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Editor's Letter

Special Section: America 50 Years Ago

October 2020

The year 1970 was a watershed, so we asked several thoughtful writers to reflect on key events.

Some of us remember dreaming, fifty years ago, of a computer small enough to fit in our home. And a telephone without wires.

So much has changed. But so much stays the same.

On a much bigger scale, in 1970 many of us looked forward to the day when women and minorities weren't considered second class citizens. And to a time when peace and prosperity were the norm.

Today, the news brings us echoes of that time. In cities across the country citizens demonstrate against racial injustice. In distant lands courageous young Americans die after answering their country’s call to serve. And politicians seek advantage by pitting Americans against each other.

National Guard troops march in front of the Yale newspaper office on their way to quelling demonstrations on the New Haven Green. Tom Strong.
National Guard troops march in front of the office of the Yale Daily News on their way to quelling demonstrations on the New Haven Green. Tom Strong.

The year 1970 was a watershed. To understand it better, we called on five gifted writers to look back and reflect on some of key moments of that decisive time.

In May, 1970 my Yale classmate, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., and I witnessed a large and angry crowd protest the trial of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale. Now an eminent historian and PBS filmmaker, Skip remembers in this issue how leaders on all sides of the May Day demonstration in New Haven successfully defused a situation that could easily have become tragic, as was the case a few days later with the deaths at Kent State University.

Today, authorities across the U.S. could learn that lesson from history about how to listen, empathize, and defuse a protest rather than inflame the demonstrators. It worked in New Haven with a situation more volatile than many of the marches we see today. 

Newsweek cover
Ironically, Newsweek was sued by its own staff for discrimination after it published a cover article on women in revolt.

See How the May Day Protests Stayed Peaceful, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Also in 1970, women staff at both Newsweek and Time, Inc. took action against the blatant discrimination they faced at their magazines. For example, although Fortune published numerous articles by rising star Ann Crittenden, it would not give her a byline, nor promote her to reporter.

“Those fun-loving, cajoling male writers and editors made two and half times as much money as we did,” Ms. Crittenden remembers in her essay in this issue. “They worked in offices with windows, doors, and space. Most of us worked in windowless cubicles. When a male writer did a good job he would be promoted to editor, and maybe go on to help run the magazine. When a female researcher did a good job, she got a pat on the head and remained a researcher, with no hope of advancement. That was the paternalistic Time Inc. system.”

See The Women's Revolution at Time, Inc. by Ann Crittenden

Agnew fits in the populist lineage from Pat Buchanan to Sarah Palin and Donald Trump that is now ascendant in the GOP.

History has largely forgotten the man who was Vice President in 1970, Spiro Agnew, after his conviction for income tax evasion. But it may be time to reassess Agnew's impact.

Agnew and Nixon
Many were surprised when Nixon picked relatively unknown Maryland governor Spiro Agnew to be his running mate. But Agnew's sharp-edged, anti-elite political style and aggressive attacks on Nixon opponents proved useful. Library of Congress.

We asked three leading historians, Charles J. HoldenZach P. Messitte, and Jerald Podair, to take a closer look and write in this issue about how Agnew’s “tough guy” persona set the precedent for subsequent anti-establishment figures including Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.

See Reassessing Spiro Agnew

For seventy years, American Heritage has largely avoided current politics and instead focused on events and people in American history. But it seems like we are living through a watershed moment in history, so we have added some of our own thoughts to the many already expressed.
 

We have tried to provide some historical perspective to events right now in four timely essays:

 

Confederates Honored by the U.S. Army

The Army has named ten military bases in honor of men who fought to destroy our nation. Should they be renamed? Or left as is, since the bases are part of a “Great American Heritage," as President Trump says?

Lafayette Square: Seven Acres of History, by Gil Klein

Now closed to the public as part of the enlarged White House security zone, the Square has witnessed many historic moments over the last two centuries.

Vandalism in Lafayette Square

Both our Constitution and our historic monuments were trashed by the Administration trampling citizens rights and by protesters spray-painting historical statues.

Traitors in Congress

It's not just that there are 11 statues in the U.S. Capitol of white men who were Confederates. The problem is that what those men said and did that is truly abominable.

As the Marquis de Lafayette might have reminded Thomas Jefferson, “Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.” 

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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