Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Book Review: Philip Jenkins, Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America

U.S. historians intentionally stay a little behind the times. Usually, U.S. historians don't begin working on a period until about 25 years later. This is opposed to Latin Americanists, who start about 25 seconds later. This means that our first really good histories of the 1970s and early 1980s are just starting to come out. The most interesting, challenging, and provocative of these works I've read so far is Philip Jenkins' Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, published by Oxford in 2006.

Jenkins argues that the mid to late 1970s truly were an awful time in American history. Certainly people at the time believed that. The making of Reagan's America came on the heels of that sense of disaster. Disgust over Watergate and political corruption was high. The economy was bad. It seemed that serial killers roamed every neighborhood. Sex was everywhere, including child pornography. The cities had collapsed. The nation's international prestige was at an all-time low. Domestic abuse, drunk driving, and PCP use raged like an epidemic.

As the conservative myth goes, Ronald Reagan came riding through this muck and saving America. He made America whole again. And all of that crap. The 80s saw the rejection of drugs, sex, abuse, weak foreign policy, etc. Well, maybe. That seems simplistic, but Jenkins really believes that the late 70s were a bad time. He seems to buy into more than one conservative talking point about the period. It's a good book. I do recommend it for anyone interested in the period. But beware that you may read some really annoying sentences and have to take some of the conclusions with a grain of salt.

One thing Jenkins does particularly well is move the narrative out of traditional political and social history and centers his story on cultural phenomena like the rise of the serial killer in the American media, the nation beginning to take child abuse seriously, and the rise of the war on drugs. He rightly points out that none of these things were new to the late 1970s. Serial killers had been around for a long time. Various drugs were popular at different times. But the impending sense that America was going down the toilet helped focus media and public attention on these problems.

Another strength of Jenkins' work is downplaying the central role of Ronald Reagan in the period's narrative. While I think he doesn't take a critical enough stance toward Reagan, he rightly points out that most of the cultural phenomena we think of as resulting from Reagan, including support of anti-revolutionary movements in Central America, the drug war, and economic policy began during the Carter administration.

Jenkins' book is challenging and I have some trouble accepting some thrusts in his argument. I can't help but believing he thinks that liberals are at fault for many of the problems of the 70s. He claims that the "extreme liberalism of the 1970s naturally generated the conservative reaction of the following decade" (56). He connects liberalism with the worst killers of the decade, with child pornographers, and with cultish religious movements. I just can't agree with this. I don't think the rise of conservatism was just a reaction against an extreme liberalism of this type. It's not that I don't think conservatives were horrified by these things. I'm sure they did connect them to the evils of liberalism. But I don't think these things were liberal in any way. I don't think liberalism really helped child pornography except perhaps to not be inclined to push for punitive laws. He also claims that liberals in the mid-70s saw the government as evil. Well, a) we had just fought a war that killed 58,000 Americans for no good reason, b) this was just after Watergate, where Richard Nixon brought disgrace to the office, and c) no they didn't. Jenkins makes an incredible overstatement. Liberals distrusted government, and for good reasons. They thought the government had been acting evil. Hell, maybe some of them did believe the government was evil. You can't paint 1/2 the country with an unfounded blanket charge like this without challenge.

He also comes across as rather conservative on foreign policy issues. He dismisses critics of the U.S. selling arms to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, saying that Iran was legitimately the greater threat, neglecting the argument that the U.S. should not have armed anyone during that stupid, pointless conflict. What really bugged me though was his brutal attack of Cyrus Vance, Carter's Secretary of State. Evaluating Vance's work during the Iran crisis, Jenkins writes, "Cyrus Vance consistently behaved the way a stereotypical ultra-liberal politician might have done in a simplistic morality tale drafted by the far-right: at every stage favoring negotiation in the face of extortion, and resisting attempts to grant the shah asylum in the United States" (158).

I think this is unfair. There are lots of options in diplomacy outside of military attack and it makes a lot of sense to use them up before you start killing people. Vance rightly opposed the attack--how many hostages would have died had the attack reached Tehran? When the attack was launched, Vance resigned. He said the the attack would destroy U.S. prestige in the Middle East and around the word. He was right, in no small part because the attack helicopters wrecked in the Iranian desert.

In any case, it's a good narrative with a ton of interesting information (did you know that George W. Bush won 25 of top 26 states in white fertility?) and Jenkins does a great job of periodization--the 70s don't work that well as a coherent decade for historical study--essentially splitting it between the 60s and 80s makes a lot of sense. Jenkins certainly gets at the mindset of conservatives in the late 70s and early 80s, showing both why they were so angry and why they were successful at drawing people to their causes. His examination of cultural phenomena is first rate.

Like most really challenging books about the recent past, I can't agree with everything Jenkins says. Maybe I am too invested in my own narrative of the period. But I certainly recommend this book to anyone looking to understand the rise of conservatism in the United States.