What has been the worst 10-year stretch in American life?
It’s a timely question as the nation approaches the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. This grueling decade surely stands among the nation’s most challenging.
For this exercise, I’m not confining the assessment to chronological decades—the 1850s, say, or the 1960s. Instead, I’m looking at any consecutive 120-month period and asking: Which of those 10-year interludes have been the most difficult for America?
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Most historians would look first at the Civil War. And a good place to begin there is on May 30, 1854, when Franklin Pierce signed the misguided Kansas-Nebraska Act. That statute lit the fuse for the war by repealing the Missouri Compromise and instead allowing each new state to vote on whether it would permit slavery—an invitation to division.
Over the next decade, America soldiered through a procession of horrors: “Bleeding Kansas”; the Dred Scott decision; John Brown’s raid; Southern secession; and, above all, the relentless carnage of the Civil War. Although the battle of Gettysburg in 1863 ensured eventual Union triumph (and inspired Abraham Lincoln’s great address), the outcome was still uncertain enough in spring 1864 that many Lincoln supporters doubted that he would win reelection. Indeed, the precise bookend to the decade that began with the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the first skirmishes, on May 31, 1864, of the Battle of Cold Harbor that cost the Union over 10,000 dead with little gain.
No other decade in American life was as grim. But the Depression years, shaped by the fall of the economy and the rise of Adolf Hitler, came close.
The descent began with the stock market crash in October 1929, followed by an economic collapse that saw the nation’s total employment plummet by nearly one-fourth over just four years. The buoyant leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt lifted America’s spirits and produced a constellation of lasting reforms (such as Social Security), but fewer Americans still held jobs in 1939 than in 1929. Ten years after the crash, on Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler began World War II by invading Poland—a fitting coda for poet W.H. Auden’s “low dishonest decade.”
Two more-recent, somewhat overlapping stretches also tested the nation. One was the tumultuous decade that began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, and ended with the first Arab oil embargo in October 1973. Those years produced almost unprecedented social turmoil—from the civil-rights struggle to the domestic battle over the Vietnam War to urban riots and the generation gap. Pulsing behind it all was the drumbeat of casualties from Vietnam—which eventually claimed 58,000 American lives. Trust in government plunged.
But despite these serial traumas, this period, until its final years, also generated “the longest, until that time, period of uninterrupted growth in American history,” notes historian James Patterson of Brown University, who has written widely on the era. From 1963 to 1973, the share of Americans in poverty dropped by a third, and total employment increased by one-third. Prosperity soothed upheaval.
An even more difficult stretch was the 10 years of drift from the Kent State shooting (May 1970) through the failed Iran hostage rescue attempt (April 1980). Those were years of meager economic performance (the misery index, combining inflation and unemployment, doubled over this period); lost ground overseas (the fall of Vietnam, the rise of the Iranian ayatollahs, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan); and presidents hobbled by scandal (Richard Nixon) and weakness (Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter). “It was a period in which every single institution failed,” says conservative commentator David Frum, a historian of the period.
Against those stretches, how should we rank the decade since that achingly blue morning in 2001? George W. Bush’s antiterrorism policies helped prevent another major attack—the decade’s great success—but strained American ideals. His mismanaged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sapped U.S. strength and imposed costs vastly exceeding their benefits. Overstretched and in the red, America ends the decade weaker on many international dimensions than when it began—a dynamic that President Obama has confronted but not reversed.
At home, the nation has faced deepening partisan stalemate over big problems and what historian Robert Dallek describes as “probably the closest thing we’ve had to a depression since the 1930s.” With Bush’s tax cuts failing to produce broadly shared prosperity even before the financial meltdown and Barack Obama’s stimulus failing to ignite robust recovery, the median income is now lower than in 2001 and the number of Americans in poverty nearly one-third higher. Most incredibly, fewer Americans are working today than in September 2001—a decadelong record of decline matched since 1900 only during the 1930s. Faith in all public and private leadership is flickering.
That doesn’t cast our time into the depths of misery Americans knew in the Civil War or the Depression. But it probably makes these past 10 years our lowest point since then, at least so far. Unless the economy revives, notes Frum, “the period from 2007 to 2017 may rank” even higher than the past decade on the list of America’s most troubled times.
This article appears in the September 3, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.