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Program 25: Contemporary History

Donald L. Miller with the entire historian team and television critic John Leonard

Miller: 1972 to the year 2000. Twenty-eight event-packed years. We struggle to make sense of this period. We're historians. We're past-haunted creatures, you know? And we keep looking back. Do we have a responsibility to immediately assess, almost like a reporter does, the swirling events of our time?

Brinkley: They say journalists write the first draft of history, and there's some truth to that, meaning the newspaper reports. I think historians -- contemporary historians -- do the next draft.

Maier: Although I write sometimes on contemporary issues that have a historical dimension, I don't find what is called contemporary history very interesting.

Masur: The most interesting kind of history is the history that does get at the pain and value of human experience. And it explains not just what happened, but what people do with what happens.

Martin: The fundamental issue in history is to provide historical perspective, to provide context, to provide a certain kind of understanding.

Miller: Historians look at the last quarter of the 20th century, today on A Biography of America.


[picture of Professor Miller]

Miller: July 4, 1976, America commemorated its bicentennial. It was an auspicious anniversary. Although few people knew it at the time, the very character of the country was changing.

[picture of Gerald Ford]

Gerald Ford was President. He had taken office three years earlier when a discredited President Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment.

Nixon: I shall resign the presidency....

At the time of this political crisis, America was also in the grip of the Energy Crisis. In 1972, you could buy gas for 40 cents a gallon. A year later, you'd be paying double that. And the Energy Crisis triggered a long-term recession. Some of the country's biggest industries, like the auto industry and steel industry, were hit hard.

Plants laid off hundreds of thousands of workers. And once-prosperous industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit were in terrible trouble.

The Cold War persisted. Tensions and defense budgets running high. This is where America was in 1980.

If we fast-forward the picture to the late 1990s, it could not have been more different. The economy is booming. The Cold War is over. America's riding high as the leader of a global economy and a global culture.

These changes occurred with dramatic, head-turning suddenness. And it's hard to make sense of them, to put them into historical perspective. We're too close to what happened.

Yet, we have a responsibility as historians to make sense of the history of our own times. Let's look at some of this history through the headlines from the years 1972 to the year 2000.

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