pachyderm given to the Kim regime by Ho Chi Minh -- even zoo attractions in North Korea come with an Western-imperialist-fighting lineage -- and one British visitor in the 1970s encountered a parrot that cawed "Long live the Great Leader!" in English. Suffice it to say that Pyongyang is probably no Mount Ararat.

But though President Robert Mugabe gifting a pair of baby elephants to Kim Jong Il may seem like a particularly ghastly move, zoos and geopolitics have long been closely linked -- with results that range from the bizarre to the downright appalling.


Jumbo the elephant, scourge of transatlantic relations

In 1861, Arab traders captured a 2-year-old African elephant calf on the plains of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, and sold him to a European animal collector. The elephant's name was Jumbo -- the adjective, as applied to jets and buckets of popcorn in the English usage, originates with him -- and he would become not only perhaps the most famous zoo attraction in history, but also a sore spot in British-American relations.

In 1880, when the showman P.T. Barnum was looking for a marquee animal for his Barnum & Bailey Circus, his thoughts turned to Jumbo, who was at the time the prized possession of the London Zoo. It took him the better part of two years, but Barnum convinced the Zoological Society of London to part with the animal for $10,000. An uproar immediately ensued in London. The fracas was about more than a beloved sightseeing attraction -- it was about British national identity. Since antiquity, imperial rulers had gathered exotic animals from distant corners of their empires and kept them as tokens of their far-reaching power; similarly, the evolution of the modern zoo in Victorian England had happened in tandem with the growth of the British Empire. The London Zoo, which had replaced the private royal menageries of the past, was a potent symbol of British might -- visitors were admiring not only a captivating array of wildlife but also a physical manifestation of the crown's reach, to colonial lands that counted among their subjects everything from the rhinoceroses of Rhodesia to the tigers of Bengal.

The ability of an American upstart entrepreneur to wrest loose one of Britain's most prized African treasures was considered a "disgrace to English lovers of animals," in the words of one letter to the editor of a London newspaper collected in historian Harriet Ritvo's The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. Jumbo "was a popular figure, as well as an imperial symbol," Ritvo says. "The zoo's selling of him was ballyhooed in the press of a kind of treason -- a betrayal of the public, and a lèse majesté."

Bits of doggerel verse written in Jumbo's voice abounded in London; in one of them the elephant declares, "I love the brave old British flag, of it my boys I'll always brag/And you must clearly understand, I do not care for Yankee land." It was Canada, however, that proved Jumbo's undoing: Three years after moving across the pond, the 24-year-old animal was killed in a train accident in Ontario. When Jumbo did return to London for a visit, it was in taxidermic form.

Library of Congress

Post-colonial Africa and the new Noah's ark

The American zoos of the early and mid-20th century may not have been explicitly imperial in the manner of their Victorian predecessors, but they were not much less dependent on the colonial enterprise. Their most popular attractions were caught in the wild, mostly in Africa, and the traders from whom they bought the animals enjoyed cozy relationships with the colonial administrators.

This became a problem in the 1950s and '60s, when Europe's great colonial powers, battered and exhausted by World War II, began relinquishing their imperial holdings in Africa and Asia. The wave of independence that swept over the continents terrified zoo officials in the United States. Zoos required hundreds of new animals a year -- now their suppliers were out of power, and the future of the game refuges from which the animals were taken was in doubt.

"[G]ame protection has collapsed with the end of colonialism," warned John Perry, director of the fundraising group Friends of the National Zoo, in the Saturday Evening Post in 1962. The concern, of course, was hardly disinterested. "[Zoo] officials urged protection of the African wilds not as an ecosystem of interconnected species but as a warehouse of future zoo residents," writes Jeffrey Hyson, a zoo historian and professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

Zoos began establishing "survival centers" on vast acreages in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, coastal North Carolina, and elsewhere, and stocking them with African fauna. Zoo officials were portrayed, by the media and in their own writing, as 20th-century Noahs, saving the world's great animals from a continent doomed to ruin under the rule of its native residents.

The self-styled Noahs were condescending and paternalistic, not to mention hypocritical -- zoo and natural history museum curators had been exacting a considerable toll on the world's wildlife for years. But history has proved them at least partially right: Many species have fared badly over Africa's half-century of self-rule. Civil war, deforestation, and poaching have all but obliterated the gorilla population of the Congo Basin, for instance, and the U.N. Environment Program predicts the great ape may be extinct within 10 to 15 years.

The zoos' survival centers were also the first serious stab at the captive breeding efforts that now supply virtually all the animals on display in American zoos, and have enabled the reintroduction of species such as the California condor and the Asian wild horse. "In America now, far from being consumers of wildlife, we're going the other way," says Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.


Chewing through the bamboo curtain

Richard Nixon's landmark visit to China in 1972 produced several important results: U.S. adoption of the "one China" policy, one of the most relentlessly invoked clichés in American politics, and the gift from China to the National Zoo of two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. The pandas' arrival in Washington in April of that year -- the zookeepers who traveled with them were the first sanctioned mainland Chinese visitors to the United States since the 1949 revolution -- marked the beginning of communist China's so-called panda diplomacy: the distribution of the country's rare and much-beloved animals to foreign zoos as diplomatic gifts.

It was a masterful PR ploy. Chinese rulers had been handing out pandas to their international friends well before Mao took Beijing -- Madame Chiang Kai-shek bestowed a pair on the Bronx Zoo in 1941 -- but by the early 1970s the last of them in the United States were long dead. "Nobody had seen a panda in a hell of a long time," says Chas Freeman, a future ambassador to Saudi Arabia who served as the interpreter on Nixon's China trip. In exchange, the Chinese received an Alaskan musk ox named Milton, which they may or may not have eventually shot. In any case, Freeman says, "I think many people considered that not entirely a fair trade on our part."

By the 1980s, panda diplomacy had evolved into a sort of "rent-a-panda" business, in which zoos in the United States and elsewhere leased the beloved bears from the Chinese government for limited periods of time. In 2006, Beijing tried to apply the panda balm to its half-century-old standoff with Taiwan, offering to ship a couple of the bears across the strait as a goodwill gesture. It was a shrewd move intended to undercut Taiwan's pro-independence president Chen Shui-bian -- taken together, the pandas' names meant "reunion" -- but Chen's government found a loophole in the deal: Taiwan wasn't a party to the international endangered species treaty under which China's panda exchanges were conducted, and therefore it legally couldn't take the animals.

The decision was reversed by Chen's successor, a member of the Chinese-nationalist Kuomintang party, and the pandas are now ensconced at the Taipei Zoo. But the issue remains a sensitive one. The English-language Taipei Times created a minor scandal on the island in 2009 when it published an April Fools' Day parody story claiming that the two pandas were actually Wenzhou brown bears that had been dyed black and white.

China, meanwhile, has been busy handing out slightly less impressive animals. Beijing has given Hong Kong five rare Chinese sturgeons in honor of the 2008 Olympics -- one for each Olympic ring -- and Afghanistan a shipment of lions, wolves, and other animals to replenish Kabul's war-battered zoo. Among them was a pig -- the only one in Afghanistan, where the un-halal animal is otherwise illegal. (During last year's swine flu outbreak, the zoo quarantined the pig out of sight of zoo visitors; there weren't any direct flights between Mexico and Kabul, but hey, better safe than sorry.)

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Dogs (and bears, and lions, and giraffes) of war

When the first coalition troops arrived in Baghdad on April 3, 2003, the city's zoo had upwards of 650 animals. Eight days later, only 35 were left. Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen fighters had shooed the zookeepers away in the early days of the war and set up anti-aircraft guns around the zoo; after the fighters fled, animals were stolen and in some cases eaten by looters, or died for lack of food and water. When Lawrence Anthony, a South African conservationist, arrived in Baghdad to save what was left of the zoo two weeks after the invasion, he found the surviving animals -- including a rare Siberian tiger that had been a personal pet of Uday Hussein -- at death's door.

"All the Americans would've had to do is drop off 50 men, with a few vets and a truckload of food, and they wouldn't have lost any of the animals," Anthony says. "You're dealing with First World countries" -- the United States and Britain -- "with comprehensive animal rights laws. It was ridiculous that neither of these countries had any contingency plan for the biggest zoo in the Middle East." Like the U.S. troops' inability to stop the looting of Iraq's National Museum, the failure fed the narrative of American unpreparedness for the inevitable challenges of occupation, and disregard for Iraq's cultural and civic treasures.

Although the destruction of the Baghdad Zoo was uniquely tragic in its scale, zoos have always fared disastrously in wars. Animals are often killed in anticipation of an invasion, out of concern for public safety -- big cats and bears escaping their battle-damaged enclosures tend to complicate the defense of a city. Even if they're spared extermination, beasts lucky enough to survive the shelling and gun battles begin dying within a day or two from lack of water, then from lack of food. Hardier creatures soon face another threat: people. With stores closed and food scarce, human survivors start regarding the zoo as an exotically stocked butcher's shop. "Anything that doesn't have claws or teeth big enough to protect itself is killed," Anthony says. Few animals in the national zoos of Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan survived the countries' respective invasions.

A few big predators have memorably beaten the odds, at least for a while. A female bear in the Sarajevo zoo managed to live for 200 days of the Serbian troops' siege of the city in 1992 before succumbing to starvation; Bosnian militiamen cared for her until the autumn, when the last leaves fell off the zoo's trees and exposed them to Serb sniper fire. (Less poetically, the bear had also run out of other bears to eat -- she had already devoured the other three in her enclosure.) Marjan, the most celebrated lion in the Kabul Zoo (pictured above), managed to weather a quarter-century of upheaval in Afghanistan, though not without injury. When mujahideen fighters sacked the zoo and ate many of its animals in the civil conflict of the mid-1990s, a guerrilla made the mistake of climbing into Marjan's enclosure. The lion grabbed him by the neck and killed him. Seeking revenge, the man's brother returned to the zoo to attack the animal with a hand grenade, blinding him and knocking out his teeth. But Marjan survived his wounds, finally dying of natural causes in January 2002, shortly after the fall of the Taliban. He had lived to the ripe old age of 26 -- long enough to have watched two civil wars and two invasions from his cage.