Read about the economic downturn of the 1970s and the OPEC oil embargo of 1973-1974. 

Overview

  • In the early 1970s, the post-World War II economic boom began to wane, due to increased international competition, the expense of the Vietnam War, and the decline of manufacturing jobs.
  • Unemployment rates rose, while a combination of price increases and wage stagnation led to a period of economic doldrums known as stagflation. President Nixon tried to alleviate these problems by devaluing the dollar and declaring wage- and price-freezes.
  • The crisis was compounded when oil-rich nations in the Middle East declared an embargo against the United States in retaliation for its support of Israel. The oil embargo had a lasting effect on energy prices.

Economic woes of the 1970s

During the twenty-five years after World War II, the economic power of the United States was unparalleled. Indeed, contemporary observers commented that the postwar United States was in the midst of "the greatest prosperity the world has ever known."start superscript, 1, end superscript The American gross national product (GNP), a measure of all goods and services produced by a country's citizens, increased from $200,000-million in 1940 to more than $500,000-million in 1960 to nearly a trillion dollars by 1970. Thanks to increases in productivity, the American standard of living had doubled between 1945 and 1970. With just six percent of the world's population, the United States enjoyed 40% of the world's wealth.start superscript, 2, end superscript
But troubling signs began to emerge in the late 1960s. Unemployment rose by 33% between 1968 and 1970, while the consumer price index went up by 11%. At the same time, real wages began to stagnate. Simultaneous inflation and stagnation, nicknamed stagflation, puzzled economic analysts: usually, when wages fell, prices fell, and when wages increased, prices increased. But not in the 1970s. As a result, Americans had less purchasing power, and increasingly expensive American exports were at a disadvantage in the international market. In 1971, the United States experienced its first unfavorable international trade balance since 1893.start superscript, 3, end superscript
What caused this slump? The massive cost of the war in Vietnam and the expansion of social programs at home without commensurate tax increases helped to drive inflation (the price of goods and services). Meanwhile, US manufacturing (especially automotive manufacturing) had become less competitive over time compared to efficient overseas rivals, particularly in Germany and Japan. More and more American jobs were in the service sector, which had lower wages and fewer benefits than manufacturing jobs. Individuals born on the tail end of the baby boom found themselves competing in a very crowded labor market, especially as more women and immigrants entered the workforce.start superscript, 4, end superscript

The oil embargo

In 1971, Richard Nixon attempted to remedy inflation by imposing a 90-day wage and price freeze. At the same time, he attempted to boost American exports by taking the dollar off the gold standard, devaluing the currency. These measures resulted in a short-term improvement (just long enough to get Nixon reelected in 1972) but did nothing to address the tangled roots of the problem.start superscript, 5, end superscript
Then the energy crisis hit. In October 1973, the United States supported Israel after a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War. The oil-rich nations of the Middle East, already angry with the United States for devaluing the dollar (the currency used to purchase oil) determined to exact their revenge with an oil embargo. Led by Saudi Arabia, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced an oil shipping embargo against the United States as well as Israel's European allies.start superscript, 6, end superscript
The effects were immediate and dire. The price of oil shot up to $11.65 per barrel, an increase of 387%. Lines miles-long formed at gas stations. The United States consumed one third of the world's oil, and its citizens quickly discovered just how much of daily life depended on cheap oil. Families living in far-flung suburbs depended on automobiles to get everywhere. Even after the embargo ended in March 1974, prices for oil remained about 33% higher than they had been before the crisis.start superscript, 7, end superscript
Black and white photograph showing cars in line for gas.
Line at a gas station in 1979. Image courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The end of the postwar economic boom

Stagflation and the oil embargo both seemed to suggest that the American golden age that had followed on the heels of World War II was at an end. First Vietnam and then the Middle East had revealed the limits of US power abroad.
The complex forces which led to the downturn of the 1970s have continued to shape the American economy, particularly globalization (international interdependence of business and culture), which has accelerated as information technology has made communication and coordination easier. For example, many companies have moved manufacturing jobs out of the United States in order to save on labor costs. Today, 80% of all American jobs are in the service industry.start superscript, 8, end superscript
Since the oil embargo, the United States also has worked to reduce its dependence on foreign oil through a variety of means, including reducing energy usage, improving vehicle fuel-efficiency, investing in renewable energy, and increasing domestic oil production.start superscript, 9, end superscript
The quarter century after World War II was a time of incredible growth in the United States which produced the richest nation in human history, as well as a sense of unbridled optimism about the future. By the early 1970s, that chapter of the American adventure had ended. A new, altogether more uncertain era had begun.

What do you think?

What caused the economic problems of the 1970s? Were they avoidable?
Since World War II, the percentage of American jobs in the service sector has grown steadily. What are the benefits and drawbacks of a service-based economy?
How has the US dependence on oil changed since the embargo of 1973? Do you think the United States should do more to reduce its oil consumption?
Article written by Dr. Kimberly N. Kutz. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. Edward Heath, quoted in James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 61. For more on the unparalleled economy of the United States after World War II, see Robert M. Collins, More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  2. See Bureau of International Information Programs, Outline of US History, (US Department of State, 2011), 267; David Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant: A History of the American People, 15th (AP) edition (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2013), 831.
  3. Patterson, Grand Expectations, 737-738.
  4. Patterson, Grand Expectations, 736, 738.
  5. Patterson, Grand Expectations, 737.
  6. "Oil Embargo," Digital History, 2016.
  7. Patterson, Grand Expectations, 784-785.
  8. For more on the effect of globalization on the economy in the 1970s, see "Foreign Competition," Digital History, 2016. For the percentage of Americans employed in the service sector, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment by major industry sector," United States Department of Labor, 2015.
  9. See "Oil Embargo," Digital History, 2016.