Ignoring history and doomed to repeat it
On October 6, 1973, the eve of Yom Kippur (Israel’s highest holy days), a coalition of Muslim forces led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel. Egypt and Syria were joined by combat elements: from Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan, Uganda and Cuba. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait provided money.
Without the weapons and ammunition rushed from U.S. forces in Europe, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) would have been defeated. But as the tide of battle turned in favor of the IDF, the USSR pressed the U.N. for a ceasefire. In retaliation for their defeat, the Arab members of OPEC cut off oil shipments to the U.S., Western Europe and Japan.
At the time, I was commanding an armored cavalry squadron in Fulda, West Germany. While the Soviet forces just across the Fulda Gap remained our number one concern, energy conservation was a close second. Because I held the additional title of deputy commander for over 5,000 U.S. forces and their dependents, my wife and I were quartered in a large villa in downtown Fulda. That gave us the opportunity to experience the Arab Oil Embargo from the perspective of our German neighbors.
The West German government took two actions that had an immediate and positive impact on gasoline and diesel fuel consumption. A never before speed limit was placed on West Germany’s superhighway system, the Autobahn. Next, only emergency vehicles were permitted to drive on Sundays.
The first thing we noticed was how Sunday strolls along vehicle-free streets of the lovely Baroque City of Fulda became absolutely delightful. From our home it was a short walk to the Domplatz that features the massive Dom (cathedral), the Orangerie (a scaled-down version of the Palace of Versailles) and the Hauptwache Restaurant (formerly the headquarters for the soldiers guarding the Cathedral).
The empty streets on Sundays put the strollers in a holiday mood. Germans who had never been formally introduced to each other were chatting with perfect strangers as they strolled along. The sense of crisis seemed to forge a bond between Germans of all walks of life. No pun intended.
Meanwhile, the speed limit on the Autobahn was producing dramatic results. Suddenly, the normally horrific death toll on the Autobahn dropped to near zero. But the speed limit did not last. A coalition of automobile body repair shops and funeral directors lobbied the Bundestag (like our House) and the Bundesrat (like our Senate) to lift the speed limit on the Autobahn.
Once the oil embargo was ended in 1974, the speed limit on the Autobahn was a thing of the past and the death toll resumed its grim climb. The Sunday driving curfew was cancelled. The streets were filled with vehicles. Pedestrians went back to their stuffy ways of only greeting other pedestrians already known to them. Overtime, the weapons and vehicles loaned to the IDF were returned to U.S. forces.
But the Arab oil producers had learned that they could quadruple gas prices in the U.S, and cause gas-line waits of two to three hours. Some gas stations went a full week without any fuel to dispense. Some stations would only sell to “regular” customers. Some stations voluntarily closed on Sundays. Some stations would only sell ten gallons per customer. Tempers flared and violence broke out at some gas stations.
Congress imposed a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. Gas consumption and highway fatalities decreased overnight. Oil and gas drilling companies went into high gear. But, with the end of the embargo and with the increase in oil supplies dropping prices downward, the lessons of the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-74 were forgotten. The lure of relatively cheap Arab oil put domestic energy exploration and energy conservation efforts back to sleep.
Now, in 2008, we face another oil crisis. Supply can’t keep up with demand. Prices are at record high levels. Seems like we don’t learn much from history.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, studied government and politics at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. He is a former assistant professor of history and political science at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
©2008. William Hamilton.