Energy and Our Nationalist Moment

This post is part of our July “Unexpected America” blog series, focused on intriguing or surprising American history research from 1776 to today. Check back with us all month to see what new scholarship our authors have to share! (Photo Credit Nicholas Raymond)



Between the Brexit vote, with British voters endorsing the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, and the American presidential campaign, with Donald Trump calling for putting “America First” and decrying free trade, many in the west are rejecting international cooperation and endorsing nationalism instead. Leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage—head of the United Kingdom Independence Party—has called for commemorating the vote as Britain’s “Independence Day.” On June 28, Donald Trump endorsed “declaring American economic independence.”


Opponents to Farage and Trump point to the numerous advantages provided by international cooperation, but implicitly concede a fundamental point: that once we (Britain, the US) were independent, and now we are not.


This impulse towards nationalism and away from a perception of constraint by others is particularly evident with energy. Trump himself has declared that “under my presidency we will accomplish complete American energy independence.” This call evokes a time before the 1970s, before gas lines and embargoes, before OPEC and ever-growing oil imports, when the US was the world’s dominant net exporter of oil. A time when domestic production met the needs of domestic consumption. When America’s vast coal deposits weren’t hampered by environmental regulations and when mining companies employed millions of workers. When oil prices were so low, you didn’t have to think about fuel economy, let alone global warming.

Yet even in the early twentieth century, when the United States imported very little fuel of any kind, the country was never energy independent. And even if it continues to decrease its oil imports, will likely never become energy independent in the future.


My book, Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America, examines the century between 1840, when the United States began adopting steam power for its oceanic steamships, and 1940, when World War II opened a new era in American engagement with the world. Even in the early nineteenth century, when the US produced its sources of power domestically, it became entrenched in global fueling networks. Domestic production hardly guaranteed independence of action.


In the nineteenth century, the United States produced its own coal, and later in the century its own oil, but it was often unclear whether the country could move fuel from where it was abundant to where it was not. Americans struggled to secure ideal varieties of coal for its merchant ships and naval vessels when operating far from American shores. In the 1840s and 1850s, this struggle for coal hampered American efforts to build a global communications network to support American trade. During the Civil War, the Union faced both physical and diplomatic obstacles in securing coal in the Caribbean, and after the war these obstacles led to new principles in international law for fueling belligerent states—rules that brought both new constraints and new obligation to the United States. At the same time, it was the prospect of mining foreign coal that led Abraham Lincoln to pursue a proposed colony of free black emigrants in what is now Panama. In the late nineteenth century, the inability of the United States to secure fuel abroad shaped the country’s naval strategy and development of its new fleet of steel warships. In the early twentieth century, American strategists began developing a science of logistics to manage the consequences of a total dependence on fossil fuels.


Energy independence is an evocative phrase but it ignores the long reality of energy interdependence—and interdependence is a necessary consequence of engaging with the rest of the world.




Peter A. Shulman is an assistant professor of history at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of Coal & Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America.