Academic journal article The Historian

An Anglo-American "Petroleum Entente"?: The First Attempt to Reach an Anglo-American Oil Agreement, 1921

Academic journal article The Historian

An Anglo-American "Petroleum Entente"?: The First Attempt to Reach an Anglo-American Oil Agreement, 1921

Article excerpt

In 1944, the United States and the United Kingdom signed the ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Anglo-American Oil Agreement, guaranteeing the other equal access to the world's oil reserves. (1) What is less well known is that US officials put forward a similar proposal following the First World War in the midst of US and British squabbling over the future of Iraq's still-undiscovered oil. One of the driving impulses behind US post-World-War-Two economic planning was officials' desire to avoid repeating the mistakes of the interwar era. Rebuilding a liberal-capitalist world order based on the free exchange of goods and capital would forestall a collapse of global trade, guarantee prosperity, and discourage economic nationalism, which US officials determined had contributed to the rise of fascism and communism and ultimately provoked another world war.

But what if the experiences of the 1930s and 1940s reaffirmed rather than created the ideological assumptions behind postwar planning? What if US officials used the geopolitical space the Second World War had created to implement an agenda that predated both the war and the depression? Although it never made it beyond the drafting stage, the 1921 oil agreement is further evidence of the continuity in US planning following both wars and offers additional proof of US officials' overriding commitment to establish an international economic framework enshrining the principles of the Open Door, a most important element of which was equality of opportunity for private firms irrespective of nationality. Besides describing the origins and fate of the 1921 agreement, this article also reproduces for the first time the draft text and compares it to the 1944 Anglo-American Oil Agreement.

Several studies have noted that, during the early 1920s, the United States considered an agreement with Britain to secure an Open Door for US companies to compete for oil concessions in the Middle East: Until recently, however, no one has been able to locate a copy. (2) In 2010, while conducting Ph.D. research on oil and grand strategy, I came across what appears to be the only surviving copy in the Central Decimal Files of the Department of State (Record Group 59) at the National Archives and Records Administration II, College Park, Maryland. The document and its covering note do not include a standard decimal number, but they are enclosed among State Department records pertaining to the Internal Affairs of the United States, 1910-1929, specifically those relating to petroleum. (3) The covering note of 10 May 1921 to the State Department's Foreign Trade Adviser, Arthur Chester Millspaugh (most likely by the First Assistant Secretary of State, Fred Dearing), has a declassification stamp dated 1 June 1993. As a 2003 email exchange between NARA archivists (including Milton Gustafson, who served as NARA's supervisor for State Department records between 1971 and 1995) indicates, the State Department's "Purport List"--a summary of documents in each particular file--does not list either document. (4) Moreover, the declassification stamp includes a project number for records dating from the 1950s and was initialed by an unidentified NARA archivist.

For some unknown reason, these documents were not deposited at NARA along with other records from the period until much later. One possible explanation is that State Department officials retained it for their working files and used it during the process of drafting the 1944 Anglo-American Oil Agreement, which might explain why the document appeared in archives too late for earlier historians of US foreign oil policy to see it. Prior to and following US entry into the Second World War, the State Department completed a number of historical reviews of US foreign oil policy, initially as the framework for a formal statement of US postwar objectives (which the department ultimately completed in 1944), and then as the groundwork for negotiations culminating in the signing of the Anglo-American Oil Agreement in August 1944. …

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