Historical Social Research

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David S. Painter: Oil and Geopolitics: The Oil Crises of the 1970s and the Cold War. [Abstract]

Examination of the geopolitics of oil in the 1970s provides important insights into the nature and dynamics of the Cold War. Possession of ample domestic oil supplies and the ability to ensure access to foreign oil reserves were significant elements in the power position of the United States in its Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. U.S. oil production peaked in 1970, however, making the United States increasingly dependent on oil imports and ending its ability to provide oil to its allies during supply interruptions. At the same time, economic nationalism and war and revolution in the Middle East led to disruptions in supply and sharp increases in oil prices in 1973-74 and again in 1978-80. In contrast, the Soviet Union overtook the United States as the world’s leading oil producer in the 1970s, and the windfall from higher oil prices helped support Soviet military and economic power and involvement in the Third World. The oil crises raised questions about the ability of the United States to ensure access to Middle East oil, heightened concerns about the dangers of Western dependence on Third World resources, and fed fears that the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War. Although the oil crises of 1970s initially harmed the United States and its allies and contributed to the demise of détente, they also set in motion changes that led to the end of the Cold War.

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