From George Washington to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the national debt tended to grow in wartime and shrink in peacetime. Because the dollar was generally convertible into gold or silver at a fixed and statutory rate, the central bank, when there was a central bank, couldn't just materialize money as the Federal Reserve does today. You had to dig the metal out of the Earth, or entice it into American vaults with money-friendly financial policies. The Treasury could borrow, all right, but not without limit. Wars aside, the government paid its way like a man with a debit card.
Washington, D.C., got its credit card on Sunday, Aug. 15, 1971. Pre-empting the horse opera "Bonanza," President Richard Nixon told a national television audience that the gold standard, or what little of it remained, was kaput. No more would the dollar be defined in law as 1/35th of an ounce of gold. It would rather be anchored by the good intentions of the people who printed it.
There has never been a credit card quite like the nonmetallic dollar. We Americans, consuming much more than we produce, finance our deficits with the dollars that we alone may lawfully print. Our Asian creditors not only accept this money in payment for goods and services but also turn right around and invest it in U.S. Treasury bonds and federally insured mortgages. It's as if the greenbacks never left the 50 states.
The Nixon gambit marks a great divide. In the 10 years before 1971, the "gross" public debt (counting even those obligations held by the government itself) had climbed to $408 billion from $293 billion. This increase amounted to a compound annual rate of only 3.4%, the Great Society and the Vietnam War notwithstanding. In the next 10 years, till 1981, the gross debt jumped to $995 billion from $408 billion—a compound annual rate of 9.3%, the close of the Great Society and the end of the Vietnam War notwithstanding. Not until fiscal 2001 did the debt reach $5.8 trillion. Yet it expanded by an identical $5.8 trillion in the four short years between 2007 and 2011. Now the grand total stands at $15.6 trillion.