On December 4, 1973, roughly 100 long-haul truckers parked their rigs on Interstate 80 on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware Water Gap and effectively shut down traffic on a well-traveled section of a transcontinental expressway. The truckers’ action followed weeks of gasoline shortages and uncertainty about the nation’s fuel supply. In October, the oil-producing nations of the Persian Gulf had announced an embargo on imports to the United States in order to punish the country for siding with Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Service stations ran short of gasoline. Panicky drivers made the problem worse by repeatedly topping off their tanks in anticipation of future shortfalls, which clogged gas stations and forced other drivers to waste fuel waiting in line. But the shutdown in Pennsylvania—which soon evolved into an unofficial strike by tens of thousands of drivers—introduced an element of chaotic violence to the crisis. Striking truckers slashed tires and cut brake lines. A driver in Pennsylvania died when a striker on an overpass dropped a rock on his vehicle, smashing the windshield. In Delaware, someone shot a trucker from a passing car with a 12-gauge shotgun. The chaos on the roads underscored the frustration, bordering on desperation, of the general public. Winter was coming, along with a seasonal surge in demand for fuel, heat, and electricity, and there was no end in sight to the petroleum shortage.
In Panic at the Pump, historian Meg Jacobs recounts the events that produced the truckers’ strike—namely, an “energy Pearl Harbor” that threatened the US economy and car culture—and their consequences for US politics and public policy. She begins her story in 1948, when a Yale-educated World War II veteran named George H.W. Bush turned down a job with his father’s New York investment bank (though not his critical business connections) in order to seek his fortune in the Texas oil patch. She concludes it in the early 1990s, when the same George Bush, now president of the United States, ordered US troops to the Middle East in order to check the territorial ambitions of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and to keep Gulf oil flowing. But the bulk of her book takes place in the 1970s, when an American way of life—driving gas-guzzling cars made in Detroit around a low-density suburban environment—seemed like it might be lost forever. Jacobs explains how oil politics provoked divisive policy battles within the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, and between those presidents and Congress. And she shows how several years of highly active, at times even frenetic policy-making failed to offer striking truckers, frustrated families, and energy-starved utilities what they had all come to rely on: plentiful energy from refined fossil fuels at a reasonable price. The result, Jacobs notes, was a decade-long “object lesson in the limitations of governmental power” that divided the Democratic Party, helped elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency, and gave an edge to free-market conservatives as they made their case for further deregulation and decontrol of the economy.
Jacobs, a historian at Princeton University, tells this story in a straightforward and accessible narrative style. Indeed, her narrative is a little too straightforward—an occasional pause for some extended scene-setting or the longer introduction of a key historical figure would have offered a welcome change of pace. Jacobs hasn’t stumbled upon a previously obscure topic here: The gas lines generated enormous media attention in their day, and the oil embargo is a staple of undergraduate classes and popular histories of the 1970s. But she has unearthed an immense quantity of internal correspondence, policy memos, and public statements from multiple administrations that help explain how the crisis played out behind closed doors along the corridors of power. Instead of retelling a well-worn story about the US economy temporarily “held hostage” by a bunch of “Arab sheiks,” Jacobs explores the deeper transformation of policy ideas made possible by the energy crisis and the way that Washington insiders handled it. She shows how the issue pitted Republicans against Republicans and Democrats against Democrats, and how presidents in both parties made decisions that openly contradicted their gut instincts on economics, often for fleeting moments of short-term political advantage. Indeed, the chaos within the DC policy establishment made the actions of the striking truckers seem, in one sense, almost orderly: At least the people driving the big rigs knew what they wanted.