Oil Scarcity Ideology in US National Security Policy, 1909‐1980

Working Papers

Published By

Program on Energy and Sustainable Development

February 2013

cover wp 105 stern oil scarcity ideology 08 february 2013


Over the past century peak oil forecasts have had a profound influence on US national security policy.  Unquestioned acceptance of a variety of oil scarcity forecasts, all of which proved wrong, repeatedly led policymakers to assume that rival powers sought to seize dwindling supplies.  Perennial expectation of resource conflict gradually elevated the perceived importance of Middle East (ME) oil, which was thought to be the last left on earth.  In response, increasingly aggressive US policies were adopted to secure a US share of ME oil.  Belief in a scarcity imperative for aggressive policy is here called “oil scarcity ideology.” Over the course of three iterations of the scarcity syndrome from 1909 to 1980, pre-emptive action to avert scarcity became a national security norm. 

During the 1970s Cold War scarcity ideology became particularly complex and dangerous.  Widespread belief in a new generation of peak oil forecasts engendered fear that an Arab oil weapon could cripple the US economy.  Even more ominously, the CIA forecast an impending Soviet production collapse.  From these two forecasts security experts inferred that an oil-starved USSR would try to seize Iranian oil production by force.  If the Soviets were not deterred by President Carter’s verbal warning against such action, some security experts urged that the US must launch its own invasion, occupying Iran’s oilfields to preempt the Soviets from seizing them.  If conventional force failed to halt the Red Army, the US must resort to nuclear war. In conjuring this oil-marauding USSR from scarcity ideology, security policymakers actively disregarded a great deal of market information indicating that global production would not soon peak and that Soviet production would not soon collapse.  The non-apocalyptic outlook was shared by a large cohort of market analysts, academics and government agencies.  Nonetheless, the National Security Council (NSC) was able to persuade the President to proclaim that the US would use unlimited force to protect Persian Gulf oil supply.  Carter’s threat, now known as the Carter Doctrine, has rationalized Persian Gulf force projection ever since.

The essay plan is as follows.  I first describe early iterations of the scarcity syndrome that recurred around the 20th century World Wars.  In both iterations, scientists and high officials of the Department of the Interior convinced national security policymakers that (i) US oil would soon run out, (ii) that Western Hemisphere supply could not meet the shortfall, therefore (iii) aggressive policies were required to wrest a share of ME oil from rival powers.  I then describe how peak oil theories advanced during WW2 formed the basis of Cold War scarcity ideology, in which the Soviet Union played the rival’s role. Finally, I consider implications of this historical record for international security theory.  My research utilizes two sources not widely available, (i) recently declassified documents from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and (ii) the historic petroleum trade journal collection of The University of Tulsa’s McFarlin Library. 

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