May 06, 2015 03:28 UTC


American History: Life in the 1970s and '80s

Read, listen and learn English with this story. Double-click on any word to find the definition in the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary.

President Richard Nixon tells a White House news conference on March 15, 1973, that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify to Congress in the Watergate investigationPresident Richard Nixon tells a White House news conference on March 15, 1973, that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify to Congress in the Watergate investigation
President Richard Nixon tells a White House news conference on March 15, 1973, that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify to Congress in the Watergate investigation
President Richard Nixon tells a White House news conference on March 15, 1973, that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify to Congress in the Watergate investigation


Play or download an MP3 of this story
STEVE EMBER: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.
This week in our series, we look back at some of the social issues and cultural changes in America in the nineteen seventies and eighties.
Listen to this story in high-quality 192kbps audio (or right-click/option-click to save)

In some ways, the nineteen eighties seemed like the opposite of the nineteen sixties. The sixties were years of protest for social justice and change. Many Americans demonstrated against the Vietnam War. Blacks demonstrated for civil rights. Women demonstrated for equality. Many people welcomed new social programs created by the government.
By the nineteen eighties, however, many people seemed more concerned with themselves than with helping society. To them, success was measured mainly by how much money a person made. People wanted to live the good life, and that took money.
The changes started to become evident during the nineteen seventies. For a while, these years brought a continuation of the social experiments and struggles of the sixties.
But then people began to see signs of what society would be like in the eighties. There were a number of reasons for this change.
One reason was the end to America's military involvement in Vietnam after years of war. Another was the progress of civil rights activists and the women's movement toward many of their goals.
A third reason was the economy. During the nineteen seventies, the United States suffered a recession. Interest rates and inflation were high. A shortage of imported oil as a result of tensions in the Middle East only added to the problems.
As the nineteen seventies went on, many Americans became tired of economic struggle. They also became tired of social struggle. They had been working together for common interests. Now, many wanted to spend more time on their own interests.
This change appeared in many parts of society. It affected popular culture, education and politics.
ARCHIE (CARROLL O'CONNOR): “Lemme hear your idea again.”
MICHAEL (ROB REINER): “OK, I want us to watch Jack Lemmon and a group of famous scientists discuss pollution and ecology on Channel Thirteen.”
ARCHIE: “Good. And I wanna watch football highlights on channel two. Now guess what’s gonna happen.”
Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton starred as Archie and Edith Bunker in the CBS television show Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton starred as Archie and Edith Bunker in the CBS television show "All in the Family"
Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton starred as Archie and Edith Bunker in the CBS television show
Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton starred as Archie and Edith Bunker in the CBS television show "All in the Family"
One of the most popular television programs of that time was a comedy series that often dealt with politics and serious social issues. The show was called "All in the Family." The family was led by a factory worker named Archie Bunker. Carroll O'Connor played Archie, and Jean Stapleton played his wife, Edith. The Bunkers lived in a working-class neighborhood in the Queens borough of New York City.
Archie represented the struggles of the blue-collar working man against the social changes in America. He loved his country and was socially conservative -- in the extreme.
ARCHIE: “What about John Wayne? And before you say anything, lemme warn you –- when you’re talking about ‘The Duke,’ you ain’t just talking about an actor; you’re talking about the spirit that made America great.”
MICHAEL: “Are you kidding?”
His opinions on subjects like race and women's equality were always good for an argument with his liberal daughter and even more liberal son-in-law.
MICHAEL: “Good. I can mail my letter today and it’ll get to Washington by Monday.”
EDITH (JEAN STAPLETON): “Washington – Are you writing to Washington?
GLORIA (SALLY ANN STRUTHERS): “That’s right. Michael wrote the president.”
ARCHIE: “Write to the president, about what?”
GLORIA: “All the things we’ve been talking about – the pollution of our air, the pollution of our water, the way us housewives have no protection from foods without nutrition, how they make products with harmful things in ‘em. Like you saw what happened to Michael from that shirt.”
ARCHIE: “You, Michael Stivic, Meathead, you have the nerve to write to the president of the United States about your rash?”
Edith would always try to make peace.
EDITH: “Maybe he knows a good skin man [dermatologist].”
(MUSIC: “Happy Days” theme Song)
Another popular program, "Happy Days," about family life in the nineteen fifties, offered an escape from the social issues of the day.
Music also changed. In the nineteen sixties, folk music was popular. Many of those folk songs were about social issues. But in the nineteen seventies, there was hard rock and punk.
TV Master of Ceremonies: “Here is Wonder Mike, Hank, and Master G, The Sugarhill Gang.”
And in nineteen seventy-nine a group called the Sugarhill Gang brought rap music to national attention with a hit called "Rapper's Delight."
(MUSIC: “Rappers Delight”)
In bookstores, the growing number of self-help books offered another sign of social change. These books advised people about ways to make themselves happier. One of the most popular self-help books was "I'm OK -- You're OK" by Doctor Thomas A. Harris. It was published in nineteen sixty-nine and led the way for many other popular psychology books throughout the seventies.
Politically, the United States went through several changes during the nineteen seventies. For most of the sixties the nation was governed by liberal Democratic administrations. Then in nineteen sixty-eight a conservative Republican, Richard Nixon, was elected president.
Nixon won a second term four years later, but had to resign in nineteen seventy-four because of the Watergate scandal. Nixon's vice president, Gerald Ford, took his place. Two years later, Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who until then was little known nationally.
The election showed that Americans were angry with the Republican Party because of Watergate. But they soon became unhappy with President Carter. They blamed him for failing to improve the economy and for failing to end a crisis involving American hostages in Iran. He lost his re-election campaign to Ronald Reagan.
RONALD REAGAN: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
President Ronald Reagan signs a major tax cut bill at his ranch near Santa Barbara, CaliforniaPresident Ronald Reagan signs a major tax cut bill at his ranch near Santa Barbara, California
President Ronald Reagan signs a major tax cut bill at his ranch near Santa Barbara, California
President Ronald Reagan signs a major tax cut bill at his ranch near Santa Barbara, California
Reagan, a Republican, won two terms and led the nation during most of the nineteen eighties. For many people, the Reagan years offered a renewed sense of economic opportunity. Reagan reduced taxes, which increased his popularity. But the national debt grew as he raised military spending to put pressure on the Soviet Union.
The self-centeredness of many people in the seventies and eighties gave rise to terms like the "me" generation." And there was the rise of "yuppies" -- young urban professionals remaking older neighborhoods in cities, often displacing poorer people.
Popular entertainment at that time was often about financial success.
TV ANNOUNCER: “Premiering Sunday, April second, ‘Dallas,’ where money buys power and passion breeds conflict.”
(MUSIC: “Dallas" theme)
"Dallas" was a television drama about a very rich Texas oil family
"Dallas" was a television drama about a very rich Texas oil family
"Dallas" was a TV drama about a Texas oil family with more money, and more problems, than they knew what to do with. It became a hit not just in the United States but around the world. Actor Larry Hagman played J.R.
J.R. (LARRY HAGMAN): “Your daddy lacked the killer instinct. He forgave those who transgressed against him. People just weren’t afraid of him. And he overlooked ol’ J.R.’s golden rules.
CASEY (ANDREW STEVENS): “And what might they be?”
JR: “Don’t forgive and don’t forget. And do unto others, before they do unto you. And, most especially, keep your eye on your friends, ‘cause your enemies will take care of themselves. Oh, and one other thing – the oil business is a little bit like a poker game. It’s good to get caught bluffing early on, ‘cause, after that, somebody’s gonna call you when you’ve got a winning hand.”
(MUSIC: “Dynasty” theme)
"Dynasty" was another popular series about rich people behaving badly. One of its stars was veteran actor John Forsythe.
JOHN FORSYTHE as Blake Carrington: “Those banks are going to find out that they’ve got more than they can handle. Denver Carrington is Blake Carrington, and they’ll come begging to me to run the company again. I know they will. And I’ll make them get down on their knees when they come begging.”
There was also "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," a series about real-life wealthy people, hosted by Robin Leach.
ROBIN LEACH: “Our bustling capital city combines the chic with the freak, the ‘Oh, God’ with the avant garde. So let’s go ‘upper deck’ with a couple of my good friends, and run away with the rich and famous…”
And at the movie theater, there was the nineteen eighty-seven film "Wall Street."
GORDON GECKO (MICHAEL DOUGLAS): “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”
Michael Douglas played a character named Gordon Gecko, who earns his wealth by raiding companies and illegally trading on inside information.
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: “Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed – you mark my words – will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A. Thank you very much."
(MUSIC: “Rambo” theme)
Good triumphed over evil in the "Rambo" action films starring Sylvester Stallone. He played a troubled hero who had fought in Vietnam. The films were violent. But they represented a more positive view than society had shown in the past toward veterans of that unpopular war.
In the nineteen eighties people came to fear a new disease that could be spread by sex or blood. It was the rise of the AIDS epidemic.
At the same time a new drug -- crack cocaine -- started a wave of violence in American cities.
Technology was also on the rise.
TV ANNOUNCER: “You don’t have to be a genius to use a computer. Let Computer Land show you how easy it is to manage your own small business or home finances with the Atari Eight Hundred. Record keeping, information, communication, and a world of new ideas from Atari.”
Personal computers appeared in more and more offices, schools and homes.
The nineteen eighties brought stardom to young entertainer Michael Jackson.
(MUSIC: “Beat It”/Michael Jackson)
And no history of the eighties would be complete without noting the rise of Music Television -- better known as MTV.
(MUSIC: "Money for Nothing"/Dire Straits)
You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.

Contributing: Jerilyn Watson
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
07/22/2012 8:35 AM
I think the most important incidence of '70s and '80s America is Vietnam war. At that time, the U.S. seemed simply fight against communism without expecting natural resouces, and lost after all. I can't believe the government sent lots of young Americans to far battleground across the Pacific ociern to kill people and to be killed themselves expensing huge government money.

What's American people learn from that war? Is there no way to solve international disputes excest for arms? I hope the U.S. government stop killing their young citizons, especially black and poor Americans.

In Response

by: Dmitry from: Russia
07/26/2012 6:36 PM
I don't think so that America fought with communism at this time. It was during Cold War in '50s

by: FRANZ from: Brazil
07/21/2012 1:06 AM
I like American History very much. If it's possible I'd like to suggest a theme about the Mafia. I bought all The Godfather's DVD. My doubt is if it occurs with the same violence like the film. When did Mafia start in EUA and why?

by: KIKA from: SPAIN
07/20/2012 6:23 PM
i was born in the ´80, and i was a little girl when my mother watched "dallas" and "dinasty", but I can remember she enjoyed it.And i used to dance "beat it" whith my brother.
Oh!thanks for making me remember it

by: BIJU.P.Y. from: BIJU.P.Y.
07/20/2012 4:27 PM
The 70's and 80's has taught America many great lessons that helped her arrive at her present day cultural maturity. She witnessed the rise and fall of many rich and poor families. And she has learned many good lessons to prevent her from falling to such mistakes again. People began to behave more kind , considerate and gentle. Now America's fame overflows the leaps and bounds of the world. Thank you.

Learn with The News

  • US Secretary of State John Kerry (2ndL) meets with Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohammed (2ndR) and Somali regional leaders at the airport in Mogadishu on May 5, 2015.

    Audio Sec. of State John Kerry Visits Somalia

    Secretary Kerry is the first ever secretary of state to visit Somalia while in office. Also in the news, the so-called Islamic State claims responsibility for shooting in Garland, Texas; French lawmakers approve spy bill; Obama nominates Joe Dunford for Joint Chiefs of Staff chair. More

  • Audio US Senate Considering Bill on Iran’s Nuclear Activities

    This week could decide what happens to a bipartisan bill in the United States Senate. If approved, the measure would delay an easing of American sanctions against Iran. Congress would have 30 days to study a final nuclear agreement with Iran before the restrictions are lifted. More

  • Chief Secretary Carrie Lam is seen on a TV screen as she unveils the Beijing-backed election reform package’s details at the legislative chamber in Hong Kong, April 22, 2015.

    Audio Hong Kong Lawmakers Promise to Block Election Plan

    Democracy activists say they want more control over who will lead the city; mainland China has said it will permit a leader to be chosen only from a list of candidates it chooses. More

  • Braeside Meat Market Butchers in Johannesburg, South Africa

    Audio Johannesburg Gets a Taste for Japan's Kobe Beef

    Demand is rising in Johannesburg for Kobe beef. Top cooks and professional meat cutters say it is the best beef in the world. It is definitely the most costly. As its wealth increases in Johannesburg,so does the tastes of its residents. The beef comes from Wagyu cattle in Japan’s Kobe region. More

  • Volunteers created a a food bank for people in the neighborhoods that were affected by the Baltimore riots.

    Video Volunteers Aid Victims of Riots in Baltimore

    There were riots in parts of the city after a funeral was held for an African-American man who died after being arrested. The city is working to get back to normal after a week of violence. Volunteers are helping people in the neighborhoods that were affected by the unrest. More

Featured Stories

  • Audio 3-D Printed Device Helps Children with Rare Breathing Disorder

    University of Michigan researchers have develop what they are calling a 4-D medical device to help children with a rare condition. The device is designed for very young children and changes as their bodies grow. More

  • World Trade Center Reopening

    Audio The 25 Most Popular Cities to Visit in America

    Big cities and small historic towns top the list of most popular places to visit in America, according to the travel site TripAdvisor. Millions of users voted New York City, Chicago, and Charleston, South Carolina as the top three cities to visit in the U.S. Here's a look at all 25 cities! More

  • Video S.O.S. – In Other Words, Help!

    Language, as we know, is always changing. New words are often created, officially and unofficially, without anyone knowing about them. Read on to learn a word that many Americans do not know. Here is a clue: S.O.S. is one. More

  • Everyday Grammar - Double Negatives

    Audio Everyday Grammar: Double Negatives - Can't Get None?

    In this week’s episode of Everyday Grammar, we’re going to talk about two common types of double negatives. A double negative is when you use two negative words in the same clause of a sentence. Sometimes two negatives make a statement positive; sometimes two negatives form a stronger negative. More

  • Kate Chopin

    Video Athenaise by Kate Chopin

    Our story today is called "Athenaise" by Kate Chopin. Women in the United States long wanted to be independent. This classic American Story tells about a young married woman in the Bayou of Louisiana who questions her role as a wife. Can she have her personal liberty and stay married to Mr. Cazeau? More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner blog
Confessions of an English Learner blog




Tell us About Our Programs