By Tom Woron
Nineteen Seventy-Nine! The final year of the 1970s. It was one of the most eventful years in recent history. A lot happened that year that was noteworthy, seemingly much more than in most other years. There were climactic match ups in sports, great music, and much upheaval in other countries. It was a pivotal year that changed the world.
In 1979 the President of the United States was James Earl “Jimmy” Carter. The year began with President Carter extending diplomatic recognition to the Communist government of mainland China. Since 1949 the U.S. only recognized the Nationalist Chinese government on the island of Taiwan as the legitimate government of all of China. It was ultimately in the best interest of the United States to establish diplomatic relations with the Chinese Communists.
In the 1960s and early 70s, the United States tried to prevent Communists from taking control of all of Vietnam and its neighboring country, Cambodia. The efforts failed and Communists took full control of both countries in 1975. Strangely enough the two Communist neighbors began to fight each other in 1977. It escalated into full scale war in late 1978 and on January 7, 1979 Vietnamese troops drove the Khmer Rouge, the ruling Communist faction, out of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, effectively taking over the country. The Khmer Rouge had been responsible for a genocide in Cambodia over the previous few years, however, the United States and many nations disapproved of the Vietnamese action.
On January 16, 1979 a full year of upheaval in Iran reached a climax. The U.S. supported Shah (king) of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, left the country after many months of violent demonstrations against his rule. The revolution was inspired by the the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an Islamic religious cleric who was exiled from Iran years earlier for opposing the Shah’s rule. For a few weeks Iran was in chaos as it was not clear who among several opposing groups was going to lead the government. On February 1st the Ayatollah Khomeini was welcomed by thousands as he returned to Iran from exile. Iranian Army troops that were still loyal to the Shah were quickly defeated by rebel groups opposed to him. On February 11 Khomeini effectively took over leadership of the country and soon after proclaimed an Islamic Republic. The repercussions of the revolution are still felt by the world today.
We all heard of the Iranian hostage crisis that began in November 1979 when the U.S. embassy in the Iranian capital of Teheran was seized by Iranians loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini and held American diplomats prisoner for over a year. However there was an earlier, little known hostage crisis also involving the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Teheran. During the chaos in February, armed Iranian urban guerrillas seized the American embassy and held U.S. Ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan and his staff hostage for over two hours. In what was later to become a bit of an irony, Iranian forces loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini drove the guerrillas out and rescued the American diplomats.
In 1979 as was the case for decades, the Communist giant, the Soviet Union was the opposing superpower to and the ideological rival of the United States. The two had struggled for years to promote their opposite ideologies to other countries and prevent the other from doing so all the while trying to avoid going to war directly with each other. Both superpowers possessed many nuclear weapons. In his State of the Union Address on January 23, 1979, President Carter, in what was seen as a warning to the Soviet Union, stated that just one of our Poseidon submarines, which comprised of less than 2 percent of our nuclear weapons capability, possessed enough nuclear warheads to destroy every large and medium sized city in the Soviet Union.
The Southeast Asian picture got even more complicated in February. Communist China attacked and invaded Communist Vietnam on February 17th. The reason was that the Chinese supported the Khmer Rouge Communists who had ruled Cambodia and they were not at all happy about the Vietnamese invasion of that country. China and Vietnam were historic enemies despite the fact that they were allies during the Vietnam War. Vietnam then turned to the Soviet Union for support. China and the Soviet Union at the same time had been feuding with each other for a while. As if giving them the go-ahead to oust the Chinese supported government of Cambodia, the Soviets signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Vietnam on November 3, 1978 effectively bonding the two countries together against the Chinese. The Chinese attack on Vietnam was “to teach them a lesson” and was clearly in retaliation for for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. It all seemed so strange because United States participation in the Vietnam war from 1961 to 1973 was to prevent the North Vietnamese Communists from taking control of South Vietnam. Successive American administrations refrained from taking drastic action against Communist North Vietnam, that could have won the war, fearing that Communist China would enter the war on the side of the North Vietnamese. Ironically now the two Communist countries were fighting each other. Headlines stating that Chinese jets were attacking the Vietnamese port of Haiphong seemed odd since American jets had attacked Haiphong often in 1972 . Fighting raged in northern Vietnam for a few weeks and the world wondered if the Soviet Union would enter the war on the side of the Vietnamese. The Soviets did not and the Chinese withdrew their forces in March. The headline on the cover of the March 5, 1979 issue of Time magazine was: COMMUNISTS AT WAR.
In sports the 1978 National Football League season was concluding as the post season was played out in early 1979. The powerhouse Pittsburgh Steelers obliterated the Houston Oilers 34-5 in the American Football Conference Championship game on January 7 to win the right to play in Super Bowl 13. Later that same day in Los Angeles a powerful Dallas Cowboys team squared off against a strong Los Angeles Rams team for the National Football Conference Championship. The Rams had great teams during the 1970s but always failed to reach the Super Bowl. They would fail again this time as the Cowboys prevailed 28-0. That set up what was anticipated to be a really Super Super Bowl!
The cover of the January 22, 1979 issue of Newsweek magazine hailed “A Really Super Bowl.” The cover was shared by Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw and Cowboys linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson. During the two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, Henderson caused a stir as he taunted Steelers players in the media and insulted the talent and intelligence of Bradshaw. Henderson had taunted the Rams and correctly predicted that the Cowboys would shut them out. The Steelers did not reply to Henderson who predicted that the Cowboys would win the Super Bowl 31-0.
Super Bowl 13 truly lived up to the hype as it turned out to be one of the best ever. Hollywood Henderson was correct in that the Cowboys scored 31 points, however…
The teams battled it out in Super Bowl 13 scoring a combined nine touchdowns. At one point the Steelers led 35-17. The Cowboys battled back to make the score 35-31. That’s how it ended as time ran out on the Cowboys. The heartbreaker for them was that a veteran receiver, Jackie Smith, dropped a certain touchdown pass in the end zone earlier in the game. Had Smith held onto the ball it could have made the score 35-35 at the end of regulation time.
A week later the Pro Bowl, the NFLs all star game, was played in Los Angeles. The crowd was eerily quiet the whole game something the telecasters attributed to the Rams again failing to reach the Super Bowl.
In March President Carter scored a triumph as he played a critical role in getting bitter enemies Israel and Egypt to conclude a peace treaty between them, the Camp David Accords.
On March 28 a partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania caused radioactive gases to be released into the environment in a heavily populated area. The accident gave a strong boost to the movement opposed to nuclear power because of the dangers it entails.
In the field of aviation the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 aircraft was not having a good year in 1979. On May 25 a DC-10 taking off from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport had an engine detach from its wing upon take-off resulting in the aircraft crashing. It was the worst aviation accident in U.S. history with 273 fatalities. Two other DC-10 crashes later in the year were not due to anything wrong with the aircraft itself but a famous image of the Chicago DC-10 missing its engine just before the crash was particularly damaging.
In May 1979 the world of hockey fans yawned as the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup for the fourth year in a row. A second major hockey league, the World Hockey Association played out its last playoffs as the league was soon to cease operations. The last WHA champion was the Winnipeg Jets. Four WHA teams, including the Hartford Whalers, would join the NHL.
June 1979 saw a re-match of the previous year’s National Basketball championship finals with the Seattle Supersonics prevailing over the Washington Bullets, the opposite result of the year before.
In the spring of 1979 Americans began to feel the repercussions of the Iranian Revolution earlier that year. Oil production from Iran was greatly reduced and a major oil crisis resulted. Panic buying then led to fuel shortages. Long lines formed and long waits occurred at gas stations and many states imposed odd-even gas rationing. This meant that whatever number or letter your license plate ended with determined what days in the month you could buy gas. In the late spring of 1979 outraged Americans saw the price of a gallon of gasoline go over a dollar for the first time.
In the spring and early summer of 1979 TV news broadcasts frequently covered civil war in the Central American nation of Nicaragua. Fierce battles raged in the streets of the cities and towns of Nicaragua as rebels called Sandinistas, named after a martyred hero, fired from behind barricades at troops of the government’s army, the National Guard. The heavily armed National Guard was eventually defeated as town after town was taken over by the rebels who were widely supported by the general population. The government of the American supported dictator of Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza, had long fallen into corrupt ways which in turn fueled the rebellion. The final battle for the capital city of Managua led to Somoza leaving the country on July 17 and the collapse of the National Guard two days later. The new Sandinista government seemed moderate at first but it eventually became allied with Communist countries namely Cuba and the Soviet Union.
1979 was a great year for music. Undoubtedly the anthem of 1979 was “My Sharona” by The Knack, an American band from Los Angeles. Released in June 1979, “My Sharona” reached number one on the Billboard hot 100 singles chart and remained on top for six weeks. “My Sharona” was also placed number one on Billboard’s Top Pop Singles year-end chart for 1979.
In 1979 Americans often said “No!” when they heard British Rock Star Rod Stewart sing the line “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” from his song titled the same. The song, released in late 1978, was everywhere in 1979.
In March 1979 the British Rock band Supertramp released their highly successful album Breakfast in America. Three big hits from it, “The Logical Song,” “Goodbye Stranger,” and “Take the Long Way Home,” became very popular.
Electric Light Orchestra released an album containing the song, “Don’t Bring Me Down,” a big hit that has stood the test of time. The Australian rock group The Little River Band released their song “Lady” In September 1978 and it was a big hit in 1979. The American group The Charlie Daniels Band had its big hit “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” in 1979. The American rock band Styx released their number one hit “Babe” in September 1979. English singer Robert Palmer sang “A Bad Case of Loving You” making the song written by an American songwriter a big hit in 1979. The band Kiss had its hit “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” in 1979. The band Foreigner released its hit song “Head Games” in late 1979. There were, of course, many other hit songs in 1979.
In the early summer of 1979 there was a sense of suspense. America’s first space station, Skylab, which was launched in 1973 and used by astronauts up until February 1974, couldn’t maintain its orbit around the earth. It was going to come crashing down to earth. But where? On July 11th Skylab disintegrated over the Indian Ocean showering debris there and onto part of Australia.
The unmanned American space probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 made close approaches to the planet Jupiter in March 1979 and July 1979 respectively. The probes transmitted high resolution photographs of the planet and some of its moons. Voyager 1 discovered that Jupiter has a ring around it and observed active volcanoes on Io, a moon of Jupiter. In September another U.S. space probe, Pioneer 11, was the first probe to fly by and transmit close-up photos of Saturn, its rings and its moon Titan. The probe detected that the average temperature on Titan was minus 315 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the late summer of 1979 a political firestorm erupted when the U.S. intelligence community revealed that there was a Soviet combat brigade stationed in Cuba. The brigade was believed to consist of about 2,600 Soviet troops and had been in Cuba for many years. It was the timing of the release of the information that caused the uproar. The United States and the Soviet Union were in a period of time in the 1970s, called detente, during which tensions and threats of previous decades were easing up. The two superpowers were at the time negotiating limiting the number of nuclear weapons between them. President Carter and a number of U.S. politicians deemed the presence of Soviet combat troops in Cuba as unacceptable. U.S Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, met with Soviet envoys to try to persuade them that the brigade must be removed. The Soviets had no intention of removing the brigade and assured the Americans that its presence in Cuba was only for training purposes. Unable to force the Soviets to withdraw the troops from Cuba, President Carter, in his speech to the nation on October 1 declared that the combat brigade in Cuba posed no direct threat to the United States. The furor calmed down and the crisis was all but forgotten. The September 17, 1979 cover of Time magazine had in large letters: STORM OVER CUBA. The Cuban crisis of 1979 did not involve nuclear weapons as did the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Unlike in 1962, it was the U.S. side that backed down from a potential confrontation with the Soviets. Although the crisis turned out to not be as big a deal as originally thought, it did derail nuclear weapons limitation negotiations and was the beginning of the end of the period of detente.
In a little known incident, on September 22, 1979 an American Vela satellite detected a double flash, consistent with a nuclear weapon test, in the South Atlantic Ocean roughly half way between South Africa and Antarctica. Originally called the South Atlantic Flash, the cause of the double flash was never officially determined. Although no nation ever claimed responsibility for a nuclear weapon test in the ocean (banned by international treaty) at that time, the Vela Incident is believed to have been a joint nuclear weapon test between Israel and South Africa.
On a local note the residents of Windsor and Windsor Locks, Connecticut that were alive and old enough to be aware will never forget October 3, 1979. That was the day an unexpected tornado started in the Poquonock section of Windsor and made its way northward roughly following Route 75. The tornado measuring F4 passed through Windsor Locks and Suffield before ending in Agawam, Massachusetts. The twister left 3 people dead and many homes and businesses destroyed or damaged. Many aircraft on display at the Bradley Air Museum near Bradley Airport were damaged or wrecked.
The Major League Baseball season was different in 1979. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox dominated the American League East the previous few years but 1979 saw the Yankees and Red Sox down in the standings and the Baltimore Orioles on top almost from the start. In October the Orioles met the Pittsburgh Pirates the World Series. In a series played in much cold weather, Baltimore won three of the first four games. However, the Pirates won the next three games and the World Series Championship. The Pirates adopted the 1979 Sister Sledge hit song “We Are Family” as their theme song.
Also in October the government of the Central American nation of El Salvador was overthrown leading to a civil war that would become a major issue for the United States in the 1980s.
Iran was back in the news on November 4 as Iranians loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy in Teheran and held 66 Americans as hostages. The reasons for the seizure was that the deposed Shah of Iran was in the U.S. for medical treatment and the Iranians feared an American attempt at restoring the Shah to the throne in Iran. They also demanded that the U.S. hand the Shah over to them so they could put him on trial for brutality carried out by his secret police against Iranians during his reign. The crisis escalated as newscasts showed thousands in the streets of Teheran burning American flags and engaging in anti-American demonstrations. The images broadcast around the world of blindfolded American captives in the hands of fanatical Iranians was a national humiliation. The Iranians released some Americans but 53 remained captive as the year ended.
With the humiliation of the hostage situation, Americans needed a lift. They got it, sort of, in the form of a song. Some genius composed a humorous song about the hostage situation sung to the tune of “My Sharona.” The word “Ayatollah” was used in place of “My Sharona” and there were some made up words that rhymed with “Ayatollah.” I remember many people getting a big kick out of that song.
If the hostage situation in Iran wasn’t bad enough, on November 21 the U.S. embassy in Pakistan was stormed and burned down by Islamic fanatics who were inspired by the Ayatollah Khomeini. A couple of Americans were killed and some were taken hostage. They were subsequently rescued by Pakistani troops. It was a very somber holiday season in the U.S. with the Pakistan incident and seemingly no resolution to the Iran hostage situation in sight.
As 1979 was winding down into its final days. the southwest Asian country of Afghanistan was suddenly front page news. Afghanistan had been taken over by a Communist government in April 1978 with Communist General Secretary Nur Muhammad Taraki installed as its leader. This began a chain of events that would plunge Afghanistan into seemingly endless turmoil that continues to this day. A rebellion by Moslem Afghan tribes began fighting to overthrow the Communist government. In September 1979 Taraki was assassinated and Afghan prime minister Hafizullah Amin took over leadership of the country. Dissatisfied with Amin’s rule and unsure if the Communist government could hold out against the rebellion, the Soviets had Amin assassinated and sent about 85,000 troops into Afghanistan in the final week of December.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979 was seen as a threat to world peace and seriously soured relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. It began a new period of potentially dangerous tensions between the two superpowers.
The Chinese zodiac had 1979 as the Year of the Ram. In the 1979 NFL season the Los Angeles Rams, the franchise that had many good teams over the years but never made the Super Bowl, was not expected to accomplish much. Their owner died in an accident over the summer and the front office had a shake-up. The team lost its starting quarterback to injury. The Rams had only a so-so regular season of 9 wins and 7 losses. But it was enough to get into the playoffs.
On December 30, 1979 the Rams got a measure of revenge against the Dallas Cowboys for their humiliating playoff defeat early in the year. They beat the Cowboys in Texas 21-19 in a playoff game. With that victory, the Rams were on their way to their first Super Bowl.