The first step to that awful morning in September came quietly, while no one was paying attention. In fact, it was so subtle that now the date is hard to pinpoint. Somewhere around 1970, the United States passed peak domestic oil production. That year, the annual domestic oil production in the United States hit 4.1 billion barrels. It never would again. By 2000, that number would be down to 2.8 billion barrels.
In 1970, the United States already imported 22% of its oil. By 1973, that number had almost doubled to 36%. We were increasing our total energy consumption by 5% a year, and practically all of that energy was flowing in from overseas. Even then, America slept right through the growing dependence as Vietnam and the first inklings of something funny happening at a Washington hotel played out in the news. We were about to get a wakeup call.
The alarm went off while Americans were still learning the vocabulary of Watergate. While we were pondering "Deep throat," Egypt and Syria were building up forces along their disputed borders with Israel. On October 6, 1973 both countries launched the opening movements of the Yom Kippur War. The Israelis were outnumbered on both fronts, and for four days they suffered heavy losses as opposition forces advanced. Then on October 10, they turned the tide and won upsets on both fronts. The Soviet Union began sending aid to Egypt and Syria. The United States countered by upping aid to Israel. For 18 days, the
three armies feinted, skirmished, pounded holy hell out of each other, and stood proxy for the Cold War.
In the end, Israel held the field, but only at very high cost. They had lost 6,000 soldiers and 150 planes. Their opponents had lost more (8,500), but the real casualty was the idea, left over from the 1967 war, that an Israeli soldier was worth a hundred Arabs. Far from being upset at the results of this war, Arab spirits soared. Though they had gained no land, it was looked on in "the street" as a victory.
Buoyed by their initial success in this slugfest, and enraged at US involvement in the war (which was blamed as the only reason the Israelis were able to hold on), the Arab nations turned to an institution that had been around for over a decade, but was generally regarded as a joke: the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. While the bullets were still flying, on October 17th, 1973, OPEC announced an embargo on the sale of oil to countries that had aided Israel.
Though the war served as a convenient excuse, it wasn't the only reason the OPEC states took action. Then, like now, oil was valued in US dollars, and with the US stuck in "stagflation," OPEC was looking for a way to force a price increase. The embargo and subsequent price adjustments accomplished this goal.
Overnight, the price of oil doubled, then tripled as demand outstripped supply. The United States learned that its energy supply, and its economy, was terribly vulnerable to an attack that had little to do with bombs and planes. By the start of 1974, shortages were beginning to be felt in prices the pump. The United States, along with the rest of the world, slipped into recession.
The shock to the system was so abrupt, that government took previously unimaginable steps. Even Nixon, who was busy dealing with his own personal scandals, woke up enough to issue a stack of executive orders. Congress was also active, passing emergency legislation. It's no exaggeration to say that the political reaction to the oil embargo and resulting shortages was much more severe than anything related to 9/11.
In short order, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was authorized, to get at oil around Prudhoe Bay. By November congress had passed the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act, embracing government regulation of energy, a national petroleum reserve, and government intervention in the petroleum markets. A national speed limit of 55 mph was slapped on every road in America. There was year-round daylight savings time. The Federal Energy Administration was created. 'Project Independence,' was created in hopes of freeing the U.S. completely from foreign oil dependence by 1980.
At the height of the shortage, rationing was put in place. Drivers of vehicles with license plates having an odd number as the last digit could purchase gasoline only on odd-numbered days of the month. Drivers with even-numbered license plates could purchase fuel only on even-numbered days.
Nixon went out, Ford went in, and the US continued its attempt to arrest the slide. In 1975, the US put in place the first fuel economy standards - standards that were designed to double the fuel efficiency of American cars and trucks within ten years. Muscle cars began to be replaced by small hatchbacks in the dealer's showrooms. Japanese imports started moving up the sales charts.
The embargo officially ended in March of 1974, but oil prices didn't drop to previous levels. In fact, OPEC continued to fiddle with supply and contracts, keeping oil at four times what it was selling for before the embargo. By the time James Earl Carter took office in 1976, gas lines were less common, but they were still not unknown. Gas stations were still occasionally shut down by temporary shortages, and prices fluctuated 100% over a few days.
Energy conservation crept into public discourse for the first time since World War II. Public programs emphasized turning off the lights, car pooling, and using public transit. For much of President Carter's term, programs continued as they had been defined after the 1973 crisis, then a second wakeup call came.
In 1979, the Iranian Revolution sent the Shah on the run, left US diplomats stranded as hostages in Tehran, and damaged the Iranian oil industry. With Iran all but off line, demand once again outstripped supply and oil prices soared. At one point in 1979, the price reached the equivalent of $80 a barrel in 2005 dollars.
With shortages and lines at the pumps for the second time in five years, ration cards were printed (though never issued). Some rationing was imposed by local governments, but it never became widespread.
Faced with fresh evidence that the US was not decreasing its dependence on foreign oil and was still as vulnerable as ever, President Carter declared that the fight to control our energy sources was "the moral equivalent of war." The FEA was elevated to the Department of Energy, and its head made a cabinet position. A comprehensive energy plan was put in place for the first time. Programs were established for creating synthetic oil from coal and other sources. Programs were created for alternative fuels, including biofuels. Programs were created to boost the US solar power industry, and for wind energy. Research into electric cars and high mileage vehicles was kicked into overdrive (pun intended). Perhaps most importantly, incentives were created for conservation and a schedule of increasingly tough mileage standards was created.
One thing that President Carter did that might come as a shock to many - he argued for, and got, deregulation of the oil industry, in hopes that this would provide incentives for further domestic production. The industry had been regulated by Nixon during the 1973 crisis, and oil companies blamed this regulation for inability to meet demand. However, when prices continued to move up after deregulation, many people began to call the 1979 crisis a "fake" engineered by the oil companies to raise prices.
In addition to more practical steps, President Carter made symbolic gestures toward saving energy. He began to give his speeches to the nation wearing a sweater to show that the White House thermostat had been turned down. He installed a wood stove in the living quarters of the White House. He had a set of solar water heating panels installed on the White House roof.
For the period of 1973 to 1980, the United States refused to walk the 9/11 highway. Rising energy prices lead the charge for near run-away inflation, and the economy wandered in and out of recession as it was battered by energy shortages. Many of the programs of that time were misguided. Some were flat out silly. But for a few years, Americans showed that they were still willing to make big changes in their lifestyles to meet the challenge of a safer, cleaner world.
Then came Ronald Reagan.
The same crisis in Iran that sent oil prices through the roof, floored President Carter's run for a second term. While Carter campaigned on a program of fiscal responsibility and energy saving, his opponent ran on a platform that encouraged consumption, massive government spending on defense, and tax cuts as a way out of the country's problems. In the second debate between the two candidates, he put off OPEC as just another excuse for why the economy wasn't doing well. Faced with a choice between a candidate who asked for further sacrifices in the name of long term prosperity and security, and a candidate who proclaimed it was "morning in America," the voters went with the later.
What happened then was the single most critical moment in American political history in more than fifty years. It didn't happen at a meeting with a foreign leader. It didn't happen on the eve of a war. It happened right in Washington D.C. and it happened before the confetti of the inaugural balls had been swept from the roads. In his very first official act as president, Reagan ordered the solar panels removed from the White House.
Those panels were symbolic, but they were symbolic of very real programs and very real progress being made toward changing the energy mix in the United States. Almost as quickly as he had moved to take down the solar panels, Reagan moved to stop research into solar energy and alternate fuels. Incentives for conservation were ended.
When Reagan took office in 1981, the demand for imported oil was actually trending downward, and a few months later, it hit its lowest point in a decade.
With the end of any attempt at conservation, and with no threat of a domestic alternative fuel source, import volumes and prices climbed. By the time Reagan left office, the United States was using 10% more imported oil than it had before the 1973 crisis. Plans for cutting that percentage had been thrown out the windows, standards for mileage had been weakened, and almost every trace of President Carter's energy plan had been eradicated (all but the deregulation, Reagan completed that soon after he took office).
In 1980, the United States had been at a fork in the road, facing either a path of energy independence that required short term sacrifice for the long term good, or a path of energy dependence that took short term gains with no concern for the long term. Reagan steered the country onto that second path. Under his guidance, we took the biggest step toward 9/11.
But we were still only partway there. The dependence on foreign oil that kept the United States heavily invested in the Middle East was only half of the forces that brought us to disaster.
To find the other steps, you have to start again in 1973, and you have to go to the other side of the world. For forty years, Afghanistan had a period of relative peace under the reign of King Zahir Shah. The country was considered very modern, and visitors often commented on the popularity of western music, freedom of women, and the open culture. But in 1973, the King was overthrown by his brother-in-law. Five years later, communists launched a second coup and took over the government.
Almost immediately, the United States began funneling money and arms to opposition forces in Afghanistan. It was under President Carter's administration that the first contacts were made in 1978. The opposition forces enjoyed great early success - so much so that in 1979, the Soviet Union sent its army into Afghanistan to prop up the crumbling communist government. The United States protested this action and continued to fund the mujahideen guerillas.
Among the mujahideen, were many foreign fighters who had come to Afghanistan out of a sense of "Muslim unity." This group featured many of the future leaders of Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden.
Fighting the Soviets gave these men a extensive course in how to fight against a modern, mechanized army, but funding them wasn't really the problem. The real problem came when the Soviets withdrew. By 1989, the USSR was out, and the rebels backed by the US were in control. It was at this point that the United States could have moved to provide further support - support for schools, for roads, for all the infrastructure of peaceful government. It did not.
To be sure, the last Soviet troops didn't leave Afghanistan until two weeks after Ronald Regan left office, but long before that, the mujahideen were in control of the bulk of the country. Still, Reagan's action was directed at the Soviets and the Soviets alone. With their forces driven away, little thought was given to the future of Afghanistan.
Very quickly, fighting broke out between mujahideen factions. It wasn't Soviet troops who destroyed the Afghan cities, it was fighting between the warlords who appeared in the gap after the Soviets withdrew. The fighting continued for years, leading to the near total destruction of Kabul and the death of 10,000 people in 1994.
By then, the Afghani people had had enough. They were willing to turn to someone, anyone who could offer a break from the fighting. That someone turned out to be the Taliban. Backed by Pakistan and Arab states, the Taliban eventually took power in 1996.
And now we're there. We've taken the final, crucial steps.
On the one hand, you have an America so dependent on imported oil that it can't help but embroil itself in the Middle East. On the other hand, you have Afghanistan held by a radical Islamic group willing to act as hosts for even more radical terrorists. You have terrorists trained with United States money. And you have men who have already seen that they can bloody the nose of a giant with nothing more than good planning and ruthless action.
9/11 follows as surely as night follows day.
Of course, it's not really right to blame Reagan for making 9/11 happen, any more than it's right to blame the parents of a child turned serial killer for the actions of their offspring. Reagan didn't make it happen. He only put all the pieces in place, and then gave his famous smile.
When they're laying out the designs for those Ronald Reagan dimes, they should give serious consideration to what goes on the back. How about a nice image of the twin towers?