David S. Painter

Oil was an integral part of U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century, and its influence has shown no sign of diminishing in the twenty-first century. Oil has been and continues to be central to military power and to modern industrial society, and possession of ample domestic oil supplies and control over access to foreign oil reserves is a significant, and often overlooked, element in the power position of the United States relative to its rivals. While demand for oil is worldwide, for most of the twentieth century the major industrial powers, with the significant exceptions of the United States and the Soviet Union, had meager domestic oil production, and, with the same two exceptions, the major oil producers were not industrial powers. Because of this disparity, struggles over access to oil have been an important focus of rivalry among the great powers and a significant source of conflict between oilconsuming industrial countries and oil-producing nonindustrial nations.

Control of oil has been intimately linked to broader political, military, and economic objectives. These larger foreign policy concerns have shaped the issue of control and have, in turn, been shaped by it. For example, all the major postwar doctrines of U.S. foreign policy—the Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan doctrines—relate, either directly or indirectly, to the Middle East and its oil.

The history of oil and foreign policy also provides important insights into the relationship between private power and public policy that are crucial to understanding the nature and development of U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century. Finally, the impact of oil use on the environment has become almost as important an issue as access to oil.


Adelman, M. A. The World Petroleum Market. Baltimore, 1972. Attempt to apply neoclassical economics to world oil markets.

——. The Genie Out of the Bottle: World Oil Since 1970. Cambridge, Mass., 1995. Continues the analysis to the 1990s.

Anderson, Irvine H. The Standard-Vacuum Oil Company and United States East Asian Policy, 1933–1941. Princeton, N.J., 1975. Oil and Pearl Harbor.

——. Aramco, the United States, and Saudi Arabia: A Study in the Dynamics of Foreign Oil Policy, 1933–1950. Princeton, N.J., 1981. Stimulating combination of business history and foreign policy analysis from a perspective that plays down industry influence.

Blair, John M. The Control of Oil. New York, 1976. Classic study of the oligopolistic organization of the oil industry.

Bromley, Simon. American Hegemony and World Oil: The Industry, the State System, and the World Economy. University Park, Pa., 1991. Critical account of the role of oil in under-pinning U.S. hegemony within the global system.

Clark, John G. The Political Economy of World Energy: A Twentieth-Century Perspective. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990. Full of useful information and statistics.

Eckes, Alfred E., Jr. The United States and the Global Struggle for Minerals. Austin, Texas, 1979. Study of oil and other minerals as sources of conflict.

Engler, Robert. The Politics of Oil: A Study of Private Power and Democratic Directions. New York, 1961. Classic study of the impact of private power on American democracy.

Goode, James. The United States and Iran: In the Shadow of Mussaddiq. New York, 1997. Perceptive account of the oil nationalization crisis.

Heiss, Mary Ann. Empire and Nationhood: The United States, Great Britain, and Iranian Oil, 1950–1954. New York, 1997. Solid study, focusing on Anglo-American relations.

Kapstein, Ethan B. The Insecure Alliance: Energy Crises and Western Politics Since 1944. New York, 1990. Solid study of oil and the Western alliance.

Koppes, Clayton R. "The Good Neighbor Policy and the Nationalization of Mexican Oil: A Reinterpretation." Journal of American History 69 (June 1982): 62–81.

Lesser, Ian O. Resources and Strategy. London and New York, 1989.

Levy, Walter J. Oil Strategy and Politics, 1941–1981. Edited by Melvin A. Conant. Boulder, Colo., 1982. Collection of papers by a leading oil consultant compiled by another leading industry analyst.

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Meyer, Lorenzo. Mexico and the United States in the Oil Controversy, 1917–1942. Translated by Muriel Vasconcellos. Austin, Texas, 1977. Oil and U.S.–Mexican relations as seen by a leading Mexican scholar.

Miller, Aaron David. Search for Security: Saudi Arabian Oil and American Foreign Policy, 1939–1949. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980. Pioneering study of the origins of the special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia; very informative on security issues and the Palestine question.

Nye, David E. Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. Cambridge, Mass., 1998. Valuable for long-term perspective.

Painter, David S. Oil and the American Century: The Political Economy of U.S. Foreign Oil Policy, 1941–1953. Baltimore, 1986. Detailed examination of U.S. foreign oil policy during the critical transition years of World War II and the early Cold War and an important source for this essay.

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——. "Oil and World Power." Diplomatic History 17 (winter 1993): 159–170. Analysis of oil's contribution to U.S. power based on a critical review of Yergin and Bromley and a source for this essay.

Palmer, Michael A. Guardians of the Gulf: A History of America's Expanding Role in the Persian Gulf, 1833–1992. New York, 1992. Useful overview.

Patterson, Matthew. "Car Culture and Global Environmental Politics." Review of International Studies 26 (2000): 253–270. Insightful on the symbiosis between the automobile and oil use.

Penrose, Edith T. The Large International Firm in Developing Countries: The International Petroleum Industry. Cambridge, Mass., 1969. Indispensable to understanding the operations of vertically integrated corporations.

Philip, George. The Political Economy of International Oil. Edinburgh, 1994. Concise and analytical historical account focusing on relations between the oil companies and Third World oil producers.

Rabe, Stephen G. The Road to OPEC: United States Relations with Venezuela, 1919–1976. Austin, Texas, 1982. Solid study of relations with important Latin American producer.

Randall, Stephen J. United States Foreign Oil Policy, 1919–1948: For Profits and Security. Kingston, Ontario, 1985. Especially strong on Latin America.

Sampson, Anthony. The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies and the World They Shaped. New York, 1975. Colorful and insightful study of the major oil companies.

Schneider, Steven A. The Oil Price Revolution. Baltimore, 1983. Detailed examination of the origins and consequences of the oil shocks of the 1970s.

Skeet, Ian. OPEC: Twenty-Five Years of Prices and Politics. New York, 1988. Dispassionate and well-informed.

Skeet, Ian, ed. Paul Frankel, Common Carrier of Common Sense: A Selection of His Writings, 1946–1988. New York, 1989. Includes Frankel's classic Essentials of Petroleum (1946), a basic work for understanding the oil industry.

Stivers, William. Supremacy and Oil: Iraq, Turkey, and the Anglo-American World Order, 1918–1930. Ithaca, N.Y., 1982. Analysis of oil and Anglo-American relations in the 1920s.

Stoff, Michael B. Oil, War, and American Security: The Search for a National Policy on Foreign Oil, 1941–1947. New Haven, Conn., 1980. Examines oil and Anglo-American relations during World War II.

United States Senate, Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations. Multinational Oil Corporations and U.S. Foreign Policy. Washington, D.C., 1975. Critical report based on the invaluable work of the Church Committee in the mid-1970s.

Venn, Fiona. Oil Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. New York, 1986. Pioneering study stressing oil's strategic importance.

Vernon, Raymond, ed. The Oil Crisis. New York, 1976. Still the best study of the 1973–1974 oil crisis.

Vietor, Richard H. K. Energy Policy in America Since 1945: A Study of Business-Government Relations. New York, 1984. Useful account of energy policy from a pluralist perspective.

Yergin, Daniel. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. New York, 1991. Anecdotal but comprehensive and informative, a treasure-trove of information with an extensive bibliography.

See also Collective Security ; Environmental Diplomacy ; Globalization ; Multinational Corporations ; The National Interest .

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