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How World War I created our dependence on oil

How World War I created our dependence on oil thumbnail

On July 7, 1919, a group of U.S. military members dedicated Zero Milestone – the point from which all road distances in the country would be measured – just south of the White House lawn in Washington, D.C.

The next morning, they helped to define the future of the nation.

Instead of an exploratory rocket or deep-sea submarine, these explorers set out in 42 trucks, five passenger cars and an assortment of motorcycles, ambulances, tank trucks, mobile field kitchens, mobile repair shops and Signal Corps searchlight trucks. During the first three days of driving, they managed about five miles an hour. This was most troubling, because their goal was to explore the condition of American roads by driving across the U.S.

Participating in this exploratory party was U.S. Army Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower. Though he played a critical role in 20th-century U.S. history, his passion for roads might have carried the most significant impact on the domestic front. This trek caught the nation and the young soldier at a crossroads.

Returning from World War I, Ike was entertaining the idea of leaving the military and accepting a civilian job. His decision to remain proved pivotal. By the end of the first half of the century, the roadscape – transformed with an interstate highway system while he was president – helped remake the nation and the lives of its occupants.

For Ike, though, roadways represented not only domestic development but also national security. By the early 1900s, it become clear to many administrators that petroleum was a strategic resource to the nation’s present and future.

At the start of World War I, the world had an oil glut since there were few practical uses for it beyond kerosene for lighting. When the war was over, the developed world had little doubt that a nation’s future standing in the world was predicated on access to oil. “The Great War” introduced a 19th-century world to modern ideas and technologies, many of which required inexpensive crude.

Camp Logan, a World War I training camp located on what is now Memorial Park in Houston, could house about 45,000 men. Photo: Xx

Photo: Xx

Camp Logan, a World War I training camp located on what is now Memorial Park in Houston, could house about 45,000 men.


Prime movers and national security

During and after World War I, there was a dramatic change in energy production, shifting heavily away from wood and hydropower and toward fossil fuels – coal and oil. In comparison to coal, when used in vehicles and ships, oil brought flexibility, as it could be transported with ease and used in different types of vehicles.

That represented a new type of weapon and a basic strategic advantage. Within a few decades of this energy transition, petroleum’s acquisition took on the spirit of an international arms race.

Even more significant, the international corporations that harvested oil throughout the world acquired a level of significance unknown to other industries, earning the encompassing name “Big Oil.” By the 1920s, Big Oil’s product – useless just decades before – had become the lifeblood of national security to the U.S. and Great Britain. From the start of this transition, the massive reserves held in the U.S. marked a strategic advantage with the potential to last generations.

As impressive as domestic oil production was from 1900-1920, however, the real revolution occurred on the international scene, as British, Dutch and French powers used corporations such as Shell, British Petroleum and others to begin developing oil wherever it was found.

During this era of colonialism, each nation applied its age-old method of economic development by securing petroleum in less developed portions of the world, including Mexico, the Black Sea area and the Middle East. Redrawing global geography based on resource supply (such as gold, rubber and even human labor or slavery) of course, was not new; doing so specifically for sources of energy was a striking change.


Crude on the battlefield

“World War I was a war that was fought between men and machines,” writes historian Daniel Yergin. “And these machines were powered by oil.”

When the war broke out, military strategy was organized around horses and other animals. With one horse on the field for every three men, such primitive modes dominated the fighting in this “transitional conflict.”

World War I soldiers in a trench at Verdun. The British wanted to overcome the stalemate of trench warfare through the introduction of an armored vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

World War I soldiers in a trench at Verdun. The British wanted to overcome the stalemate of trench warfare through the introduction of an armored vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.

Throughout the war, the energy transition took place from horsepower to gas-powered trucks and tanks and oil-burning ships and airplanes. Innovations put these new technologies into immediate action on the horrific battlefields of World War I.

It was the British, for instance, who set out to overcome the stalemate of trench warfare by devising an armored vehicle that was powered by the internal combustion engine. Under its code name “tank,” the vehicle was first used in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. And the British Expeditionary Force that went to France in 1914 was supported by a fleet of 827 motor cars and 15 motorcycles; by war’s end, the British army included 56,000 trucks, 23,000 motorcars and 34,000 motorcycles. These gas-powered vehicles offered superior flexibility on the battlefield.

 In the air and sea, the strategic change was more obvious. By 1915, Britain had built 250 planes. In this era of the Red Baron and others, primitive airplanes often required that the pilot pack his own sidearm and use it for firing at his opponent. More often, though, the flying devices could be used for delivering explosives in episodes of tactical bombing. German pilots applied this new strategy to severe bombing of England with zeppelins and later with aircraft. Over the course of the war, the use of aircraft expanded remarkably: Britain, 55,000 planes; France, 68,0000 planes; Italy, 20,000; U.S., 15,000; and Germany, 48,000.

With these new uses, wartime petroleum supplies became a critical strategic military issue. Royal Dutch/Shell provided the war effort with much of its supply of crude. Britain expanded even more deeply in the Middle East. In particular, Britain had quickly come to depend on the Abadan refinery site in Persia; when Turkey came into the war in 1915 as a partner with Germany, British soldiers defended it from Turkish invasion.

When the Allies expanded to include the U.S. in 1917, petroleum was a weapon on everyone’s mind. The Inter-Allied Petroleum Conference was created to pool, coordinate and control all oil supplies and tanker travel. The U.S. entry into the war made this organization necessary, because it had been supplying such a large portion of the Allied effort. As the producer of nearly 70 percent of the world’s oil supply, the U.S.’ greatest weapon might have been crude. President Woodrow Wilson appointed the nation’s first energy czar, whose responsibility was to work in close quarters with leaders of the American companies.

With the advent of planes, such as this one being built at the U.S. Army Airplane Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1918, wartime petroleum supplies became a critical strategic military issue.  Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG Via Getty Images

Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG Via Getty Images

With the advent of planes, such as this one being built at the U.S. Army Airplane Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1918, wartime petroleum supplies became a critical strategic military issue.


Infrastructure as a path to national power

When the young Eisenhower set out on his trek after the war, he deemed the party’s progress over the first two days “not too good” and as slow “as even the slowest troop train.” The roads they traveled across the U.S. Ike described as “average to nonexistent.” He continued:

“In some places, the heavy trucks broke through the surface of the road and we had to tow them out one by one, with the caterpillar tractor. Some days when we had counted on sixty or seventy or a hundred miles, we could do three or four.”

Eisenhower’s party completed its frontier trek and arrived in San Francisco on Sept. 6, 1919. Of course, the clearest implication that grew from Eisenhower’s trek was the need for roads. Unstated, however, was the symbolic suggestion that matters of transportation and of petroleum now demanded the involvement of the U.S. military, as it did in many industrialized nations.

The emphasis on roads and, later, particularly on Ike’s interstate system, was transformative; however, Eisenhower was overlooking the fundamental shift in which he participated. The imperative was clear: Whether through road-building initiatives or through international diplomacy, the use of petroleum by his nation and others was now a reliance that carried with it implications for national stability and security.

Seen through this lens of history, petroleum’s road to the center of human life begins neither in its ability to propel the Model T nor give form to the burping plastic Tupperware bowl. The imperative to maintain petroleum supplies begins with its necessity for each nation’s defense. Though petroleum use eventually made consumers’ lives simpler in numerous ways, its use by the military fell into a different category entirely. If the supply was insufficient, the nation’s most basic protections would be compromised.

After World War I in 1919, Eisenhower and his team thought they were determining only the need for roadways: “The old convoy,” he explained, “had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways.”

At the same time, though, they were declaring a political commitment by the U.S. And thanks to its immense domestic reserves, the U.S. was late coming to this realization. Yet after the “war to end all wars,” it was a commitment already being acted upon by other nations, notably Germany and Britain, each of whom lacked essential supplies of crude.



19 Comments on "How World War I created our dependence on oil"

  1. Sissyfuss on Thu, 6th Apr 2017 2:18 pm 

    Could our evolutionary tract have taken other path. Not a chance. Now our leaders have to set out on a journey through a bottleneck that narrows with passing day to find out what our true needs will be in a devolving world. And Trump ain’t no Ike.

  2. makati1 on Thu, 6th Apr 2017 5:55 pm 

    Ike was also an accomplice to the killing in DC when the ww1 vets went on strike for their bonus during the depression. His boss, MacArthur disobeyed the President and should have been court-martialed.

    The interstate road network was built to move the military not the citizens. The greed of the banksters and elite caused the great burbs to exist. They pushed cars and houses because it was more profitable than farms. So, now the U$ is doomed. As oil gets more and more less affordable, the collapse will accelerate into a wasteland of abandoned, derelict houses and strip malls.

    Oil built America. Oil is not destroying it.

  3. makati1 on Thu, 6th Apr 2017 5:56 pm 

    Ooops! …oil is now destroying it.

  4. dave thompson on Thu, 6th Apr 2017 10:48 pm 

    Great article. In a nut shell, no one thought it all through very well. Where we came from to today it was all about upfront profit.

  5. brough on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 3:55 am 

    A thought provoking article. In little as 100 years (3-4 generations) we burnt out a resource that built the greatest civilisation in human history. The petroleum empire.
    In the future our desendants (if there are any)will look back and see the ‘oil age’ as the shortest civilisation that ever lasted.

  6. deadlykillerbeaz on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 5:45 am 

    The Bonus Army squatted on the Mall during the summer of 1932. They wanted their bonus money for fighting in wars so the arms suppliers and manufacturers could become rich all over again.

    Got routed by MacArthur with some help from Patton and Eisenhower.

    Then in November, Roosevelt won the election.

    Not a mystery why Hoover never recovered from the embarrassment.

    Trump is just doing what all presidents do, it just never stops.

    If you want peace, you need cruise missles and a huge navy.

    All is fair in love and war. It is fair to use chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, any kind of weapons. It’s war, people are supposed to be killed. You need weapons to kill people during war. Any kind will do, humans know no bounds.

    In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row.

    Life goes on, but not for some.

  7. Davy on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 5:54 am 

    I get your point and my status quo side says “yea, we bad MF’s”. My spiritual side says: status quo side I don’t look at us as the greatest civilization. I see pre modern civilization as far superior from the point of view of harmony and sustainability with nature. Harmony and sustainability are directly related to species survivability. That should be a human type’s greatest marker. We are the greatest planetary destroying civilization. What is even greater than premodern civilizations is premodern semi-nomadic hunter gatherers that predated civilizations. If climate never would have become concussive to civilization we may still to this day be that human type. This human type will likely return if the current human type survives. Climate is going rouge and we as the greatest civilization of planetary destroyers will die down and simplify.

  8. Hello on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 6:43 am 

    Davy: I see pre modern civilization as far superior from the point of view of harmony and sustainability with nature.

    That’s not true. Pre-modern simply didn’t have the tools and force to do the destruction, but harmony with nature? There was no such thing. It was fight against nature and survival. Maybe some indigenous tribes in the amazon lived in harmony, but certainly not europeans.

  9. Davy on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 7:05 am 

    Pre-moderns didn’t have the tools and that is why they were in harmony. The primary ingredient was favorable climate for agriculture. It all unfolded from there. Man can’t handle these tools. When we did not know these tools we had a place in the greater earth ecosystem. We still spread extinction but on a very low impact level. Extinction allows evolution. In these low impact situations we opened up climax ecosystems so evolution could begin the process anew. Our large brains are an evolutionary dead end and when given the right tools we are a mass extinction species. That is what we were given and now we are destroying a planet.

    Hello go back to school on what “harmony with nature means”. There are many species that can become a plague species and invasive when the right conditions present themselves. We have proven that we are the worst of them. You are a typical human mind that call’s it a “fight” against nature. Survival is much different for a species. As a species it is all about connection to the greater ecosystem in mutual growth. An isolated and existentially alone ego thinks about all this as a “fight”. A spiritually enlightened human type connects to nature. You also talk about the “European”. The European is a modern and developed along with stable climate and agriculture. The European is the worst of the worst in regards to out of harmony and destructive. Yea, and as an American I possess this horribleness. You revel in it and I despise it.

  10. Cloggie on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 7:06 am 

    Maybe some indigenous tribes in the amazon lived in harmony

    Make that “fight for survival”.

    Being a non-human living creature means looking over your shoulder 24/7.

    There is no such thing as “living in harmony”; that’s gushing in the mold of fake Chief Seattle.

    Only technology enables a lifestyle where you no longer have to worry about naked physical survival. Instead “struggle for life” now means competing in a manufacturing or office environment for the financial/material goodies.

  11. onlooker on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 7:07 am 

    I think Hello, Davy was probably referring even more to pre-civilization of any kind. I fully concur as some here have noted civilization has functioned almost like a cancer upon the Earth

  12. onlooker on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 7:22 am 

    Clog, this fight for survival did not entail the wholesale contamination and destruction of habitats, ecosystems etc. No that is the province of modern civilization with technology. So the material goodies may seem now appealing but will not once this planet is virtually unlivable.

  13. Hello on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 7:55 am 


    I refered to europeans because that is the only culture I’m well enough educated in to judge. And I call it a fight against nature beause that’s what it was. Unlike flat-lander Clog, my family farmed in the Alps. Have you ever hayed a field with hand tools that was so steep you could hardly stand? Nothing about harmony there, only neckbreaking fight for survival, because the next winter is coming for sure.

    And yes, you are correct. I don’t really know what “in harmony with nature means”. For me it means you live from nature what is easily given to you. If you don’t get it you accept death as part of “harmony”, instead of coercing nature with all your might into giving more. But to be honest I don’t know of any culture that does that, hence my referel to some tribe in the amazon, because I don’t know better.

  14. Sissyfuss on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 10:16 am 

    Davy, even premodern biped hominids wiped out the mega fauna and destroyed their forests with various methods known at the time. We have never as a species lived in harmony with Nature because Nature does not allow it. We’ve had a fossil fueled honeymoon of 200 years or so that is rapidly coming to an end. Perhaps our coming reassessments will finally light the path to true harmony but it will be in much smaller numbers on a very denuded landscape. True humility can then at last enter our consciousness but at an enormous price to all.

  15. Dredd on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 10:22 am 

    A bit more realistic (The Shapeshifters of Bullshitistan – 5).

  16. Cloggie on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 10:47 am 

    Unlike flat-lander Clog, my family farmed in the Alps. Have you ever hayed a field with hand tools that was so steep you could hardly stand? Nothing about harmony there, only neckbreaking fight for survival, because the next winter is coming for sure.

    Fortunately for the Swiss, the “flatlanders”, including me, like the sight of the Alps and visit the country and pay high prices to enjoy the scenery. I know every m2 in Switzerland and especially Lauterbrunnen, Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg. Never missed my yearly visit since I was 14. Six hours drive to Basel. Without (skying) tourism, these valleys would not be as wealthy as they are now.

    Flatland farming privilege, many Swiss can only dream of:

    Earn your money in Holland and spend it in Switzerland, c.q. bring it to a bank there. 🙂

  17. makati1 on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 6:03 pm 

    “After The Collapse, the USA will have much further to fall than here. But I still can’t persuade any Amerikans to leave and get themselves organised in advance. Instead they fantasise about communities which are only going to cost a million dollars to set up, which of course is why they can’t start now. They need (apparently) to buy the land first, even though all that property ownership system is certain to collapse. They need concrete and steel and timber and power tools – imagine nailing without a nail gun, so much hard work!”

    Nice to be free…

  18. Davy on Fri, 7th Apr 2017 6:11 pm 

    makati, your tapping on your computer above 20MIL people with nowhere to go and you call that free? LOL. I call it trapped.

  19. makati1 on Sat, 8th Apr 2017 2:29 am 

    Davy, freedom is not having a government watch you shit. Freedom is no debt. No taxes. No boss. No Stress. As long as you live in the fascist police state called the U$, you are not free. The chains are all over you and you refuse to see them. Too bad.

    I can go anywhere I want, when I want. This is where I want to be. You have a problem with that obviously. Jealous? Probably. Those chains are getting heavy and the rope around your neck is tightening. LMAO

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