Pipe Dreams: Aspirations and Impacts of Oil Transport during the Cold War

AHA Session 155
Business History Conference 3
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Room 304 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Per Högselius, KTH Royal Institute of Technology
Paul E. Sabin, Yale University

Session Abstract

This panel approaches the theme of the 130th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, “Global Migrations: Empires, Nations, and Neighbors,” through the transnational history of oil pipelines during the Cold War. Pipelines can connect nations or regions and, at the same time, assert national boundaries as well as global hegemonies. Combining political history, global history, economic history, business history, and environmental history, this panel investigates how nationalisms, international relations, and global contests for power were forged in relationship to large-scale oil transportation projects. Our papers investigate the economic, political, and social aspirations and impacts of three such projects in three world regions: Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North America. Taken together, these papers demonstrate that the history of energy in the twentieth century is a window into a global history of how nationalisms and national histories are built through transnational relationships and processes.

In recent years, scholars have increasingly turned their attention to the history of energy and oil to understand intersections of capital, empire, and state formation. Unfortunately, this scholarship is still largely segregated along geographic and methodological boundaries. Economic historians have studied “petro-capitalism” as a driver of local, regional, and global economies; environmental historians have examined how extraction and development remake the landscape. Area studies have revealed the power of oil to shape governance and social and cultural life in the Middle East and elsewhere. This panel seeks to connect these pockets of cutting edge scholarship into a broader conversation about oil development as a historical driver, particularly of nation building, decolonization, and international relations in the Cold War period. Tom Cinq-Mars demonstrates that the USSR undertook the longest pipeline in the world not only to fulfill the demands of rapid industrialization, but also to symbolize socialist cooperation and unity to the entire globe. Furthermore, this “Friendship pipeline” became the impetus for developing cooperative relationships with North American states and petroleum companies that in turn shaped Soviet policies. Jonathan Kuiken’s paper examines how British officials and oil companies, in seeking to stabilize the supply and transport of oil immediately following the Suez Crisis, inadvertently triggered a reorganization of power relations with the Middle East. Rather than shoring up the security of Britain’s oil supply, the proposed pipeline linking Iraq and Turkey strengthened nationalisms in oil producing states. Georgia Welch argues, by examining the case of a proposed alternative pipeline route through Canada, that the Trans Alaska Pipeline was as much a product of the national imperative for energy independence as for corporate profits in the 1970s. Put in dialogue, these papers signal a necessary transgression of regional and methodological boundaries to take a transnational view of oil’s power in international relations.

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