Hudson Institute

From Fueling Victory to Running on Empty: Lessons from American Energy Policy in War and Peace

Sailor mechanics filling plane with gasoline at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, in  August 1942. (Universal History Archive via Getty Images)
Sailor mechanics filling a plane with gasoline at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, in August 1942. (Universal History Archive via Getty Images)

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Executive Summary

The purpose of this study is to draw important lessons from how the United States has handled its national energy policy in the past in order to guide policymakers and industry leaders in the future. 

In the end, this is a study in contrasts. In the case of World War II, the federal government successfully used America’s energy independence and abundance to help Great Britain survive the Nazi onslaught and then to win a two-front world war, the greatest victory in history. 

In the case of the 1970s, the United States became dependent on others, specifically the Middle East, for its energy prosperity. As a result, America lost control over not only its ability to conduct foreign policy but also its economy. 

Construction of the Big Inch oil pipelines, the most extensive government energy project ever created, epitomized America’s successful national energy strategy in World War II. This project enabled the United States to literally fuel victory over the Axis. 

The Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the dramatic rise in the price of oil imposed by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) severely damaged the US economy, set back global growth for nearly a generation, and symbolized the failure of America’s energy strategy in that decade. 

The end of this study will summarize the key lessons from these two contrasting approaches to a national energy strategy. However, two stand out:

  • Energy independence—and having access to cheap, abundant energy—is an essential prerequisite for American national and economic security.
  • A national energy strategy that relies on the expertise of leading energy executives and engineers in the private sector will tend to be successful; one that ignores their advice and assistance will tend to fail. 

Whether America will enjoy energy security as it faces the challenges of the twenty-first century will depend on many factors. But drawing the right lessons from these two contrasting historical eras can prepare the way for a new era of energy abundance and national power. 

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