What America Looked Like: The 1970s Gas Crisis

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Images of the oil embargo's effect on the American Northwest, compiled from the DOCUMERICA series in The National Archives

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In October 1972, a year before the U.S. oil crisis began, Atlantic author Steward Udall issued a warning, predicting a looming fuel shortageUdall, a former Secretary of the Interior for the Kennedy Administration, believed the auto industry was in an unsustainable growth pattern based on the folly that cheap gas prices would persist indefinitely. He saw American oil production reaching a plateau and worried about the stability of the Middle Eastern market:

The impact of these tremors can already be anticipated: to the consumer they signal the end of a long love affair with the car, and to Detroit they offer an early warning that its 1985 growth aims are dangerously unrealistic. Unless we exercise foresight and devise growth-limits policies for the auto industry, events will thrust us into a crisis that will lead to a substantial erosion of our domestic oil supply as well as the independence it provides us with, and a level of petroleum imports that could cost as much as $20 to $30 billion per year. (This in turn would produce a staggering balance-of-payments problem for the United States, and give the Middle Eastern suppliers a dangerous leverage over our transportation system as well.)

In 1973, that Middle Eastern leverage would show its strength when OPEC placed an oil embargo on the United States due to its support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. After the sanctions, the price of gasoline increased by 37 percent. But more than that, its supply became severely limited. Rationing and long lines for gas were common at stations. Thievery abounded; stations began locking their pumps and drivers began sealing their gas caps. Below, complied from the DOCUMERICA series in The National Archives, are images of the embargo's effect on the American Northwest.


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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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