In Panic at the Pump, historian Meg Jacobs provides a fascinating account of the energy crisis that consumed America during the 1970s, highlighting the twin Arab oil shocks of 1973 and 1979. The initial shock came largely due to American support of Israel in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 when OPEC flexed its increasing muscles by implementing an oil embargo to the United States.
Jacobs artfully depicts the tensions Americans experienced as a result of the crisis, including long gas lines in which tempers flared – with occasional riots. After their extended waits, angry motorists often received limited quantities of gas and unfortunately, in some cases no gas at all. All consumers experienced a significant price increase for the little gas they did receive, and grassroots movements emerged to pressure Washington into taking constructive action, most notably the Truckers Strikes of 1973 and the conservation movement as a whole. Amidst that backdrop, Jacobs highlights responses and attempted solutions proffered by the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, each of which did not effectively resolve the energy crisis. The core of the work centers around the argument that as a result of the crises and the failed government solutions, American politics moved to the right and began a long era of deregulation and limited government with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, a stark contrast to the New Deal bureaucracy that had been in place for nearly a half century. Jacobs contends that while the presidents of the 1970s advocated for American self-sufficiency in terms of energy (Nixon and Ford via deregulation and Carter through exploration of alternative energy sources and austerity measures), Reagan abandoned the notion of energy self-sufficiency and instead made access to oil a central part of the nation’s foreign policy efforts, something made abundantly clear by Reagan’s Vice-President and eventual successor, George Herbert Walker Bush and the 1991 war against Iraq.
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Jacobs states that while Vietnam and Watergate shocked the nation, “the failure of the nation’s politicians to address the energy crisis contributed to the erosion of faith that Americans had in their government to solve their problems” and while “the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal taught Americans that their government lied, the energy crisis showed them that their government didn’t work.