Priest on Jacobs, 'Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s'

Meg Jacobs
Tyler Priest

Meg Jacobs. Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s. New York: Hill and Wang, 2016. 371 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8090-5847-1.

Reviewed by Tyler Priest (University of Iowa)
Published on H-Energy (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Tammy Nemeth

Meg Jacobs’s Panic at the Pump arrives at an auspicious moment. Many of the political discussions around energy problems today--the expansion of offshore drilling, the promotion of renewable energy and biofuels, concerns over the safety of nuclear plants, increased fuel efficiency standards, reduced power plant emissions--are similar to those from the 1970s, and they beg for historical comparison and context. We are due for a thorough reexamination of US energy politics and policy during that tumultuous decade. 

Unfortunately, the book’s subtitle promises more than it delivers. Jacobs is concerned mainly with the politics of oil and gas price controls, or more precisely, the political discourse surrounding them. This is a capable study as far as it goes in this direction. But it glosses over many of the vital energy questions of the day, ignores the interface between politics and policy, and has little to say about how the business and technology of energy development interacted with politics and policy.

Jacobs is really interested in price controls. Her 2007 book, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, centers on how the US Office of Price Administration used price controls and rationing during World War II to arrest inflation and raise consumer purchasing power. Panic at the Pump moves forward in time to examine the political struggles over controls on domestic oil and gas prices and emergency fuel allocations, or rationing, introduced by President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. It narrates the debates between “conservatives,” who wanted immediate and complete deregulation of prices, and “liberals,” who supported government intervention. These debates lasted until 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fully lifted controls and allocations. Free-market reformers, Jacobs argues, used the energy crisis to shift American politics to the right and bring an end to the New Deal order. This is a plausible if not entirely new argument. The author’s selected focus and evidence, based largely on national news publications and presidential library collections, does not clinch it.

In discussing price controls and fuel allocations, Jacobs neither describes how they worked nor assesses their economic impact. Phase IV price controls, imposed in August 1973, were “mind-bendingly complicated,” according to Time magazine, and “piled confusion on top of complexity.”[1] The program introduced a maximum price formula for “old” oil (from wells already producing), but allowed “new” production and imports to sell at higher international market prices. Prices for old oil were permitted to rise periodically, but not in step with world prices. Crude oil price increases, meanwhile, could not immediately be passed through to refined products, such as gasoline. The Cost of Living Council, which managed the program, allowed gas price increases once a month, usually during the first week, to accommodate rising world prices. As the end of each month neared, gas station owners anticipated a price hike and thus shut their doors or restricted sales until the new price took effect. Refiners, too, reduced output at the end of the month so they could charge wholesalers a higher price. This was the underlying cause of gas lines before and after the Arab embargo, which began in October 1973, but not something included in the book.

Jacobs provides an interesting account of the often overlooked truckers’ strikes of 1974 and 1979 and the outrage caused by the notorious gas lines. She does not explain, however, why truckers were particularly disadvantaged. This resulted from the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act (EPAA) passed in late November 1973, which assured gasoline allocations to certain consumers and regions at a level based on what they received in 1972. In a tight market under this scheme, supply fell out of line with geographic changes in demand. To complicate matters, a priority system guaranteed fuel for agriculture, sanitation services, emergency services, and others at 100 percent of their 1972 base allocation. Truckers often found themselves at the end of the line, needing to refuel in places where allocations did not meet demand.

At one point, Jacobs poses the question that headlines the book: “What created the panic at the pump?” (p. 79). But she does not offer a definitive answer. She is more interested in the partisan political maneuvering brought on by the panic than on its causes, effects, and resolution. The narrative relies too heavily at times on quotations from politicians, often taken from published news stories. We never witness what happened behind the scenes, beneath the public pronouncements, where the real deal-making happened. One would expect the sections on the Nixon administration, for example, to have incorporated energy discussions from the hours upon hours of White House tapes.

Many of the big energy issues that helped shaped American politics in the 1970s receive little or no attention. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAP), which was arguably the nation’s most contentious energy issue in 1973 before the Arab embargo, appears only fleetingly. Jacobs fails to recognize that shipments of Prudhoe Bay oil through TAP, beginning in 1977, went a long way toward alleviating US supply constraints and ending the energy crisis by the early 1980s. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson is a key liberal figure in the book, but readers will not learn about the fine political line he walked as both a champion of TAP and the author of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The pipeline became both the first major test of NEPA’s environmental impact-assessment process and a conduit for delivering a significant amount of oil to refineries in Jackson’s home state of Washington. Having angered environmentalists with his support of the pipeline, Jackson tried to make up for it in January 1974 with a grandstanding attack on oil companies’ “obscene profits.” This was not enough to save his chances for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination.

There are other omissions. Jacobs overlooks the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA), part of the National Energy Act of 1978, which she dismisses as a “series of half measures” (p. 190). But PURPA was significant. It opened the door to competition in power generation, not as a part of a free-market deregulatory agenda but as a conservation effort to introduce cogenerated electricity (produced from recycled heat in industrial plants) into the grid. Similarly, the subject of offshore oil disappears after a short discussion of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, despite the fact that offshore legal and regulatory reforms, which balanced a pro-development approach in the Gulf of Mexico with increasing restrictions on offshore drilling elsewhere, made for serious political drama that endures today. A couple lines about the 1979 film The China Syndrome are about the extent of the coverage of nuclear energy. In general, there are few oil and gas or utility company actors in the book, even though executives and their lobbyists spent a lot of time in Washington, DC during the 1970s. This book is about ideological politics, not interest-group politics.

Jacobs understands that the central political dilemma created by the energy crisis of the 1970s was the tension between the drive for energy independence and the push for greater environmental protection and conservation. Panic at the Pump ultimately provides little insight into the ways in which this dilemma was resolved or remains unresolved. In the conclusion, Jacobs offers no historical lesson to draw from the price control politics of the 1970s that occupies much of the book. Instead, she brings up modern debates about fracking, climate change, and renewable energy without clearly connecting those debates to the preceding pages.

A complete accounting of the energy crisis and the transformation of American politics will require a more comprehensive investigation than what is presented in this study. In addition to research in national periodicals and presidential library materials, it will require heavy lifting in federal agency records, Nixon White House tapes, congressional hearings, and industry trade literature, and it will need to pay as close attention to the energy sector as it does to national partisan posturing.


[1]. “This Season’s Game Plan: Semi-Tough,” Time, July 30, 1973, 32-33.

Printable Version:

Citation: Tyler Priest. Review of Jacobs, Meg, Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s. H-Energy, H-Net Reviews. November, 2016.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Editor's Note:

Dear Subscribers,

I invited Professor Meg Jacobs of Princeton University to respond to the commissioned review of her book Panic at the Pump by Dr. Ty Priest. Prof Jacobs was kind enough to write a lively reply that raises some important questions about our understanding of the 1970s and energy, and the concept of historical interpretation. The previous posted response was by Prof. Jacobs, but lacked this introduction and clear indication of Prof. Jacobs' authorship. This post is to correct the missing information. I apologize for any inconvenience or confusion.

Best regards,

Tammy Nemeth, Book Review Editor, H-Energy


Meg Jacobs, Author response

In 1977, a reporter remarked the 95th Congress had only two agendas: energy and everything else. Indeed, starting with the Arab embargo in October 1973, and lasting through the election of 1980, few issues preoccupied American policymakers as much as the energy crisis. The twin oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 rocked the economy, punctured the American sense of invincibility, and captured a fundamental debate over how interventionist the federal government should be in preserving a life of comfort and convenience—one predicated on cheap and abundant energy—that postwar Americans had come to expect. When Republican Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981, his first official executive action was to get rid of the price controls and allocation measures put in place by liberal Democrats, along with many of their moderate Republican counterparts, whose constituents insisted that the Nixon, Ford, and Carter White House do something to ease the pain of shortages and higher prices at the pump brought on by unrest in the Middle East. Tired of government falling short of its promises to offer pocketbook protection, Americans now looked to the market (and ultimately to the military) to provide the energy their consumer lifestyles required.


The history of the 1970s energy crisis not only reflects the major tensions in American politics as the polity moved away from the New Deal order and toward deregulation, but, as it turns out, the energy crisis was at the center of this fundamental shift. Panic at the Pump is the first book to take this crisis seriously as a causative event in American political history, moving energy history from the sidelines to the main event. There have been scholarly works about aspects of the modern energy industry, including Tyler Priest’s work on offshore drilling, and this is a booming field. The challenge is to connect these industry histories to the larger contours of the American past as some of the best work by scholars such as Andrew Needham, Thomas Andrews, Brian Black, Peter Shulman, and Christopher Jones does. If we want to understand the politics of the 1970s, defined, as I see it, by a declining faith in American government, we must include the energy crisis in our analysis. 


Conversely, I would argue that if we want to understand the fundamental shift in global energy in the 1970s, when the United States and the major American oil corporations lost much of their previous ability to influence markets to OPEC, we need to understand American politics.


Tyler Priest has a different perspective and he brings that vision of how to write energy history to his review of Panic at the Pump. Interested in how the industry itself responded to the oil shocks of the 1970s, he came to Panic with a set of preconceived questions in mind and then, not surprisingly, came away disappointed. The reason, I would argue, is not a failing on my part. In fact, most of the specifics he claims I don't discuss, from the Trans Alaska Pipeline to the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act, and even down to the problems with using 1972 usage as a baseline for those allocations, I actually put at the center. Oddly, Priest is at once critical of the book for being a history of price controls and yet also suggests I don’t give them serious treatment. Priest is right that I don't spend a lot of time on policies that did not fully take hold on the national level like utility reform and cogeneration. Nor do I do a deep dive into the nuclear power industry, which by the time of the first oil shock was already slowing down given the enormous capital costs in an increasingly regulated and inflationary era.


Fundamentally, Professor Priest would have liked me to have written a different book, an insiders’ account of how the oil executives reacted to the oil shocks of the 1970s. I have read the Oil and Gas Journal in its entirety for the 1970s, and there is much interesting work to be done there. But the larger point in understanding the 1970s is that this is an era when the oil executives were not in the drivers’ seat. Had they been, the period would have looked different. As Priest mentions in his review, a detail he gets from my book, in January 1974, Senator Scoop Jackson held televised hearings in which he accused the executives of charging obscene profits. With proposals for breaking up the industry receiving real backing, they were certain their best days were behind them. After the hearings, Gulf president Z. D. Bonner said, “They made me feel I was at a criminal trial.” If I tell a story less about interest group politics and more about ideological and partisan battles, that's because I am remaining faithful to the historical record.


And this is not just quibbling. If I were, then I could point out that the Nixon tapes Priest is calling for simply don't exist. By the time of the Arab embargo, the Watergate investigation was in full force and Nixon was obviously no longer making the recordings that would ultimately lead him to resign. Even if they did, it seems like Priest would discount this source just as he is dismissive of relying on presidential archives and politicians’ statements. For a political history, it would certainly be odd not to consult these sources. Presidential archives are the central repositories of the records we have of each modern administration, and the statements that politicians make in public matter very much. Priest wishes I had consulted federal agency records, but as he surely knows, there was no Department of Energy before its creation in 1977. I could point out that I did consult many federal agency records including the papers of the first energy czar William Simon and the records of the Federal Energy Office, which preceded the Department.


I am telling the history of the energy crisis as a political story because that is what it was. This is the moment when politics prevailed over markets; an assessment with which industry executives themselves, along with every leading economist and politician, would agree. There were fierce disagreements over whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. But there is no denying that the government was heavily involved in every detail of the industry. Much to his chagrin, William Simon, the conservative energy czar, had to decide whether the Daytona 500 went on as planned. In the end it was the 450. The point of the book is to figure out why there was so much pressure on government to intervene—especially when the prevailing literature suggests that the 1970s was already an era of deregulation—and what the consequences were not only for industry but also for American politics.


For energy history to matter, I would argue, and perhaps Professor Priest and I have an intellectual disagreement over this, it must be connected to the larger narrative of American history. Otherwise, it remains marginal and we can draw no lessons for today. Based on my own intellectual and professional experiences, I can say that the best scientists and engineers deeply appreciate the role of politics in shaping technological and industrial progress.  We would do well as historians to open ourselves to collaborative work across sub-disciplines rather than rigidly policing artificial boundaries. That is when we can ask the most interesting questions.


Far from the definitive account of all aspects of the energy industry in the 1970s—that was never the ambition—Panic raises some central considerations for future historians. Some of the topics for further investigation include the failure of the energy crisis to transform American energy habits, the insufficient development of renewables in this period, and the shortfall of international collaboration in this era to reform energy usage. Public opinion polls ranked the energy crisis as a bigger problem than Watergate, and yet failed to lead Americans on a new path. Part of the problem was that the public also believed that the crisis was a hoax, an artificial conspiracy foisted on them Big Oil. While we need more industry studies of the period, we also need more cultural, local histories to capture fully how Americans experienced this crisis and how it undermined confidence in their leaders. We also need careful environmental histories to better appreciate how the crisis slowed the momentum of the early 1970s as politicians and ordinary citizens believed there was a tradeoff between economic growth—premised on cheap, fossil fuels—and environmental protection. Finally, we need additional inquires into how the energy crisis began a transformation in American foreign policy. Panic begins with a young George H W Bush heading out to West Texas in 1948 in search of oil and the American Dream and it ends with him in the White House ordering troops into the Gulf in 1991 to protect the free flow of oil.  Panic is the first attempt to bring these strands of political history, environmentalism, and foreign policy into one narrative account of the energy crisis and show how this crisis transformed all three. No doubt future historians will pick up these strands and offer textured accounts of this significant event in our past, one that has such important resonances for today.

Meg Jacobs
History and Public Affairs
Princeton University
Princeton, NJ 08540
Editor's Note:
Professors Toprani and Moss have submitted this reply, and have kindly asked for me to post it on their behalf.
Best regards,
Tammy Nemeth
Editor/Book Review Editor, H-Energy
In his H-Energy review of Meg Jacobs’ Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s, Tyler Priest contends that Jacobs’ “selected focus and evidence, based largely on national news publications and presidential library collections, does not clinch it.” In particular, Priest writes, “One would expect the sections on the Nixon administration, for example, to have incorporated energy discussions from the hours upon hours of White House tapes.” In response, Jacobs retorts “that the Nixon tapes Priest is calling for simply don't exist. By the time of the Arab embargo, the Watergate investigation was in full force and Nixon was obviously no longer making the recordings that would ultimately lead him to resign.” 
This is not the first time we have seen the argument that the Nixon Tapes cannot shed light on U.S. foreign and domestic policies because the specific event or issue in question occurred before the taping system was set up in February 1971 or after it was shut down in July 1973. For example, despite the gallons of ink expended on analyzing U.S. policy toward Chile during Salvador Allende’s presidency, until we published our findings, few scholars had consulted the Nixon Tapes to see if they contained any relevant material, which they clearly did. 
Jacobs is under a similar misconception regarding the First Energy Crisis and the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) embargo of 1973-1974. In fact, President Richard Nixon and his advisers discussed U.S. domestic and foreign energy policy frequently before the embargo. For example, during a January 1973 conversation in the Oval Office, former Secretary of the Treasury John Connally even warned the president that an “energy crisis” was likely later that year.  
Based on a preliminary search of the Nixon Tape logs using the search terms energy crisis, energy problems, energy czar, energy policy, energy advisory council, petroleum, oil, and OPEC, here is just a partial list of conversations that include energy affairs. 
251-17, 4/27/71: long discussion on oil shale potential
523-4, 6/16/71: expropriation
845-11, 1/31/73: discussion with Connally; possibility of rationing
864-7, 2/27/73: discussion with Helms; Mideast oil issues
122-3, 4/10/73: cabinet room discussion on energy issues
898-8, 5/17/73: meeting with Italian PM Andreotti, discussion of energy issues
940-10, 6/14/1973: discussion with Shultz on energy issues
128-1, 7/10/73: cabinet room discussion on budget, spending caps, and energy issues
It is also important to understand that the Nixon Tapes differ from other primary sources. Only a handful of people knew they were being taped – Nixon, two of his aides, and some Secret Service agents. Therefore, people speaking in Nixon’s presence had every reason to think their conversations would be private and often spoke with a remarkable degree of candor. In other words, the Nixon Tapes are an ideal source to provide the “behind the scenes” perspective that Priest feels is missing from Jacobs’ book. 
In closing, as scholars who have spent several years trying to make the Nixon Tapes accessible to a wider audience, we encourage our colleagues not to overlook the fact they are a truly unique source whose relevance extends far beyond the dates during which the taping system was in operation. 
The opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government. 
Anand Toprani
Assistant Professor of Strategy & Policy
U.S. Naval War College
Richard Moss
Associate Research Professor
U.S. Naval War College
Nixon's Back Channel to Moscow: Confidential Diplomacy and Détente 

I welcome the opportunity to continue the discussion of Meg Jacobs’s Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s. Despite our differences on the subject, I am grateful to Professor Jacobs for initiating a conversation about the political dimensions of the 1970s energy crisis.

I agree with Professor Jacobs that political historians have devoted inadequate attention to oil and energy.  Panic at the Pump, however, is not “the first book to take this crisis seriously as a causative event in American political history, moving energy history from the sidelines to the main event.”  Beyond detailing the ideological posturing over price controls and allocations, it adds little to what numerous scholars, such as Crauford Goodwin, Richard Vietor, David Nye, Richard Hirsh, Peter Grossman, and Jay Hakes, or even many American history textbooks, have written about energy and politics in the 1970s.

To explain how the energy crisis transformed politics requires taking the full measure of energy developments during the decade, not just one aspect.  I do criticize Panic both for focusing on the discourse over prices controls and allocations and for not fully analyzing such policies.  Contrary to Jacobs’s claim, the book does not discuss the problems created by using a 1972 baseline for allocations.  The Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAP), which she says is “at the center’ of her study, is mentioned only in passing on four discrete pages, even though it was the subject of high political drama.  In August 1973, a Senate amendment declaring that TAP met all NEPA requirements and approving the pipeline right-of-way passed only after a tie-breaking vote by the then-embattled Vice President Spiro Agnew.  After the embargo took effect, Congress rushed through legislation that authorized TAP and exempted it from further judicial review.  Panic at the Pump does not recount these political developments.

Jacobs’s explanations for why she did not address other energy issues are unconvincing.  Nuclear power was not “already slowing down” by the first oil shock.  On the contrary, nuclear power plant construction was booming in the early 1970s.[1]  Nuclear power was a centerpiece of Nixon’s Project Independence, announced in November 1973, and its momentum sagged only with rising inflation and the increased cost of borrowing that followed the 1973 price shock.  I am puzzled by Jacobs’s reply that debates over utility reform under PURPA, involving legal challenges that went all the way to the Supreme Court, twice, “did not fully take hold on the national level.”  Her reply also does not justify why she omitted the subject of offshore oil, which preoccupied all three federal branches of government during the 1970s and 1980s.

I did not expect Professor Jacobs to write an “insiders’ account of how the oil executives reacted to the oil shocks of the 1970s.”  I do wish she had broadened her conception of “politics” to include those people as political actors.  She is correct that oilmen were put on the defensive in this period, but they played key roles nonetheless.  In November 1973, just after the Arab oil embargo, Gulf Oil and two of its top executives pleaded guilty to making illegal political contributions to Nixon’s Committee to Reelect the President, as well as to powerful House Ways and Means Chairman, Wilbur Mills, and Senator Scoop Jackson, a major character in Jacobs’s book.[2]  This was another reason behind Jackson’s desperate attempt to distance himself from the industry by excoriating the leaders of the seven major oil companies in television hearings he staged two months later (a detail I know not from Jacobs, but from my 2007 book).  No wonder Gulf president Z.D. Bonner felt like he “was at a criminal trial” during the hearings.

Including such stories in her book would have helped Jacobs demonstrate the growing public distrust of the oil industry.  “With proposals for breaking up the industry receiving real backing,” Jacobs writes in her response, oil executives “were certain their best days were behind them.”  This is true, but it is also worth mentioning that Congress considered not only breaking up the major oil companies, but also forcing them out of other energy industries and creating a competing federal government-owned oil company.  The hearings of Senator Frank Church’s multinational subcommittee in 1974 and 1975, starring a parade of witnesses who detailed the close historical relationship between the U.S. government and major oil companies overseas, fueled outrage that contributed to such extraordinary deliberations on “divestiture.”  Panic does not analyze those proposals and hearings.

Perhaps even more surprising than Jacobs’s inattention to industry actors is her neglect of key government records – a criticism that her response does not dispel.  In their post to this thread, Anand Toprani and Richard Moss helpfully point to the numerous conversations captured on the Nixon White House tapes about energy affairs between 1971 and 1973 that would have benefited Panic’s chapter on the pre-embargo period.  Jacobs defends her minimal research in federal agency records by noting “there was no Energy Department before its creation in 1977.”  That department and its predecessor, the Federal Energy Office, however, were not the only ones that formulated energy policy.  The Department of the Interior, the Department of State, and the Environmental Protection Agency were more important with regard to oil, but Jacobs did not examine their archival collections.

We do need to look at politics in order to connect energy history to the “larger narrative of American history.”  My problem is with Jacobs’s restricted definition of “politics.”  She writes in her reply that the energy crisis of the 1970s was “the moment when politics prevailed over markets.” All markets, though, especially those in U.S. oil and gas, are political creations.  Politics did not suddenly intervene in energy markets during the 1970s.[3]  The political story Jacobs does tell, moreover, is a conventional and familiar one about how high energy prices and the failure of price controls helped drive voters away from New Deal “liberals” toward anti-regulatory “conservatives.”  A historical reassessment of this period demands a more thorough understanding of how energy and politics shaped each other.

Such an understanding might question Jacobs’s contention that the larger U.S. political response to the energy crisis “failed.”[4]  One can reach this conclusion only if the standard of success was the achievement of national energy “independence” or a radical shift away from oil consumption.  Politicians repeatedly pronounced these as national objectives, but few officials believed them to be achievable in the short term.  Nevertheless, important steps were taken toward these goals.  Today, Americans consume about the same amount of oil as they did in 1979, despite a population and real economy that have doubled in size, and they enjoy greater energy security than they did in the 1970s.  This is what Jay Hakes calls the “forgotten victory” that emerged out of the chaos of the 1970s.[5]  Illuminating the complex reasons for how that happened, despite Americans’ reduced faith in both government and Big Oil, requires looking closely at both energy and politics in the larger narrative of American history.


Tyler Priest
Associate Professor of History and Geography
University of Iowa


[1] According to J. Samuel Walker, “Utilities bought twenty-three power stations in 1971, thirty-nine in 1972, and a record forty-four in 1973.”  Walker, “The Nuclear Power Debate in the 1970s, in Robert Lifset, ed., American Energy Policy in the 1970s (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), 226.

[2] See the Report of the Special Review Committee commissioned by Gulf Oil’s Board of Directors detailing years of bribery and illegal political activities of the company: John J. McCloy, Nathan W. Pearson, and Beverley Matthews, The Great Oil Spill, The Insight Report: Gulf Oil’s Bribery and Political Chicanery (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1976).

[3] Politics had long structured the oil industry in the United States, from the breakup of Standard Oil in 1911, to the depletion allowance and transportation subsidies of the 1920s, to market-demand prorationing enforced in the 1930s, to the government sanctioning of overseas consortiums in the 1940s, to the imposition of import quotas at the end of the 1950s.

[4] See, especially, Jacobs, Panic at the Pump, p. 312.

[5] Jay Hakes, A Declaration of Energy Independence: How Freedom from Foreign Oil Can Improve National Security, Our Economy, and the Environment (New York: Wiley, 2008), pp. 41-70.

Editor’s Note:
Prof. Meg Jacobs has kindly offered a follow-up response to the review of her book Panic at the Pump, and I am posting it on her behalf.  I would like to take this opportunity to again thank Prof. Jacobs for engaging in the discussion of her book, and for Prof. Ty Priest for reviewing the book under discussion. I would also like to thank our H-Energy subscribers for their additional comments regarding archival sources. We at H-Energy welcome and appreciate the time and effort of those in the scholarly community who join in the discussion of noteworthy books, and important issues, on energy history, and look forward to future conversations.
With best regards,
Dr. Tammy Nemeth
Editor/Book Review Editor, H-Energy
20 December 2016
From: Prof. Meg Jacobs, Princeton University
Let me offer a final response by laying out for H-Energy readers what I set out to do in Panic with the hope that younger energy scholars will pick up some of these strands and weave an even more intricate tapestry, connecting energy history to the larger contours of American history. I wanted to write a book that explored the decline in Americans’ confidence in government to solve its problems.  And I argue that the dramatic shift in global energy markets and the government’s waning ability to control those markets played a key role in that story. If Vietnam and Watergate taught Americans that they could not trust their government leaders, the energy crisis showed that government didn’t work. I wanted to explain Ronald Reagan’s famous 1981 inaugural adage that “government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.” With the return of the gas lines in the summer of 1979, the energy crisis became exhibit A for Reagan who pointed to them as a leading example of why government did not work. He also highlighted the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit as a violation of Americans’ basic birthright to cheap and affordable energy. Reagan knew he was on the right track when delegates at the 1980 Republican National Convention wore buttons reading, “Democrats shot JR,” answering the cliffhanger question of that season’s finale of Dallas about who had tried to kill the most well-known oilman in the country. Upon his election, Reagan promised to restore American greatness by freeing the oil and gas industry and, when necessary, protecting access to resources abroad.
The story of the energy crisis revealed three important aspects of the 1970s that contribute to our understanding of the rightward shift in American politics, all of which are ripe for further study. First was the strength of liberalism. The story of the 1970s from the historical profession is one of a turn to the right from Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture to Kim Phillips-Fein Invisible Hands to all the excellent essays in Julian Zelizer and Bruce Schulman’s edited collection, Rightward Bound. In fact, liberalism was quite strong well into the 1970s, not just the endurance of social values or even social movements, but also the regulatory ambitions of New Deal-type liberals, fueled by the persistence of popular expectations about what government could and should deliver, including clean air and clean water. The key players in my book include not only Senator Henry Jackson but also Senator Ted Kennedy who challenged Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primary in 1980, including and especially on his failure to do more to offset the impacts of the oil shock. In his early campaign stops, Kennedy promised that he would print up World War II-style ration coupons so that everyone could be sure to get a full tank, not just those with the time and money to pay for it. There is plenty of room for dissertations on how activists like Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader and other liberals led social protests against what they saw as manipulations of Big Oil, demonstrating that liberalism lived on a lot longer than we thought amid the economic turmoil of the 1970s, and perhaps even got a new lease on life. I touch on this social history but we need much more of it if we are to understand fully how the average Americans’ attitudes toward government and the market changed in this period, especially since Panic shows that much of their liberal beliefs were still in tact. The energy crisis is a useful way to get at this history.
Second, Panic highlights the centrality of Washington conservatives. To be sure, conservatism strengthened its ideological, institutional, and grassroots political base in the period as Lisa McGirr, Ellie Schermer, and Robert Self write about. But we need to know more about those inside Washington who were working from within the seat of power to dismantle and delegitimize the state. In Panic I write about people like George HW Bush who decided to get into politics, running successfully for Congress from Houston in 1966, to take on the regulatory morass that he experienced firsthand in the oil fields. Bush was part of a breed of young conservatives, including Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, George Shultz, Alan Greenspan, and James Watt who put deregulation at the center of their agenda. Precisely because they were in the Capitol, they knew just how difficult it would be to reverse the regulatory regime that had only grown with environmentalism. James Watt, who would be Reagan’s pick for Secretary of the Interior, got his start not in the Mountain States Legal Foundation but at the Federal Power Commission where he was like the boy with his finger in the dam, except in reverse, where he was trying to spring leaks in the regulatory fortress of Washington. The story of these conservative insiders is important because from them we can learn how they and their allies in Washington and in industry saw the build up in regulations in this period, how they crafted arguments and strategies to reverse and dismantle them, and how and when their ideas took hold. Here, too, there is room for students to study how exactly opponents of regulation attempted to resist and reverse its impact. 
Finally, Panic makes clear the interconnected nature of domestic and foreign policy, which are too often told separately. I start the story with Bush in West Texas and I end with him in the Gulf War, exploring when and how the emphasis on energy independence morphed into a focus on energy security. American concern with energy resources was a part of the Cold War and also transcended it. Putting energy front and center offers a new periodization of American foreign policy, one that bridges the end of the Cold War. And the focus on energy also helps to explain how the public moved past the war weariness of Vietnam and supported the expansion of a military presence in the Persian Gulf. We have some great work ranging from Melanie McAlister to David Farber to Toby Jones, but we need much more work to explore how the energy crisis not only led to new attitudes toward the Middle East but also challenged basic assumptions of American foreign policy. When Brent Burns appeared on the Mike Douglas show, singing his surprising hit song, “Cheaper Crude or No More Food,” this provided a clue that Americans were thinking differently about their place in the world, the basis of US action abroad, and the kinds of new military actions they would support. With the end of the Cold War, students of American foreign policy will find the field of energy ripe for new research and new ways of conceptualizing the field. We are only just beginning to do the kind of work on the search for resources similar to what great scholars like William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber did with their stimulating work on the search for markets.
There is so much space for others to write about the energy crisis, a central event that deeply affected the economy, culture, diplomacy, and politics. And I hope there are more studies to come, especially from graduate students eager to wrestle with the profound transformations of the period, inspired not only by Panic but also by other useful accounts of the period including Jefferson Cowie, Judith Stein, Bruce Schulman, and Thomas Bortstelmann. The goal of Panic was to contribute to our understanding of the erosion of confidence in our national leaders to protect our pocketbooks and national security. Amid the gas lines, Carter said the nation was suffering from a deep moral crisis of confidence in themselves. Reagan, his victorious challenger, said the only crisis of confidence was in government. “If you ever had any doubt about the government’s inability to provide for the needs of its people, just look at the utter fiasco we now call the ‘energy crisis.’” It is this shift to the right in domestic and foreign policy that requires greater historical inquiry and that we are still living with today.
Prof. Meg Jacobs 
History and Public Affairs
Princeton University
Princeton, NJ 08540