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The looming oil crisis...from 1948

Guest column: Greentech Media's Michael Kanellos examines what might have emerged had Arab nations decided to cut off oil shipments in 1948.

Editor's note: What with the price of gasoline near record highs, attention increasingly focuses on the race to deliver battery-driven automobiles. But even with advances in this and other alternative technology areas, this remains a work in progress. As they say, we're likely going to remain dependent on oil for the foreseeable future. Apropos, I recently came across a provocative column by Greentech Media's Michael Kanellos, which I'm reposting as a guest column. Might his look-back scenario have worked out? We'll never know. Still, it's a good read. What's your take? Leave your comments in the TalkBack section below.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos, Greentech Media CNET Networks

U.S. Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal was terrified. The year was 1948 and diplomats worldwide contemplated what might occur if various nations recognized Israel as a separate state.

If the United States had decided to recognize the soon-to-be nation, Arab nations might cut off oil shipments, which in turn could imperil the Marshall Plan, which in turn could provide momentum to the communist juggernaut.

In a decade, "the nation could be forced to convert to four cylinder cars," he confidentially predicted. (The quote has been cited in several books, including O Jerusalem by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.)

The oppressive boot heel of socialism and wimpy cars! Men surely didn't lay their lives on the line at the beaches of Anzio for that. In the end, the U.S. recognized Israel, the oil embargo of 1948 didn't occur, and Detroit didn't have to emphasize economy cars for three more decades.

But it makes me wonder. What would have happened if Forrestal's fears had come true? What if the Gulf nations had imposed a strict embargo and the United States was forced to go four-cylinder and cut down on gas starting in 1948?

For one thing, U.S. auto companies likely wouldn't be the bumbling boneheads of the industrial world. General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler would have had to retool quickly. But turning on a dime was something they learned to do thanks to the wartime experience, when the federal government ordered these automakers to start building planes. Germany and Japan were still in shambles at the time so U.S. automakers could have eked out an early, sustainable lead.

In turn, that might have meant softening, or even avoiding, the blight that hit Detroit in the 1970s. And the focus on efficiency could have bled into the steel industry. Who knows? The U.S. could have become an early leader in solar manufacturing with all the intellectual capital focused on efficiency and energy.

OK, a vibrant economy in the Great Lakes would likely have doomed the musical careers of Grand Funk Railroad and Bob Seger--the beer rock movement just wouldn't have the same oomph without mass unemployment. But it's a small price to pay.

Alternative fuels like biodiesel and ethanol? A thriving industry would have probably emerged. The lack of cheap oil would have put farmers and chemists on the hunt for substitutes. (Biofuels work, but they just cost more than gas. Less gas would have opened an opportunity.) The wealth generated would have made Kansas look like Palo Alto.

Iran? Wouldn't be a problem. Britain and the United States organized a coup in 1953 against Mossadegh, the then-prime minister who wanted to nationalize Iranian oil assets. The coup led to the Shah on the throne. Better efficiency and alternative oils would have meant no coup, no Shah, no 1979 Iranian Revolution, and no Great Satan Bookstore in the old CIA headquarters in Tehran.

Jimmy Carter might have served two terms (or, more toward the wishes of you conservatives, never been elected at all). The Ayatollah Khomeini, meanwhile, likely would have been a guy on a park bench. As a country with a fairly well-developed middle class and educational system, Iran would likely have emerged as a shining star in globalism.

Terrorism? It would have occurred--the cultural, political, and religious issues of the Mideast made war inevitable. But the oil-rich nations of the Gulf wouldn't have had as much money. In turn, that would have meant less of the "affluent poverty" of those nations. Instead of relying on family wealth and government-made jobs, more kids in those nations would have attended college. Which in turn would have meant more "normal" nations and likely less radical political fringes.

Global warming? Still a problem, but it would have come on more slowly and might have been easier to ameliorate. Then again, people could have reacted to it slower. But even as global warming began to appear, we'd have had more experience to combat it. So chalk that up as a positive, too.

Muscle cars? Well, you can't have it all. NASCAR fans would be cheering on drivers from the Opal team. Mattel would have likely have scuttled Hot Wheels too.

Offshore oil drilling? Wouldn't be needed. In fact, when you think about it, there wouldn't be much to debate in the 2008 presidential election.

That's a problem I could live with.

The views in this opinion piece are not connected with Greentech Media news.