Politics

January 1973 Was a Monumental Month for America

Roe v. Wade was just one part of a period that reshaped our politics.

On the left a black-and-white photo of Lyndon B. Johnson's funeral and on the right, the resolution of the Vietnam War.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bettmann and Michel Laurent/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

On the morning that Roe v. Wade was announced—Jan. 22, 1973—Henry Kissinger flew off to Paris to initial the accords that would end the Vietnam War for the United States. Former President Lyndon Johnson arose at his ranch in Texas and went for a short, labored walk. He would not outlive the day.

Half a century now separates us from that incredible day in 1973, but with the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last June, this will be the first Roe anniversary where the right to an abortion is no longer recognized as a constitutional right.

Advertisement

Still, it is worth considering how January 1973 upended our politics 50 years ago, and how the Dobbs decision may turn out to be equally disruptive in the exact opposite direction.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Six critical events coalesced in January 1973 that together, almost as if in concert, fundamentally altered the path of the nation. Seemingly random events at the time actually had strong connectors and worked to supercharge profound change in the space of just 31 days.

The day after Christmas 1972, former president Harry Truman died in Independence, Missouri. The thought of a state funeral in Washington was scrapped when it became clear his widow, Bess Truman, was too frail to withstand the ordeal, so a private funeral was arranged in Truman’s hometown. Former president Lyndon Johnson and President Richard Nixon both traveled to Independence on Dec. 27 to pay their respects.

Advertisement
Advertisement

A public memorial for the nation’s 33rd president was planned for the first Friday of January 1973 at the National Cathedral. Nixon, never a Truman fan, spent a good deal of time trying to wriggle his way out of attending. His resistance focused more on the fact that the service would be led by the dean of the National Cathedral, Francis B. Sayre, a keen antiwar activist who regularly marched with congregants to the White House to protest the war in Vietnam. Sayre was actually Woodrow Wilson’s grandson—he had been born in the White House in 1915. Nixon loathed him.

Advertisement

Nixon’s machinations led to what would be his last call with his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson. On Jan. 2, Nixon phoned Johnson at his ranch in Texas to find out if LBJ intended to be present at the Truman memorial. Johnson said he had attended the Cotton Bowl in Dallas the day before (Texas defeated Alabama), and that he suffered from severe chest pains, keeping him up all night. He would not be coming to Washington.

Advertisement

Nixon thought Johnson was a hypochondriac, but 20 days later, on Jan. 22, Johnson, just 64, suffered a final, fatal heart attack. This news overshadowed the announcement of Roe v. Wade, which was handed down that day, and dominated the headlines on Jan. 23.

Advertisement
Advertisement

With the passing of Truman and Johnson, the New Deal and the Great Society—both in real and symbolic senses—came to sudden ends. Nixon’s culture wars and a war on drugs would replace President Johnson’s war on poverty and other New Deal–inspired government programs.

That would become clear when Nixon delivered his second inaugural address in the third week of January 1973. He turned JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” line into “In our lives, let each of us ask—not just what government can do for me, but what I can do for myself.” Obviously the line didn’t achieve the renown of its predecessor, but this was the start of the “Me Generation,” an America where the rich get richer, and everyone else have to figure it out on their own.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

In the meantime, what was then America’s longest war, the Vietnam War—a war that resembled Truman’s disastrous war in Korea and one that Johnson escalated out of control—bound these three presidents together. American hubris, born of the development of the atomic bomb, led American presidents to believe that bombing an enemy into the Stone Age would lead inexorably to righteous results and unconditional surrender.

As January 1973 had started, Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were in the midst of conducting one of the more barbaric bombing campaigns of any war—infamously known as the “Christmas bombings.” The statistics were unforgiving—over 200 massive American B-52 bombers flew 730 sorties to drop 20,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam, mainly on the populous Hanoi, over a period of 12 days. Kissinger told Nixon that it would be the equivalent of a 4,000-plane raid in the Second World War each night. “It’s going to break every window in Hanoi,” Kissinger related in his dry tone. “Goddamn,” was all Nixon could reply.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The decision to still go forward with the horrific bombing came from frustration tinged with fear. After Nixon’s stunning landslide in November 1972, peace negotiations in Paris stalled, because Nixon’s victory, as dramatic as it was, was limited: The Congress remained firmly in Democratic hands, with the Senate adding six Democratic seats (including the one won by newcomer Joe Biden of Delaware). North Vietnam understood the Democrats were about to cut off funding for the unpopular war once they convened in January 1973.

Advertisement

Nixon and Kissinger decided, without Congressional sanction, to unleash the bombings in order to force the enemy back to the bargaining table. The naked use of force was unsettling to several Democrats in the Senate, including Sam Ervin of North Carolina and Mike Mansfield, the majority leader. This would spur them to open an investigation into Nixon’s imperial presidency and campaign abuses, resulting in a select committee that Ervin would chair—the Watergate Committee.

Advertisement

But the break-in scandal was already unfolding outside of the Senate in January 1973. Two of the men indicted for the break-in to the Democratic National Headquarters went to trial before Judge John Sirica. Five others indicted pleaded guilty, believing that Nixon would commute their sentences at some point, likely after the midterms.

Judge Sirica suspected a cover-up and that higher-up authorities were involved. After a jury convicted the two who went to trial, Sirica threatened all defendants with 30–40 years in prison, hoping the pressure would cause one of them to crack. The tactic worked, and started a chain of events that would lead to White House Counsel John Dean’s stunning “cancer on the presidency” testimony, and the discovery of a taping system in the White House. Nixon’s presidency, seemingly indestructible at the beginning of 1973, was soon doomed.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

In the middle of all of these scene-changing events, the Supreme Court was finalizing drafts on two cases—one out of Georgia and the other out of Texas—with the Texas case, Roe v. Wade, becoming the lead opinion. The ruling would be the first time there was federal recognition of a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion—today something that seems monumental. But when the opinions were announced, they did not spark major controversy outside the Catholic Church. Indeed, they were otherwise met with widespread approval.

Over time, though, the abortion decisions would amplify the political movement that started with Nixon’s campaign to create a “New Majority” by turning the South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. His was a politics of grievance—anger at Civil Rights legislation and court-ordered busing to desegregate schools, rage at those who would oppose a “patriotic” war, fury with so-called “welfare cheats,” and backlash against college students who took drugs, engaged in free sex, and burned draft cards. This Nixon counterrevolution was given a sunny face during the Reagan years, but it started a partisan and divisive politics that can be traced directly to the Trump Revolt with its griping, antagonistic hatred of political enemies.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The war in Vietnam did come to an end for America, but Nixon’s desperation resulted in a settlement agreement that allowed North Vietnamese troops to remain in place in the South, all but assuring Vietnam would not end as Korea did, with an uneasy stalemate, but that the South would eventually fall.

And then, because of Watergate, Nixon would not be around to defend his peace agreement once the North Vietnamese breached the terms and overran the South. The lesson of Vietnam—that American military power is not the be-all and end-all—stuck for a while. But it was unlearned after Sept. 11, when the Bush administration started wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps President Biden finally took heed when he abruptly and chaotically pulled troops from Afghanistan in 2021, ending what became America’s longest war.

Advertisement
Advertisement

There is no denying, though, that Roe and Nixon’s grievance politics have had the longest-lasting impacts. Both helped create conditions that allowed Trump to win in 2016, energizing evangelicals to improbably vote in a bloc for a morally compromised candidate like Donald Trump, so long as he pledged to nominate Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe. And despite Trump nominees testifying that they supported long-standing precedent, the Trump voters received their reward when the Supreme Court overruled Roe in the Dobbs opinion last June.

But that reward appears to have come with a cost. Just as January 1973 marked a watershed, the results in the 2022 midterm elections suggest the tables may be turning. Democrats and Independents, led in some ways by younger voters, do not want to go back to the pre-January 1973 America. While they may not restart the New Deal or Great Society, they seemed determined to regain their personal liberties with respect to health care and they understand the urgency to save the earth from the devastating effects of global warming.

To do this, voters will have to turn away from the hate politics we inherited from January 1973 and once again elect representatives who will seek and find common ground.

Advertisement