Heiss on Black, 'The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power'

Megan Black
Mary Ann Heiss

Megan Black. The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018. 360 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-98425-7.

Reviewed by Mary Ann Heiss (Kent State University) Published on H-Diplo (June, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53463

What’s My Line? The Surprising Reach of the US Department of the Interior

If an anthropomorphized version of the Department of Interior as presented in Megan Black’s original and thought-provoking book had served as a contestant on the early television game show What’s My Line?, the dizzying scope of its activities would likely have stumped the panel. Taming the southwestern frontier. Managing the fruits of nineteenth-century expansion. Procuring natural resources in the Western Hemisphere during and after World War II. Developing the resource potential of the developing world. Unlocking the mineral resources of the continental shelf. Making the satellite mapping of the world’s natural resources possible. Facilitating private control of indigenous natural resources in the US Southwest. Yet Black convincingly demonstrates that the Department undertook all these activities as it pushed far beyond the limits of its inwardly facing name to exert influence in virtually any resource-oriented project anywhere in the world. This expansion often led to turf battles with other departments, and occasionally Interior lost functions or responsibilities. More often, however, it took on new roles and functions while continually reinventing itself as an indispensable arm of US progress. If Interior was always changing the specific means by which it asserted US control over the world’s resources, the assumptions that undergirded US resource policy remained remarkably consistent. In the end, as Black makes abundantly clear, the history of the global Interior confirms the old adage—the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Department of the Interior was created in 1849 to facilitate settler colonialism in the lands the United States acquired as a result of the Mexican-American War. Those lands contained both obstacles to Euro-American settlement in the form of indigenous peoples and tremendous opportunities in the form of rich natural resources. Interior neutralized the human threat to US exploitation of the Southwest through peaceful measures of assimilation grounded in assumptions of Western superiority. It also worked to harness the region’s rich supplies of copper, lead, and other ores and to facilitate railroad development, which together contributed to the nation’s wealth and made widespread settlement possible. Black rightly notes that these soft-power measures existed concurrently with the more martially oriented hard-power efforts toward the same end undertaken by the US military—and that they were no less devastating to indigenous peoples because of their pacific nature. If the symbolic closing of the frontier in 1890 suggested that Interior had completed its mission and was no longer necessary, the Department avoided elimination by undertaking the first of what Black identifies as its many transformations by taking its resource-management expertise abroad to help the nation exploit the territorial gains of the Spanish-American War. At the same time, Department personnel also took with them culturally framed assumptions about proper land and resource use that would remain vital elements of its philosophy regardless of locale.

Interior’s early extra-continental work was solidified during the 1930s, when it became home to the Division of Territories and Island Possessions and assumed responsibility for the development of a new and far-flung frontier that had previously been the purview of the army and navy. To counteract charges that it was a tool of exploitation, Interior cast its work in the neutral garb of scientific and technological expertise and claimed it was merely acting as a steward to guarantee resource access for all. Universalist concerns also drove the concept of strategic minerals that shaped Interior’s actions as rising global tensions and then war with the Axis necessitated firmer controls to ensure access to vital materials. Regardless of what such soft-power moves were called, however, Black again laments that they ended up in the same exploitative place as previous heavy-handed US militarism. In other words, there was a huge gap between rhetoric and reality in the way the global Interior operated in US territories.

Exploitation was also evident in Interior’s work to map and extract resources throughout the Western Hemisphere during and after World War II. Although the Department hailed its work as cooperative—reflective of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy—culturally framed arguments about fitness to develop and control those resources that harkened back to ideas that first gained currency during Interior’s work in the southwestern United States suggested otherwise. As Black makes clear, those arguments were now framed around the concept of resource primitivism, which denigrated the inefficiencies of traditional hand mining and held US technology up as a one-size-fits-all model for resource extraction. If the modern techniques Interior officials implemented in Latin America vastly increased output, however, local societies rarely reaped the benefits. In fact, their growing dependence on mineral production prevented them from diversifying their economies and led to a host of ecological problems. Ultimately, nations throughout the hemisphere that hosted US-directed resource extraction initiatives lost more than they gained.

The inequities in their approach to the resources of the Western Hemisphere were lost on key policymakers at the Interior Department, however, and they went on to replicate that approach virtually whole cloth across the developing world. Begun under the guise of Harry S. Truman’s Point Four Program and continuing well past it, these efforts built on the idea that the world’s resources belonged to all, not just the host nation. This view downplayed national borders in favor of resource globalism that justified US interventionism for the greater good. Arguments about resource primitivism also shaped Interior Department propaganda about the developing world, conveyed now in widely distributed informational films that extolled the benefits—if not the necessity—of US intervention to ensure that vital global resources were not squandered by locals incapable of properly developing them. As was the case in Latin America, private US interests reaped the benefits of Interior’s forays into the developing world; host countries rarely did.

With Interior’s approach to the developing world generating local opposition that could lead to expropriation, it next turned its gaze toward the unpopulated continental shelf. Although US officials cast the campaign for deep sea mining of the shelf in the same cooperative language they had used to justify US resource programs in Latin America, the indiscriminate and even reckless way that oil drilling contracts were awarded made the primacy of private profits manifestly clear, even as a host of scientists warned of the environmental dangers of offshore drilling. After a massive petroleum spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969 drove this point home in horrifying detail, Interior’s cozy relationship with the oil industry at the cost of protecting the environment led linearly to the creation later that year of the new Environmental Protection Agency. Black is quick to point out, however, that this did nothing to dampen the ardor with which the global Interior pursued unfettered access to the world’s resources.

Stung by the fallout from the Santa Barbara spill, Interior officials cast their eyes on a new frontier for resource exploration and exploitation: outer space. If actually mining celestial bodies was impractical, space-related technology could still be used to serve US resource-control efforts through satellite mapping of the earth’s material and mineral resources. Dubbed Landsat shortly after its creation in 1972, the subsurface-mapping program reprised many of the themes evident in previous Interior resource-development schemes, most prominently the use of universalist language about the need to develop the planet’s resources for the common good and the argument that US technological superiority—and the knowledge about the planet’s resources that that technology could generate—gave the nation the right to manage those resources. As had been the case with previous Interior-directed resource projects, Landsat’s benefits went disproportionately to local elites and private sector entities, while population masses and the environment fared poorly. 

Interior’s quest for control of resources brought it full circle during the energy crisis of the 1970s as it sought once again to exploit the potential of the southwestern United States. If the goal was simple—managing the sale of mineral rights to private interests, with lucrative benefits for both the federal government and resource firms—its execution was unexpectedly difficult. The rub, as Black makes clear, lay in the fact that the mineral resources in question were located on indigenous land (ironically, the land left over from the scramble for territorial control that had first necessitated Interior’s creation). Taking a page from nationalists in the developing world, Native Americans formed the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) in 1975 to resist encroachment on their land.  Often calling itself the Indian OPEC, CERT exposed the exploitative nature of the Interior-sponsored lease deals and demonstrated theretofore underappreciated links between Interior’s policies at home and abroad. If CERT failed to halt the increasing dependence of indigenous peoples on resource deals, however, by pointing up Interior’s overall failure to adequately guarantee the nation’s access to vital resources it helped to inspire the creation of the Department of Energy in 1977. That major blow to its power and prestige was followed four years later by the appointment of the antigovernment James G. Watt to serve as its head. Together, these developments went some distance toward returning the Department to its original internal orientation.

In many ways, Black’s history of the Department of the Interior serves as an analogue for US expansion/imperialism itself, with the trajectory of the Department’s development paralleling different stages of the American empire. Continental expansion led to the successful drive for hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, which led to a variety of mechanisms for exerting influence throughout the world, through either economic or technological power. Overextension, opposition to the US presence, and growing concerns about the environmental costs of resource development, however, not only put the brakes on that expansion but also necessitated retrenchment. This is a sobering book that offers up a plethora of insights into the intertwining of foreign and domestic policies over a very long sweep of time. 


Citation: Mary Ann Heiss. Review of Black, Megan, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. June, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53463

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