Enter our time machine to 1969, the last time unemployment was this low

(Illustration by María Alconada Brooks/ The Washington Post; Getty Images; AP; Heidi Levine for The Washington Post; Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post; iStock)
8 min

The last year the U.S. jobless rate was so low, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Vietnam War peace talks began in Paris and the Beatles gave their final performance on a London rooftop.

The Labor Department on Friday reported the unemployment rate in January fell to 3.4 percent, its lowest level since May 1969. As President Biden prepares to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, the economy, which has dragged down his approval amid stubbornly high inflation, is now giving him something to celebrate.

Biden is hoping the strong jobs picture and the Federal Reserve’s anti-inflation efforts will lead to a “soft landing” for the economy without a recession. In 1969, new President Richard M. Nixon had the same hope.

The backdrop for the economy in both years included involvement in an overseas war, violence at home, racial tensions and a politically divided nation. When Nixon took office in January 1969, he declared in his inauguration speech that Americans “cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another.”

At his first news conference, Nixon vowed to lower the rising inflation rate, which had climbed to 4.4 percent (compared with the current 6.5 percent, as of December). “Unless we do control inflation, we will be confronted, eventually, with massive unemployment,” he said.

Gerald Ford responded to an inflation crisis with a voluntary public campaign. It was a disaster.

Nixon’s first move, however, was to begin peace talks with North Vietnam in Paris, where the first U.S. proposals were met with “stony rejection,” the Associated Press reported. Vietnam War protesters said Nixon still wasn’t doing enough to end the controversial war. At an antiwar “bed-in” at a Montreal hotel, John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded “Give Peace a Chance.”

Nixon began to fight inflation with what his economic advisers called “gradualism and persistent restraint.” The Federal Reserve boosted interest rates, just as the current Fed has been doing. “Nixon’s Aim,” a Miami News headline reported, “Is Slowdown But No Slump.”

Early efforts showed promise, as unemployment remained low. The Labor Department reported the unemployment rate in May 1969 held steady from April at 3.5 percent; the May jobless rate was later adjusted to 3.4 percent.

Still, the economy added just 90,000 jobs in May 1969 (compared with 517,000 last month). Government officials said the slowdown in job growth was “a sign that Nixon’s efforts to brake the nation’s economy” to fight inflation “are taking effect,” the AP reported.

But, as now, employers were having a hard time finding workers in some industries, such as restaurants. The server shortage is “the worst ever,” said one Omaha restaurant owner. “We can run ads for two months and not even get a call,” he told the Omaha World-Herald.

Black leaders complained that the 6.5 percent jobless rate among Americans of color was more than double the 3.1 percent rate for White workers. “This is strictly a result of color,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who was Black. “The unskilled, unemployed White man can compete more successfully against a Black man.”

The rate for women, 3.7 percent, was almost equal to the rate for men. But in 1969, newspapers were just as likely to focus on the negatives of increasing gender equality. Syndicated columnist Phyllis Battelle wrote that one consequence of women’s stronger economic status was that “more women are using more swear words” than ever. She quoted a male lawyer who said, “They just want to be listened to and think the shock of a word or a dirty story will accomplish the aim.”

Meanwhile, across the pond, on July 1, Prince Charles was crowned the 21st prince of Wales at the 600-year-old castle in the royal borough of Caernarfon. “The slim young man of 20, ermine-mantled” and dressed in a “high-collared blue uniform knelt before his mother the Queen,” the Guardian Journal reported. The Royal Regiment of Wales band played the tune, “Charlie Is My Darling.” This May 6, Charles will be crowned king at London’s Westminster Abbey.

In the United States in 1969, 26-year-old lawyer Joe Biden filed two lawsuits in Wilmington, Del., charging that a Penn Central train traveling at “excessive speed … negligently collided with autos,” injuring his client, the Wilmington News Journal reported. In New York, 23-year-old businessman Donald Trump became an investor in “Paris is Out!,” a comedy that opened on Broadway in early 1970. Trump, who was also the show’s associate producer, lost money on the show, which closed after 96 performances.

In July, the future of a leading politician took a deadly turn. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) “narrowly escaped death early yesterday when his car plunged into a pond on a sparsely inhabited island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard,” the Boston Globe reported on July 20. His passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, died. Kennedy, 37, was driving over the narrow bridge from Chappaquiddick Island to Martha’s Vineyard. Continuing questions about the accident helped doom Kennedy’s presidential hopes.

Americans were already dealing with the aftermath of other high-profile deaths. That year, James Earl Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison after pleading guilty to the 1968 murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. In California, Sirhan Sirhan was found guilty of murdering Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in Los Angeles in 1968 and sentenced to prison for life.

In August, police found the bodies of actress Sharon Tate and four others at the Los Angeles home of Tate and her husband, film director Roman Polanski, in what police called “a ritualistic mass murder,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “On the front door of the home, written in blood, was one word: ‘Pig.’” Later, police arrested Charles Manson, who was described as the “high priest of the communal cult.” Manson and others in the “Manson family” were convicted of murder and received life sentences.

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But spirits soared on July 20 when all eyes — and TV sets — turned to the skies. “That’s one small step for man,” declared astronaut Neil Armstrong at 10:56 p.m. Eastern time as his feet touched the moon’s surface, “one giant leap for mankind.” The Eagle had landed, and more than 600 million people tuned in to watch worldwide.

The joy turned more terrestrial in August at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair at a farm in Bethel, N.Y., near the town of Woodstock. Over three days, more than 400,000 young people flocked to the farm to see performers including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. At the time, though, it wasn’t universally reported as a triumph. “The 6,000 acre farm where the world’s biggest pop festival is being staged became a morass of mud, music and misery today following a four-hour downpour,” the New York Daily News reported.

For music fans, however, Woodstock was an antidote for the Beatles’ last public performance, above their Apple Records studio in London in January; the group would break up the next year. The group’s “Abbey Road” album became the best-selling album of the year. The top single record was “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies, and the biggest movie was “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. On TV, “Sesame Street” made its debut in November, and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” drew a record estimated 50 million viewers on Dec. 17 to see performer Tiny Tim get married to Victoria Mae “Miss Vicki” Budinger.

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New York had a big sports year. In January, quarterback “Broadway Joe” Namath led the New York Jets to a 16-7 win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III at Miami’s Orange Bowl. In October, the New York Mets won the franchise’s first World Series when the “Miracle Mets” beat the Baltimore Orioles in five games.

By December 1969, Nixon’s fight against inflation was flagging. “The trouble with inflation is that the more you talk about it, the more inflated it becomes,” explained humor columnist Art Buchwald. “When the government says it’s worried about inflation business gets worried, too, so they raise their prices to protect themselves against the inflation the government is talking about.”

The December 1969 the jobless rate was still 3.5 percent, but new employment was at “a virtual standstill,” the AP reported. Inflation was still rising. In 1970, unemployment climbed as high as 6.1 percent, and inflation hit 6.2 percent as the economy moved into a mild recession.

Economists differ on whether current anti-inflation efforts will send the economy into recession. The speculation mirrors a December 1969 headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about Nixon’s inflation-fighting plan: “1970 Recession? Who Knows?”

Ronald G. Shafer is the author of “Breaking News All Over Again,” a collection of his Washington Post Retropolis articles.

Editing by Aaron Wiener, Karly Domb Sadof and Haley Hamblin.