The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power by Daniel Yergin

Yergin explores the uneasy ties between Big Oil and Big Government in his sweeping history of the petroleum industry. In the 1904 presidential campaign, for example, Theodore Roosevelt railed against John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil’s monopolistic practices, even though he had received $100,000 from Standard Oil executives in campaign contributions. TR’s muscle flexing paid off in 1911, when the Supreme Court approved Standard Oil’s breakup. In World War II, Franklin Roosevelt sought Big Oil’s support to ensure military access to fuel. But most presidents since have been plagued by the power wielded by the industry because of the insatiable appetite of Americans for cheap oil.

The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country by Laton McCartney

In 1920 three tycoons— Harry F. Sinclair of Sinclair Oil, Jake “the Oil King of Oklahoma” Hamon and California oilman Ed L. Doheny—helped put Warren G. Harding in the White House. Albert Fall, Harding’s interior secretary devised a way to give oil leases to Sinclair and Doheny. Fall subsequently went to jail for a year when it came to light that Sinclair and Doheny had given him unsecured loans to purchase cattle land. Harding, who died at the height of the scandal, was not implicated directly, but his presidency was forever tarnished because he turned a blind eye to the machinations of oil men.

The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich by Daniel Ammann

 When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries barred sales to the U.S. in 1973 for its support of Israel and U.S. gas prices skyrocketed, Marc Rich stepped in as a middleman for trades in the turbulent oil market. Six years later, Rich ignored an embargo President Jimmy Carter imposed on Iran after Islamic radicals seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Facing indictment in 1983 for tax evasion and trading with the enemy, Rich fled to Switzerland. President Bill Clinton pardoned Rich in 2001 and a political storm ensued when it was revealed that his former wife, Denise, had given more than $1.1 million to the Democratic Party in the previous decade.

The Age of Oil: The Mythology, History, and Future of the World’s Most Controversial Resource by Leonardo Maugeri

In Maugeri’s view 9/11 triggered the “first oil crisis of the 21st century.” He maintains that the decision to invade Iraq was driven by President George Bush’s desire to maintain a steady supply of crude from the Middle East even as he decried America’s addiction to oil “imported from unstable parts of the world.” But Maugeri concludes that projected future shortages of oil are exaggerated and U.S. policymakers must “overcome their misguided obsession with oil security so they can begin to cope more impartially with the Middle East’s problems.”


Originally published in the December 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here