Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 3 No. 2 Summer 1981

could combine more errors of perception, understanding, analysis and policy in dealing with Iran. Neither he nor Nixon exhibited any sense of that nation’s history, or even of its intensely religious and nationalistic pride. And they obviously assumed that Iranians had accepted or forgotten that the United States had grossly intervened to control the resources and the government of that country even before overthrowing an elected government in the 1950s. Given all that, it is not surprising that they embarked upon a policy doomed to failure. In embracing and arming the Shah, in truth a petty despot, they committed America’s geopolitical interests to a government guaranteed to generate every growing internal opposition to its pretensions. And in supporting, even encouraging, the despot to raise the price of oil to pay for his Tinkertoy regime they undercut the foundation of the American imperial way of life they sought to preserve. The oil crisis is not a simple matter of the poor determined to become rich. It defines far more important issues. It asks to what lengths the United States is prepared to deny its commitment to self-determination, to freedom and liberty, in order to preserve its imperial way of life. The Palestinians are as much human beings as the Israelis. And so we come ever closer to the dangers inherent in lying to ourselves about our imperial way of life. Eating Our cake America began to produce oil near Titusville, Pennsylvania, on August 27, 1859. Fifty years later the United States pumped more than the rest of the world combined. The political economy of capitalism shifted away from coal and neglected to explore other sources of energy. There was a short but intense oil scare between 1917 and 1924, a hullabaloo created by the Navy shifting to oil-fired turbines, the Mexican revolution, the boom in automobiles and airplanes, the beginnings of the petrochemical industry and the struggle for market supremacy (and survival) among American petroleum corporations. That crisis disappeared in the cloud of confidence puffed up by the finding of new reserves abroad (as in Venezuela), by new discoveries at home (as in Texas), by more efficient exploration and production at home and—most particularly—by gaining access to the vast reserves in Saudi Arabia and other poor and weak countries in the Middle East. No better example ever of the rewards of empire as a way of life. But make no mistake, we also came to rely on other cheap materials from the provinces. The United States continued to produce half the world’s oil until, in 1948, it became a net importer of oil. True imperial dependency upon the natives. But a statement by John McCloy that we should “have our cake and eat it too” perfectly captures the euphoria of the imperial way of life as applied to oil. Americans, citizens as well as leaders, simply assumed that they could sell their oil abroad for a good profit while importing it from the provinced at pennies a barrel. The imperial way of life was disrupted by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in 1973-74. But the oil-fired empire, once symbolized by the Navy and now by intercontinental bombers, could not talk about the problem in a realistic way simply because it had never come to terms with its imperial way of life. The euphemisms began to dissolve. The United States supported the creation of Israel for three reasons: a commitment to the principle of self-determination, the financial and political power of Jews in domestic American politics and the imperial usefulness of Israel as a client state in the oil-rich Middle East. The problem was that the Palestinians also had a right to self-determined nationhood, and oil was a most effective way to make that point. And so the crisis deepened. Kissinger said it all in one sentence: The United States must somehow “shape events in the light of our own purposes.” A marvelously subtle definition of empire. But note particularly that somehow. What a Americans, citizens as well as leaders, simply assumed that they could sell their oil abroad for a good profit while importing it from the provinces at *pennies a barrel. wonderful way of avoiding any coming to terms with the reality of empire. But to evade that moment of truth means again going to war. No candor, more flight from reality. More flight, no peace. No chance finally to confront the central challenge: Is the idea and reality o f America possible without empire? IV WE COME full circle. History never provides programmatic answers. But it does guide one to ask the right questions—and that is crucial to developing the right answers. It all calls to mind, once again, the wise observation offered by Carl Becker. We Americans must “be always transforming the world into [our] idea of it.” Such a culture, “ knowing that it is right,... wishes only to go ahead. Satisfied with certain conventional premises, it hastens on to the obvious conclusion.” More than a bit like Wright Morris—we do duck off. What are the right questions? I suggest that they are the same ones that Eugene Debs and Charles Beard—even Herbert Hoover—began to ask two generations ago. Asking the right questions is what we are about. I do not think that even Debs, let alone Beard or Hoover, have given us the right answers. Those people are important because they asked the right questions. The best thing that can be said for our American empire is that we produced some very good questions. Now is the time to begin answering those questions. Say regional socialism: push through the implications of the Tennessee Valley Authority, for example; o r. . . whatever you have given serious through to developing into a program. I like to return to the question raised by our history. Is the idea and reality of America possible without empire? Can you even imagine America as not an empire? I think often these days about the relationship between those two words—imagination and empire—and wonder if they are incompatible. The truth of it is that I think they are incompatible. So there we are. Do you want to imagine a new America or do you want to preserve the empire? Now, as surely we all know, preserving the empire is an exercise in futility. We will sizzle or suffocate. So let us get on with imagining a new America. Once we imagine it, break out of the imperial idiom, we just might be able to create a nonimperial America. 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