The history of oil and foreign policy provides many examples of the links between the internal organization of the United States and its external behavior. Oil and the automobile have been potent symbols of the American way of life since the second decade of the twentieth century, and American popular culture has come to equate the private automobile and personal mobility with individual freedom. Thus, when it became clear in the 1940s that U.S. domestic oil production would soon no longer be able to meet domestic demand, American leaders looked abroad for additional sources of oil. The alternative of reducing, or at least slowing, the growth of rapidly rising consumption was not considered.
Remarks by Secretary of Defense James Forrestal in early January 1948 illustrate this tendency to look to external expansion to solve internal problems rather than confronting them directly. Meeting with the head of the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company to discuss the impact of turmoil over Palestine on access to Middle East oil, Forrestal stated that he "was deeply concerned about the future supply of oil for this country, not merely for the possible use in war but for the needs of peace." He then warned that unless we had access to Middle East oil, American motor-car companies would have to design a four-cylinder motor-car sometime within the next five years." Annual per capita oil consumption in the United States in 1948 was 14.4 barrels. Had U.S. public policy, through the preservation of public transportation, the promotion of efficiency, and other measures (including four-cylinder motorcars), maintained this level of oil use, the United States would have consumed significantly less oil over the following half century, with consequent benefits for the environment, the quality of life, and U.S. oil security. Instead, U.S. oil consumption climbed steadily, reaching an annual per capita level of 31 barrels in 1978. Although it declined sharply for a brief period in the early 1980s, annual per capita oil consumption soon renewed its upward trend, reaching 26.1 barrels in 1999.