In the early 1970s, the “system seemed out of control.” Americans of all backgrounds were coming together against the government and large corporations, and voters were increasingly refusing to identify with either the Republican or Democratic party.
Zinn picks up where he left off in Chapter 19: the 60s galvanized American society and encouraged people to challenge authority.
One of the major factors that encouraged people’s disillusionment with the status quo was the growing scandal surrounding President Richard Nixon. In 1972, five burglars were caught trying to break into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, D.C. Some of these burglars appeared to be closely connected to Nixon officials, including the Attorney General. In the following months, the arrest of the Watergate burglars prompted a “chain reaction,” in which low-ranking Nixon officials informed on higher-ranking officials. In the end, it was revealed that top Nixon officials had accepted illegal donations from large corporations, allocated funds for interfering with the Democratic party, attempted to sabotage the reputations of Nixon’s critics, and approved of a secret, illegal bombing of Cambodia.
The Watergate Scandal is a curious event, because it seemed to represent the rare occasion when the powerful elite of the United States turned on itself and expelled one of their own members—in this case, the President of the United States. However, it’s interesting to note that, over the course of Watergate, it was revealed that Nixon had tried to interfere with the Democratic party and tried to sabotage American citizens. Zinn suggests that these actions led the Establishment to distrust Nixon and turn on him.
The fallout from the Watergate scandal was immense. The public turned against Nixon, suspecting that he was involved in many of the illicit actions his officials had told the grand jury about. At the same time, corporations and other social institutions began to turn against Nixon, too, reasoning that he was an unstable, vindictive politician. In 1974, Nixon resigned from the White House rather than face impeachment by Congress.
Much like Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, Richard Nixon lost his power because he made the mistake of antagonizing the American Establishment, instead of saving his aggression for people and institutions that couldn’t fight back.
When Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford, his Vice President, became President, and proclaimed, “Our long national nightmare is over.” Despite Ford’s words, the resignation of Nixon left intact “all the mechanisms and all the false values which permitted the Watergate scandal.” Furthermore, Nixon’s foreign policy continued, and the American government continued to cooperate with the business establishment. In short, Watergate allowed the Establishment to “cleanse itself” of rule-breakers without making any fundamental changes to the system. It is telling that, during the Watergate scandal, journalists focused mostly on Nixon’s small-scale, local misdeeds, such as his bribes and threats, while mostly ignoring his illegal corporate connections and foreign policy decisions.
As Zinn sees it, Nixon’s resignation was a kind of “totemic ritual,” in which the American people channeled their hatred for the Establishment into one man (Nixon) and then celebrated Nixon’s resignation, confident that government would be more honest from now on. However, as Zinn makes clear, Nixon’s resignation didn’t “purify” the government. Nixon was just a scapegoat for the overall injustice of the Establishment, and his resignation was a smokescreen for the continuation of the same corrupt policies that allowed Nixon to rise to power in the first place.
Under the Ford Administration, America ended its involvement in Vietnam amid widespread opposition to the war. American politicians and policy advisers at the time noted the necessity of recovering from this blow to America’s reputation as a major military power. In 1975, Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State under Nixon and Ford, wrote that America “must carry out some act somewhere … which shows its determination to continue to be a world power.” Only one month later, a Cambodian ship apprehended an American cargo ship. In response, President Ford ordered the Cambodian government to release the ship’s crew; when the Cambodian government gave no reply, Ford ordered the bombing of Cambodian ships, and then sent in American troops. Later, it was revealed that Ford had received word that Chinese diplomats were using their influence to release the American sailors. On the very day that Cambodia released the Americans, Ford’s troops arrived in Cambodia and attacked the mainland. In the end, forty-one Americans died in the attack. Why did Ford order the attack on Cambodia so quickly? Because, Zinn answers, Ford wanted to show the world that “giant America … was still powerful.”
As with Zinn’s handling of other militaristic foreign policy decisions in American history, Zinn implies, without ever actually saying so, that the Cambodian incident was engineered to mislead the American people and encourage them to forget about the corruption and incompetence of the American government. Whether or not Ford consciously planned to mislead the American people in this way (and it’s possible that he did), the Cambodian incident asserted America’s power on the global stage.
During the mid seventies, the American establishment faced a crisis in the public’s knowledge of the FBI and the CIA. During the course of the Watergate scandal, it was revealed that the CIA had worked to create a military coup in Chile, where the people had elected a leader democratically. Meanwhile, it was disclosed that the FBI had waged an invisible war against radical and left-wing groups throughout the sixties, forging letters, engaging in burglaries, and, “in the case of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, [seeming] to have conspired in murder.” The exposure of “bad deeds by the FBI and CIA” drastically increased the public’s distrust of the government.
In the 1970s, the public became increasingly aware of the corruption and deceptiveness of the CIA and the FBI. Although Zinn doesn’t have time for an extended discussion of the death of Fred Hampton (which occurred around the time of the Watergate Scandal), it’s highly likely that the FBI was involved in orchestrating Hampton’s murder—there seems to be no other explanation for why the police shot Hampton in his sleep late at night.
In response to widespread dislike for government, intellectuals researched how the 1960s had facilitated the decline in enthusiasm for the American Establishment. In a famous paper, “The Democratic Distemper,” Samuel Huntington, a government policy consultant, made a series of surprisingly honest remarks about politics. The goal of the president, he wrote, was to cooperate with “key individuals and groups” in business, law, media, and government—in short, the “Establishment.” Zinn writes, “This was probably the frankest statement ever made by an Establishment adviser.” Huntington presented his paper in 1973 to the Trilateral Commission, a meeting of political leaders from Japan, the U.S., and Western Europe, and advised the Commission to find ways to prevent the “excess of democracy” in their own countries.
For Zinn, the Trilateral Commission is an important example of the way the Establishment maintains its power. Here, for once, Zinn offers readers a literal, concrete example of rich, powerful people from business, government, and academics coming together to discuss how to maintain power over their own people. The Trilateral Commission—and, Zinn implies, the Establishment as a whole—wanted to limit its peoples’ freedoms in order to maximize their own strength.
Another issue facing the Trilateral Commission—and, for that matter, the powerful elite of all countries—was the growth of a truly international economy. By the mid-seventies, the largest corporations in the world had largely ceased to be national entities: the largest banks, businesses, and media companies had offices and employees around the world. In 1976, Zinn notes, the American Establishment invested a huge amount of money in celebrating the Bicentennial, perhaps to distract people from the mood of paranoia and disillusionment. But in Boston, people chose to celebrate the “People’s Bi-Centennial” instead, dumping packages marked, “Exxon” in the ocean, symbolizing the popular opposition to corporate power.
An important part of the Establishment’s growing power in the 1970s was the growth of the banking industry. By the 70s, corporations had become truly international entities, with branches in many different countries and continents. However, at the same time that the corporations and governments of the world became more powerful, Americans continued to rebel against control. Indeed, the People’s Bi-Centennial suggests that Americans were well away of the growing tyranny of corporations.