In 1973, The oil embargo was enforced against the U.S. by the Arab oil-producing states because they were unhappy with the aid the U.S. supplied to Israel’s military. By the time the embargo lifted in 1974, world oil prices had quadrupled, leading to recession and inflation. Long lines at the pumps and gas rationing were part of the experience for Americans.
The embargo flipped the global power structure overnight. From oil producers who served at the whims of western countries and big oil companies, the OPEC states became wealthy and powerful, able to cause the mightiest nations in the world to tremble at the thought of having their oil supply cut.
The U.S. paid what OPEC demanded for their oil, but recently released documents show that they considered other methods to deal with the situation. British documents declassified in 2004 show that the U.S. considered using their military to seize OPEC oil.
No specific military plans were discussed but a conversation between U.S. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and the British ambassador to the U.S., Lord Cromer, was recorded.
Schlesinger made a comment to the effect that “it was no longer obvious to him that the U.S. could not use force. An interesting outcome of the Middle East crisis was that the notion of the industrialized nations being continuously submitted to whims of the underpopulated under-developed countries, particularly of the Middle East, might well change public perceptions about the use of the power that was available to the U.S. and the Alliance.”
The British prime minister, Edward Heath, was so concerned by Schlesinger’s comments, combined with similar comments from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, that he ordered British intelligence to investigate U.S. intentions. Their report concluded that the U.S. “might consider it could not tolerate a situation in which the U.S. and its allies were at the mercy of a small group of unreasonable countries. We believe the American preference would be for a rapid operation conducted by themselves to seize oilfields… The force required for the initial operation would be of the order of two brigades, one for Saudi operation, one for Kuwait and possibly a third for Abu Dhabi.
We believe the American preference would be for a rapid operation conducted by themselves to seize oilfields… The force required for the initial operation would be of the order of two brigades, one for Saudi operation, one for Kuwait and possibly a third for Abu Dhabi.
“The build-up would require the presence of a substantial U.S. naval force in the Indian Ocean, considerably more than the present force. After the initial assaults… two [extra] divisions could be flown in from the USA.”
The British Joint Intelligence Committee concluded that seizing oils fields with 28 billion tons in reserve would have sufficiently supplied the U.S. and its allies. The occupation would “need to last 10 years as the West developed alternative energy sources, and would result in the ‘total alienation’ of the Arabs and much of the rest of the Third World.” The British intelligence officers were also concerned about how the Soviets would react to such a move by the Americans.
The actual seizure would not have been much of a problem for the U.S. Their troops were out of Vietnam. The Arab countries did not have much of a military presence in 1973. Seeing how Iraq’s forces managed against the U.S. in 1990 gives some idea of the amount of resistance the OPEC nations would have been able to put up in 1973.
In the nineteenth century, Teddy Roosevelt’s “gunboat diplomacy” would have almost certainly used force. But in the twentieth century, the U.S. and the rest of the world paid what was demanded of them.
For the U.S., the embargo could not have come at a worse time. U.S. oil production was in decline, and inflation was rising, Nixon was battling the Watergate scandal, America was just out of Vietnam, its military was in disarray, and the last thing the public wanted was another war. Occupation of the Middle East would have likely required the draft and with the draft, the protests, and riots of the Sixties.
An American occupation would have likely been just that, American. The British were uninterested. NATO countries had already registered their disapproval of U.S. support for Israel and would not likely have assisted in aggression against an Arab country. The only country that might have supported the US would have ironically been Iran, the U.S.’s main ally in the Gulf at the time.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 gives us an idea of what such an occupation would have been like. Then, as now, the only sane option seems to be developing a new energy solution and eliminating our reliance on other countries.