It was Sunday night on Aug. 15, 1971, and many Americans were watching television — the most popular show that evening being the Western series “Bonanza.” (Older readers will recall that it chronicled the adventures of the Cartwright family — Ben, his three sons and their Chinese cook — on their Ponderosa Ranch in Nevada.) At 9 p.m. Eastern time, the Cartwrights and their rivals on the other two networks were interrupted by the somewhat less popular figure of President Richard Nixon.
The word “bonanza,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was introduced into American English in the 1880s to describe a highly productive or profitable mine, such as the silver mines of the Comstock Lode in Cartwright country. Ironically, Nixon was disrupting Sunday evening to tell Americans that the days of precious metal were over. The link between the U.S. dollar and gold — a link that dated back to the country’s adoption of the gold standard nearly a century before — was to be severed. The age of fiat money — that is, of currency backed by nothing more than the credibility of the U.S. Treasury — had dawned.